Can Taiwan Hold Out Against China’s New Strategy?

President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at a celebration of the 105th anniversary of the Republic of China. Taipei, Taiwan, October 10, 2016. (Kyodo/Associated Press)

After years of assertiveness that only succeeded in tightening a United States-led regional alliance meant to contain its ambitions, China appears to have changed tack recently and is now intensifying its efforts to woo what it sees as the weak links in this chain. With two apparent successes in the past month—first, the Philippines, which hitherto had been a staunch US ally, followed by Malaysia—China has put the viability of the US “pivot” to Asia into doubt and likely caused other US allies to question Washington’s commitment to remaining in the region and its ability to ensure their security.

It remains to be seen whether China’s strategy will be durable. After all, the recent agreements were with two autocratic leaders who had fundamental differences with the US—Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte over Washington’s criticism of his deadly anti-drug campaign, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak over his possible ties to the snowballing 1MDB corruption scandal being prosecuted by the US. Policies of rapprochement with China could thus be overturned by their successors. This is especially true if Beijing’s softer approach in return—allowing new Philippines activity in the Scarborough Shoal, for example—is supplanted by a new round of territorial assertiveness in the future.

The US Pivot Challenged

Nonetheless, US patronage in the Asia-Pacific, which has played a key role over past decades in ensuring a status of relative stability and economic prosperity, seems to be in decline under the challenge of a revisionist power. How Washington reacts to these recent developments will be crucial for smaller states’ willingness and ability to hedge against China and thereby retain their sovereign rights. A US failure to offer support could give small states no choice but to align with China to secure their own interests.

Of all the small nations in the region, none is as vulnerable to the effects of an eroding US-led alliance than Taiwan, for whom Washington is the sole security guarantor. These apprehensions occur at a time when China is ramping up its political warfare efforts to convince US officials to end political support and arms sales to Taiwan as part of a “grand bargain.” Justified or not, fears of abandonment, or of Washington seemingly being outmaneuvered by Beijing, will undermine Taipei’s ability to withstand pressure from China and to negotiate with its giant authoritarian neighbor.

Key to Taiwan’s survival, especially in times of renewed tensions with Beijing following the election of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the general elections in January this year, is the continued possibility of a US intervention should China decide to use force to annex Taiwan. While the military option is remote—Beijing would much rather settle the matter “peacefully”—the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has clearly shifted in China’s favor, both quantitatively and qualitatively, which could convince the Chinese leadership of the feasibility of a quick and clean military victory. Should Beijing conclude that the US would not intervene, the likelihood that it could consider a military option against Taiwan will increase, even though the People’s Liberation Army would still have to deal with a Taiwanese military that can inflict considerable punitive damage on invading forces.

Without doubt the apparent neutralization of the Philippines following Duterte’s recent turn toward China will have an impact on the Taiwan Strait. It will not only remove a US ally next door to Taiwan but also conceivably obviates plans to make Philippines military bases again available to US forces—a potential development that may very well have figured in Beijing’s calculations. Although deployment of US military personnel to the Philippines was primarily in response to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, they could have been activated in, and been able to react quickly to, a Taiwan contingency.

“One China”

Amid these developments, Beijing’s efforts to woo Taiwan and accomplish “reunification” have continued to meet active resistance from a public that, while seeking normal relations with its neighbor, has no interest in becoming part of the People’s Republic of China. This will likely not deter Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose understanding of “one China” is far less nuanced than predecessors and makes no allowance at all for the existence of a Republic of China in Taiwan.

Thus, while Taiwan seeks to balance against China while engaging it economically, its calculations differ markedly from other states in similar situations. It is unlikely to follow those that may pivot away from the US and become closer to China. The Taiwanese public, of which less than 10% currently support unification with China, would simply not countenance such a move and would punish anyone who fails to reflect that sentiment, through civic activism, as has been seen in recent years, and at the polls.

The pressures are such that Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of the relatively Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), who is visiting China this week, felt compelled to tell Xi that the two sides should allow disagreement on what “one China” means. Hung’s prior failure to make that distinction sparked discontent within her party and may very well have cost her the ability to remain as the KMT presidential candidate in 2016 (the party replaced her in late 2015 amid signs of a possible exodus of party members and legislative candidates). The meeting with Xi clearly demonstrates that even proxies in the mold of Duterte will be unable to go against mainstream public opinion in Taiwan.

President Tsai’s Challenge

Despite the popularity of the “status quo” approach to China, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will nevertheless have to maintain her own front against China, as disunity would create opportunities for Beijing to weaken democratic institutions and exacerbate domestic instability. This means the Tsai administration must avoid unnecessarily alienating the KMT and its supporters, who, like her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), are almost universally committed to maintaining Taiwan’s liberal-democratic way of life.

The DPP must also avoid a battle with an increasingly activist civil society, which played a considerable role in the undoing of her predecessor, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou. This includes managing highly emotive issues that could be potentially disruptive to social stability such as urban renewal. Her government’s ability to resolve these in a timely and satisfactory manner will effect the ability to focus on the external challenge posed by China.

So long as Taiwan does not declare de jure independence—and Tsai has no stated interest in doing so—or drift too far from China’s center of gravity, Beijing is likely to begrudgingly tolerate, though not admit to, its existence as a de facto state. For the foreseeable future, a slowing economy, wealth disparity, an ageing population, the environment, social unrest, corruption, Hong Kong, and territorial disputes are likely to be far more pressing issues for Beijing.

As long as the US succeeds in reassuring its remaining allies in the Asia Pacific, and perhaps reinforces its commitment to Taiwan, the situation in the Taiwan Strait should for the most part remain stable. The potential “loss” of the Philippines, damaging though it may be to credibility, could in fact compel Washington to do more to reassure its remaining allies, Taiwan included.

Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate Researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. He is the author of the forthcoming Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait.