- + Tsai Ing-Wen seeks to strengthen ties with the Biden administration.
- + Xi sees weakness in US foreign policy and pressures Taiwan to reunify.
- + The US seeks to curb Chinese expansionism by supporting Taiwan.
Why is Xi Jinping hostile with Tsai Ing-Wen?
Answer: He views Taiwan as a breakaway province that may pose a threat to the stability of the Beijing regime.
Since the 17th century, Taiwan was a territory that belonged to the China of the Quin Dynasty. After the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), these territories were ceded in full sovereignty to the Japanese Empire in 1895, remaining in their hands until they were defeated in World War II. The United States promised to return the island to the Republic of China. The Japanese withdrawal was gradual and was not completed until 1952 with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty. By then, the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) had already resumed, where communist China was victorious. In the mainland territories, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, while the insular territories such as Taiwan remained in the hands of the Chinese Republic.
Mao Zedong initially denounced the seizure of the island territories, due to logistical inability, but above all to avoid a confrontation with Japanese and US troops still present in those territories. During this period, the Republic of China (Taiwan) did not enjoy any international support, not even from the United States. But this changed radically when North Korea invaded the South (1950). President Harry S. Truman deployed the 7th US Fleet between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, to stop and prevent any attempt at communist expansion, both from China and the Soviet Union.
After the Korean War, mainland China recovered its aspirations to take the island territories called the Taiwan Strait crisis, attempting thrice. The first two, in 1954 and 1958 respectively, were unsuccessful military operations. The second lasted for more than a decade and resulted in thousands of civilians and military dead. In 1979 the third crisis broke out, consisting of military manoeuvres and missile tests. It was the least successful, but also the least bloody.
The 1980s were a period of change, Taiwan began a process of democratization, while communist China sought a greater openness to the West (economically). This favored a minimum rapprochement through the economic/commercial exchange born between both countries. Yet, neither of the two countries renounced the unification of China under what they consider as the legitimate government.
Currently, Taiwan is trying to strengthen its main alliance with the United States, without giving up on new ones. Beijing sees this as an attempt towards independence, in addition to the interference of a foreign country in its own national politics. Hence, the tension towards Taipei and Washington.
What does Xi Jinping want?
Answer: Reunify the continental and island territories under the premise of “One country, two systems.”
In 2019, China published the “White Paper”, entitled “China and the world in the new era”, which sets out the way forward in future years. China’s goals have not changed from previous documents; Xi Jinping has changed his tone and strategy from his predecessors on some issues, like in the case of Taiwan.
China has exerted pressure internationally to prevent countries from recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty, as agreed in the Consensus 1992. It has always avoided referring to Taiwan in any international forum, since it considered it a matter of national policy. But Xi Jinping broke with this tradition in recent years. Earlier, he made brief and insightful comments, while in recent weeks, they have become more direct and belligerent.
In 2019, Xi made a speech, referring to Taiwan, saying “the historical and legal fact that Taiwan is part of China and both sides of the strait belong to the same China can never be altered by anyone. (…) All Taiwanese must clearly recognize that independence will only bring profound disaster (…) We are ready to create a wide space for peaceful reunification, but we will not leave any room for separatist activities.
While just a week ago, while the Chinese army carried out military maneuvers in the Formosa Strait, Xi Jinping´s Defense spokesman declared: “We seriously tell the independence forces of Taiwan: those who play with fire end up burning and Taiwan’s independence means war.”
While the international community has shown a fairly neutral position, slightly tending in favor of Beijing interests, Xi knows that Taiwanese society is increasingly less favorable of reunification. While he finds a weakness in Biden’s US foreign policy, Xi also understands that the US is Taiwan´s greatest ally. Xi has initiated military exercises, repeated violations of Taiwanese air and naval space, pressure on third countries in international forums to test the limits of their alliance.
What does Tsai Ing-Wen want?
Answer: Protect Taiwan from military, economic, and diplomatic harassment that comes from Beijing.
In 1949, when the government of the Republic of China moved to Taipei, designating it as the “War Capital”, most Asian governments and the United Nations recognized its legitimacy. But after the signing of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, most nations switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic. Since then, only a score of countries maintains the recognition, among which there is no major power, not even the United States. Even so, Taiwan has managed to establish unofficial relations with a significant range of countries.
Ing-Wen finds herself in the middle of a war for world hegemony between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, without neglecting the interests of the Taiwanese. She must assume that Taiwan is a target for Beijing and that she can no longer aspire to recover the mainland territories, much less the reunification of the Republic of China. Once this situation is accepted, the three remaining paths for Ing-Wen are: maintain the status quo of the previous decades, proclaim China´s independence and re-found Taiwan, or accept Beijing´s offer of “one country, two systems”, to which the vast majority of Taiwanese oppose.
Considering Taiwan´s high economic dependence on China, and the increasing Taiwanese societal tendency to feel Taiwanese and not Chinese, Ing-Wen seeks to maintain the island´s survival and, as far as possible, its independence.
What is Tsai Ing-Wen doing?
Answer: Strengthening its relations with Biden and the military capabilities of the island’s army.
Faced with the increasing pressure exerted from Beijing to isolate and subdue Taiwan, both economically and diplomatically, Ing-Wen has tried to reinforce the two main points of the country’s survival – the army and its relationship with the United States. Both points are consequences of each other. For the US, Taiwan is key to containing the Chinese expansion, therefore it encourages the island to uphold a strong and well-equipped army with the ability to defend the Taiwanese sovereignty.
The Trump administration has been especially favorable in developing the ties between both countries. There have been many billionaires’ arms agreements signed over the last four years, but the ones signed in the last months of 2020, with a worth of 2.4 billion dollars are especially relevant. Also, in the diplomatic field, it is worth highlighting the signing of the Taiwan Travel Act, signed by Trump in 2018, allowing high-level diplomatic engagement between Taiwanese and American officials, and encourages visits between government officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels.
Ing-Wen’s latest success with the Trump administration was to achieve the signing in March 2020 of the Taipei Act, aiming to increase the scope of US relations with Taiwan and encouraging other nations and international organizations to strengthen their official and unofficial ties with the island nation.
Who is winning and what about you?
Answer: Time favors the interests of the People’s Republic of China, although a change in the status quo is possible and may lead to conflict.
Xi Jinping aspires to repeat with Tsai Ing-Wen the same process that it has carried out with Macau and Hong Kong of the “One country, two systems.” But the Taiwanese society distrusts the mainland government due to the way in which this policy has been applied in Hong Kong in recent years; Xi will certainly find it challenging to extend this vision to Taiwan.
Beijing never denounced the use of force, and lately, its change of tone has revolved around this direction. The international community would reprimand China for using force to take over China. Moreover, this would divert Chinese rulers’ longheld vision of a peaceful geopolitical rise. The most effective measure now is to drown Taiwan, leave it without allies, and leave reunification as an internal matter to which only People’s China has the legitimacy to respond to.
China’s growing military activity, both in the South China Sea and in the Formosa Strait, has been viewed by Washington as a threat to both its own interests and its allies. Added to this, the Asian giant is experiencing an economic takeoff, which has been sold by Ing-Wen to Washington as a global threat. As a result, Taiwan has returned to Washington’s list of strategic priorities. The alliance with Taiwan becomes even more relevant considering Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and the advantages that come with controlling this area in terms of access to hydrocarbon reserves and lines of trade.
Triggers for a conflict to break out are not lacking. But the parties involved are trying to avoid such a situation because of a possible confrontation between China and the US. Clearly, the power dynamics tend to favor the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan, on the other hand, is in an increasingly unfavorable drift. Increasingly economically dependent on China, and with very limited diplomatic recognition, Taiwan’s claims have been brushed aside, and it now strives to survive.
In case of conflict, the dimensions would be global. Before reaching an armed conflict, the most likely scenario would be increased tensions between the US and China. Yet, in an economically and politically interdependent world, the chances of a full-fledged conflict between the two powers seem bleak.