China’s perilous Taiwan policy causing friction with US
The unfolding geopolitical contest between China and the US has been described by many as a new Cold War. If it ever becomes a hot one, the flashpoint could be Taiwan, owing in large part to Chinese policy toward the island. China’s government suspended diplomatic contact with Taiwan in June 2016 because the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which had just returned to power, refused to recognize the so-called
1992 Consensus, the political basis for the
“One China” principle. Since then, however, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has pursued a moderate policy, disappointing hardline DPP supporters.
That is not good enough for China, which has continued to tighten the screws on Taiwan. For example, it persuaded five other countries to follow it in severing diplomatic ties, reducing the number of countries that maintain formal relations with the island to just 17. China has also taken steps to stifle tourism from the mainland: Whereas nearly 4.2 million mainland Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2015, when the pro-Beijing Kuomintang government was in power, the total fell to just 2.7 million in 2017.
Taiwan’s government has not blinked. But, last November, the DPP did suffer devastating losses in local elections, largely because of anemic economic growth — an outcome that drove the politically weakened Tsai to resign as party leader.
For China, this seemed like the ideal moment to turn up the heat. So, on Jan. 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a major speech on Taiwan, in which he made it clear that China remains determined to seek reunification.
But Xi did not indicate that he would offer concessions to entice Taiwan back to the negotiating table. On the contrary, despite declaring that “Chinese will not fight Chinese,” he refused to renounce the use of force to prevent Taiwan from seeking formal independence.
While inflicting economic pain and diplomatic humiliation on Taiwan may produce some short-term psychological satisfaction for China, the island will adjust over time, and Chinese actions will yield decreasing returns.
For example, after China cut the number of mainland visitors, Taiwan turned its attention to attracting tourists from other countries. Despite the decline in visitors from the mainland, 11 million tourists — a new record — visited the island in 2018.
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of China’s Taiwan policy is that it raises further tensions with the US. As the ultimate protector of Taiwan’s de facto independence, the US has already taken steps to convey the message that it will not just sit by and watch China bully the island into submission. In September, the US recalled its ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama in protest over these countries’ decision to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. And proposals to strengthen US-Taiwan defense cooperation are under discussion.
So far, China has responded to such challenges by ratcheting up the pressure on Taiwan — sustaining a highly dangerous dynamic at a time when US-China relations are already fraught. Unless China’s leaders break the cycle, an escalating battle of wills with the US could erupt into direct conflict.