On the heels of mass protests against aspects of Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong, the coming year promises renewed tensions between the mainland and Taiwan. The last period of serious conflict arose between 2000 and 2008 when Taiwan, under President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), repeatedly provoked Beijing’s ire by dancing on the precipice of formal independence. Since the victory of President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) in 2008, however, Taiwan has sought better relations with Beijing, leading to a series of successful cross-straits agreements.
Several indicators suggest that this recent détente could be nearing an end. Ma’s efforts to promote commercial and cultural ties with the mainland have raised concerns among many Taiwanese about the island’s growing dependence upon and vulnerability to China. When Ma sought to short-circuit parliamentary oversight of an ambitious cross-straits agreement to liberalize trade and investment in Chinese and Taiwanese service sectors, major protests arose last spring under the guise of the Sunflower Movement, forcing Ma to place the accord on the back burner.
More recently, Ma’s government has lost popularity due to rising home prices and a sagging economy. The Kuomintang recently suffered major losses in local elections, prompting Ma to surrender his position as Party chairperson. The KMT Prime Minister also stepped down. Most analysts believe that the Democratic Progressive Party will be well positioned to capture the presidency and a legislative majority in the next elections scheduled for early 2016.
The KMT is the party of China’s last non-communist government, which escaped to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949. For decades, KMT leaders presented themselves as the only legitimate rulers of all of China. For them, the civil war which led to the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan was ongoing. Formal independence for Taiwan would represent an admission of defeat.
The DPP, by contrast, appeals disproportionately to indigenous Taiwanese who never had such an emotional stake in the civil war of the 1940s. Although mostly descendants of Chinese migrants of centuries ago, the indigenous majority in Taiwan lacked the cultural and emotional connections to the mainland of more recent immigrants. Indeed, between Japanese colonization in 1895 and the present, Taiwan’s experience of direct rule by Beijing was limited to the few years between the end of World War II and the victory of the Communist Party in 1949 (and Beijing’s degree of control even during these years was quite tenuous).
Under Chen, the DPP was willing to risk major conflict with Beijing in order to assert growing degrees of independence. His government held a referendum in 2004 asking voters to weigh in on two pro-independence propositions (although both were overwhelmingly approved, the result was ruled invalid because turnout fell below the required 50%). This led to tensions with the U.S., which, by restraining Taiwan, hoped to avoid being drawn into a political and military clash with China. Beijing, for its part, responded to independence referendums sponsored by the DPP by passing an anti-succession law in 2005.
The DPP’s loss in 2008 stemmed partly from popular worries that it was incapable of managing relations with the mainland. Once back in power, the DPP will likely pursue a less confrontational course than it did during Chen’s presidency.
Even so, the DPP remains anathema to Communist Party leadership. At a minimum, the DPP is likely to slow or halt further progress toward deepening relations between Taiwan and the mainland. Indeed, the refusal of either Beijing or its local representatives to engage in serious dialogue with pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong associated with the Umbrella Movement cast into further doubt Beijing’s promises that Taiwan would retain a high level of autonomy as part of any reunification deal. The Umbrella Movement may add impetus to the Sunflower Movement.
Even if the DPP shrinks from direct confrontation with Beijing by seeking formal independence, that may not appease hard-liners in Beijing for whom the status quo is unacceptable, especially if practical steps toward greater cross-straits cooperation and interdependence are slowed or halted.
The long-term trend is that the local military balance is tilting in Beijing’s direction. In 1996, Beijing sought to influence Taiwanese elections by lobbing missiles into the surrounding waters – a crude effort at intimidation that backfired. The U.S. responded at the time by moving two American aircraft carrier groups into the area in an effort to deter further Chinese military moves against Taiwan. Beijing could, at the time, do little but back down in the face of U.S. naval and air superiority.
The same scenario today is almost unthinkable. China has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles and a large submarine fleet, both of which directly threaten America’s aircraft carriers. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would place these high-value assets at risk by deploying them to the Taiwan Straits, as in previous years. Before doing so, the U.S. military would insist upon the prior neutralization of the Chinese missile threat, a step that would require rapid escalation to full-scale war.
In consequence, China now plays a much stronger hand in its dealings with Taiwan. This military dimension is further strengthened by Taiwan’s growing economic dependence upon trade and investment with the mainland.
On the Taiwanese side, the return to power of the DPP, alarm at China’s treatment of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the growing sense of Taiwanese nationalism (a record high of 57% of islanders now identify as “Taiwanese,” as opposed to “Chinese” or “Taiwanese and Chinese”) could combine to produce a clash between China’s growing confidence and power and Taiwan’s increased unease about the island’s drift into Beijing’s embrace. A spark could easily set off a crisis in relations between Beijing and Taipei in the run-up to the 2016 elections.
For the U.S., the prospects of a renewal of the Taiwan problem fit into a broader quandary about the U.S. role in East and Southeast Asia. Local allies (or near-allies) increasingly find themselves threatened by China’s growing assertiveness. Besides Taiwan, these countries include Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Concerns about bolstering the credibility of U.S. commitments in the region run up against a rapidly shifting balance of power in China’s favor and the risk that local partners may, through reckless behavior, force the U.S. into dangerous games of brinkmanship with China. Taiwan is the most worrisome among these danger spots.