The changing strategic dynamics in the Cross-Strait relations have had important implications for the US-China-Taiwan relations as well as for the broader strategic and economic interests of the region. Taiwan remains one of the most sensitive issue for the China which claims the former to be its sovereign territory. Apart from the immutable nature of the sovereignty issue across the Taiwan Strait, the growing Chinese sharp power, military imbalance and economic uncertainty are some of the persistent challenges that loom large in the region. Recent developments have further broadened the divide and already existing complex triangular relations in the region.
Cross-Strait Relations and Gradual Escalation of Tensions
The significant increase in the operational tempo of the Xi administrationin China is to ratchet up pressure on President Tsai to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” and give up on its pro-independence stance. Since Taiwan’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-Wen (Democratic Progressive Party) assumed office in 2016, Beijing heaped up pressure on the small island by cutting off dialogues and pressuring Taiwan’s remaining few diplomatic allies. China continued to flex its muscles by sending strategic bombers flights (Xian H-6K long-range) to circumnavigate Taiwan in late 2016 and mid-2017 in order to gather information about Taiwan’s East Coast defense. It conducted large-scale naval drills near Taiwanese shores and extensively meddled in Taiwan’s local mid-term November, 2018 elections that resulted in Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) drubbing.
Since the beginning of the year, both the country’s leader engaged each other in the duelling speech on cross-strait relations. President Xi Jinping’s landmark speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan policy statement came a day after Taiwan President Tsai New Year’s Day address. President Tsai in her speech unveiled a new framework as “Four Musts”, that seeks to move the relations in the positive direction and ensure a peaceful solution for the cross-strait dilemma.
The following day, Chinese President Xi Jinping in his so-called address “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan”, exclusively emphasized on the “One-China” policy and ‘peaceful reunification’ with Taipei which it considers as a breakaway province. He iterated China’s right to use force, if necessary, for the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan. President Xi said “Nobody, and No party can change the historical and legal fact that Taiwan is part of China, adding that Beijing will not give up the use of military force as an option to ensure reunification”.
His speech came under immediate criticism from Taiwanese state officials with President Tsai responding to Xi’s speech by reiterating her stance, that Taiwan and the vast majority of the public in Taiwan will not accept “1992 Consensus” and “one county, two systems”, referring to it as ‘The Taiwan Consensus’. Some analysts argued that XI’s speech was no different or marked significant breakthrough from Chinese earlier policy affirmations over Taiwan. He once again stated the Chinese goal of ‘reunification’, with force as an option but without any reference to a deadline for the unification.
Trump’s Taiwan Policy
The bolstering U.S.-Taiwan relations under Trump administration and developments across the Cross-Strait assumes significance at a critical juncture. Donald Trump’s Taiwan policy witnessed more positive moves than compared to his predecessors. One of the senior U.S. administrative official claimed that “this administration, has the most hawkish Taiwan team ever”. Since the surprise congratulatory phone call to President Trump’s from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, the dynamics in the political and defense relations began to take a new course.
President Trump made the first announcement, approving a $ 1.4 Billion arms saleswithin ten months of assuming office. The administration has given the go-ahead for providing the license for submarine technology and proposed naval port calls to Taiwan, something that hasn’t happened since the 1970s. Furthermore, the U.S. passed the Taiwan Travel Act, to encourage further U.S. official travel to Taiwan, the National Defense Authorization Act, theAsia Reassurance Initiative Actthat calls for boosting military and security cooperation between the two.
Triangular Dynamics and Regional Implications
Trump’s Taiwan policy and the signing of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act not only indicates its political, economic and security commitment to Taiwan but also signals Congress’s alignment with the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy that aims at bolstering existing US partnerships and building strong regional groupings to counter Chinese bellicose behaviour in the region.
Secondly, President Xi to some extent has come to acknowledge that unlike other issues in the region, to which China has adopted new alternative or assertive approaches, Taiwan is a much more complex challenge than he initially thought. As reflected in his speech, he has mainly stayed the course on Taiwan, using Carrot and Stick policy approach of threatening Taiwan on the one hand but at the same time following the peaceful development strategy, set by his predecessors. Certainly, the ‘cold peace’ is likely to prevail in the coming future across the Taiwan-strait.
Lastly, coercing Taiwan or deepening of economic cooperation with Taiwan is anyhow crucial for China’s long-term interest. But the central objective of Beijing’s calculus appears to be strengthening PLA’s capabilities and upholding conventional strategic deterrence in the region to signal other countries that it will continue to defend its territorial claims against the U.S. and its regional allies and partners.
*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***