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Taiwan independence

Trump Swings for the Fences on Taiwan

Written by Wayne Pajunen.

When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump respectfully referred to China’s debased “leader on Taiwan” as “President Tsai Ing-wen” in a historic phone call that still rings around the world, controversy over China–U.S. relations stepped up to the plate.

Why would Trump in the spring training of his presidency choose confrontation with Beijing in his first at-bat in the ballpark of international diplomacy? Continue reading “Trump Swings for the Fences on Taiwan”

Trump’s Unlikely Ally: The Chinese Dissident

Written by Edward White.

This March, Donald J. Trump, then standing to become the Republican presidential nominee, drew the ire of three prominent Chinese dissidents after referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre as a “riot,” and praising the “strength” shown by the Chinese government in suppressing the protests.

“Trump’s callous dismissal of the tragedy, and his apparent esteem for Beijing’s butchers, left us speechless, in pain and in tears,” wrote Yang Jianli (楊建利), Fang Zheng (方政) and Zhou Fengsuo (周鋒鎖) in a Washington Post op-ed. Continue reading “Trump’s Unlikely Ally: The Chinese Dissident”

Parsing the Significance of the Tsai-Trump Call

Written by Courtney Donovan Smith.

The news that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)  – breaking over 40 years of precedent of no direct contact – exploded across the internet here in Taiwan and around the world with seemingly everyone having something to say about it. The international news media went into a tizzy speculating on China’s reaction, frequently repeating the standard Chinese propaganda line on Taiwan in the process (an excellent analysis here).  Many on the American left are already hand-wringing at this 10-minute conversation, calling it “risky” and “provocative.” in spite of praising Obama for breaking previous diplomatic precedent in Cuba.  Some supporters of Taiwan, however, are ecstatic, calling the call a “major breakthrough” in U.S.-Taiwan relations, but others openly questioned Trump’s abilities: “More likely is that he doesn’t fully understand cross-Strait relations, and is completely, bumblingly, unaware of what he’s just done.” So what does this portend for U.S.-Taiwan-China relations under the Trump administration? Continue reading “Parsing the Significance of the Tsai-Trump Call”

China Faces Not One But Two Forces for Independence in Taiwan

Written by J. Michael Cole

With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) set to assume office in Taiwan less than two months from now, the Chinese commentariat has shifted into high gear with warnings about Beijing’s “red lines” and the sundry ills that could befall Taiwan should incoming president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) cross any of them. One recurrent red line takes aim at “Taiwan independence,” a concept that is anathema to Beijing. But China has a much bigger problem on its hands, as there is not one but rather two independence movements in Taiwan.

Sometimes overlapping and sometimes clashing, these two movements are united in their opposition to Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially known, becoming part of the People’s Republic of China. And taken together, these two groups account of the majority of the people in Taiwan regardless of their voting preferences.

The better-known movement, taidu (臺獨), is the one that is most often associated with DPP stalwarts and the pan-green camp (New Power Party, Taiwan Solidarity Union), which calls for de jure independence, a new constitution, and the abandonment of the ROC as both the nation’s official title and source of symbols. One such movement in the making following Ms. Tsai’s election is the U.S.-based “Welcome Formosa Republic; Farewell to ‘Republic of China’” (歡迎台灣共和國;告別“中華民國”), which intends to pressure Tsai into moving away from the ROC. Thus, if this group’s aspirations were realized, there would be one China (PRC) and one Republic of Taiwan. Most of them are to be found among those who in opinion polls advocate immediate independence. In general when Beijing warns against “splittism” and “Taiwan independence,” this is the group it is taking aim at.

Much less discussed but equally relevant to conflict resolution in the Taiwan Strait is another dynamic, which we could term huadu (華獨), or loosely “ROC independence.” In contrast to the taidu movement, huadu supporters tend to associate with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP). Although these two political parties are often regarded as “pro Beijing” and have historically placed greater emphasis on Chinese culture and history, their voter base nevertheless shows a greater attachment to the ROC that demarcates them from the pro-unification ideology of parties such as the New Party and the China Unification Promotion Party. Many adherents to huadu are to be found among those who support the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait.

While supporters of huadu do not necessarily agree with taidu calls for the abolishment of the ROC, they nevertheless share the values and liberal-democratic practices that are now intrinsic to the form of nationalism that has developed in Taiwan over the decades. Many of them do so even if they self-identify as ethnically Chinese or Chinese and Taiwanese, a phenomenon which sheds light on the two forms of nationalism (“civic” versus “ethnic”) that exist across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing should be worried that even supporters of Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the “pro Beijing” KMT presidential candidate before she was replaced in October 2015, were adamant that the ROC’s liberal democracy needed to be protected from the authoritarian PRC.

Although ardent taidu supporters regard huadu as an unacceptable continuation of KMT/Chinese colonialism (such groups have criticized president-elect Tsai for her vow to abide by the “ROC constitutional framework”), the two forms of independence (from the PRC) create a larger tent and give Taiwan much of its resilience. This is a force whose potency is proportional to the ability of the two camps to set aside their differences and to cooperate on matters of shared interest, such as the preservation of the way of life and institutions that define Taiwan/the ROC today.

The Taiwanese president who best reflects and secures the overlapping interests of both groups will come closest to achieving national unity and presenting a united front against Beijing. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) probably catered too much to the taidu crowd, while President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has centred his efforts on the huadu segment within Taiwanese society and alienated taidu supporters. By striking a balance between the two groups, the next president should be able to consolidate her power base and thereby counter Beijing’s efforts to isolate “Taiwan independence.” Not only would this demonstrate that the desire for independence from the PRC is a much more prevalent phenomenon across Taiwan than is normally thought, it would also undercut Beijing’s ability to play one camp against the other. For the time being, Taiwan’s best strategy is to focus on the greatest common denominator, regardless of the name that comes attached.

Michael Cole is a CPI Senior Fellow and Editor of Thinking Taiwan

Compelling Compliance? How Taiwanese Identity Disrupts Cross-Strait Deterrence

Written by Raymond Kuo.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a historic victory in the island’s January elections. But this victory has prompted concerns of renewed tensions between China and Taiwan as the traditionally pro-independence DPP transitions into control of the island’s Executive and Legislature. In response, Beijing defaulted to its longstanding “deterrence policy”, demanding that Taiwanese President-Elect Tsai affirm the so-called 1992 consensus or see a marked and possibly violent deterioration in relations. Such threats have historically backfired. More importantly, they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Taiwanese democracy, the long-term demographic shift the latest election represents, and how these dynamics are redefining cross-Strait relations. Theoretically, it marks a failure to appreciate the critical difference between Thomas Schelling’s concepts of deterrence and compellence.

For decades, both China and to a lesser extent the U.S. have maintained a deterrent posture towards Taiwan, aiming to either prevent renewed cross-Strait military conflict or a formal declaration of independence. The Chinese logic of action is that if Taiwan does something, Beijing will impose a punishment. The U.S. employs a similar logic to deter both sides from taking actions that would unilaterally alter the cross-Strait status quo.

The critical dynamic is that force is threatened to prevent an action from being implemented. This policy worked reasonably well under martial law and even into the early years of democracy in Taiwan, for two reasons. Firstly, deterrence can be “clearly” implemented. Schelling notes that actors need only draw bold red lines and delineate the consequences of non-compliance. These conditions are fairly easy to convey, as the adversary only has to observe the preparations the actor has already made. Then, the actor simply waits.  Costs are imposed only if the adversary acts, so deterrence can be maintained indefinitely.

Secondly, the KMT faced little domestic pressure to cross the American or Chinese red lines. Initially harshly repressive, the party gained uncontested authority over Taiwan for decades. Moreover, the U.S. possessed significant leverage over Taipei, as the KMT was dependent upon American arms, training, intelligence, and direct military support for a hypothetical sustained confrontation with China. In short, the benefits of compliance were high and clearly conveyed, while the benefits of non-compliance were low and uncertain.

But since the DPP’s political emergence, Taiwanese identity has erupted as a prominent political force. A clear majority now identify themselves as Taiwanese, while only 3.5 percent view themselves as Chinese alone. 80 percent would choose independence if there were no threat of Chinese retaliation, while a similar percentage view Taiwan and China as separate countries. Moreover, this is not a short-term trend. Youth on the island identify even more strongly with a separate Taiwanese identity, as vividly demonstrated by the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

This shift has important policy effects. American analysts in particular contend that the DPP won by campaigning on “bread and butter” issues and corruption. This is true, but misses the point. Taiwanese identity is the prism through which many policy issues are now viewed, including economic ones; in addition to their somewhat dubious benefits. The Chung-Hua Institute for Economic Research found that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement resulted in significant trade diversion, rather than creation. That is, rather than spurring new trade between Taiwan and China, the ECFA and its subsequent agreements would simply redirect trade from, say the U.S., towards China. Ma’s trade agreements with China inspired the Sunflower protests because these bills were negotiated without sufficient public oversight, sparking general concern that they would lead to economic domination by Beijing.

The latest election reflects these demographic trends. While the Taiwanese are cautious about military confrontation with Beijing, there is broad public support for building and asserting a separate political identity and economic path from China. Taken together, Taiwanese identity as a political force converts cross-Strait deterrence into “compellence”. Rather than preventing from starting an action (a cross-Strait war, a declaration of independence), Beijing and Washington are telling it to stop doing something Taiwan has strong reasons to continue: listen to its own people, who favour a more independent position.

Under compellence, costs are imposed until the adversary stops doing something or until it does something the actor wants. This automatically makes it more economically and politically costly, as actors must actively and continuously punish their adversaries. As such, compellence cannot be maintained indefinitely, or at least not without the actor accepting escalating costs.

Second, compellence lacks deterrence’s clarity. In attempting to coerce action, Schelling points out that there is always some uncertainty about exactly what actions should be pursued. What exact policies will invite reprisal, which ones will not? Just how much must Taiwan adjust its actions to satisfy the Chinese or Americans? The communication problems endemic to interstate coercion are exacerbated when an actor is attempting to affect not just foreign policy compliance, but a state’s domestic policy.

Third, any ROC government has a strong reason not to comply with compellent threats: Doing so undercuts legitimate public support. For any Taiwanese government in this new demographic environment, the benefits of non-compliance with Chinese threats are high, and the timing, certainty, and triggers of retaliatory action have become vague and uncertain. Indeed, recent Chinese threats have a compellent, not deterrent, character, either seeking to compel action (vote for a particular candidate) or failing to specify red lines. For example, in 1996, the Chinese fired missiles over the Strait to influence the island’s presidential election.  It acted similarly when threatening Taiwan with neutron bomb in 1999. The “Anti-Secession” Law, passed in 2005, reserved Beijing’s right to use military force against Taiwanese separatism, but it notably did not specify when that force would be used, causing considerable uncertainty in Taiwan. These actions have notably all failed or caused significant confusion about China’s position.

My argument – that shifting identity politics converts deterrence into compellence – leads to several critical policy implications. First, Beijing and Washington can do little to change this situation. This is a long-term, even generational process. China’s actions in particular have only spurred further identification with a unique Taiwanese identity.

Second, both governments fundamentally misunderstand the effect of Taiwanese democracy on Taiwan’s foreign policy. Taiwanese identity is a politically potent force, one that constrains the policy options of any ROC government, whether DPP or KMT. Securing Taiwanese compliance on any international agreement requires shifting the terms of negotiation to encompass this position.

Third, some American analysts have observed these same identity shifts and argue that the U.S. should give up its defense of Taiwan. This would be strategically disastrous for the U.S. Smoothly integrating China into the liberal order the U.S. helped to create, maintain, and lead is the central geostrategic goal for this century. Taiwan is and can be a critical partner in this plan, especially as Beijing deals with an uncertain economy and increasing questions about its political leadership. Taiwan stands as an example of a successful, democratic country with “Chinese” culture. Alongside Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, it serves as a military bulwark against Beijing’s aggression in the East China Sea, as well as acting in the South China Sea. It is, as General MacArthur once put it, an unsinkable aircraft carrier in a critical geographic position. Moreover, a strong Taiwanese identity severely complicates any Chinese plan to take and hold the island.

China will not give up its costly and counterproductive compellent policy, but the U.S. can and should. Washington should maintain clear deterrence against any policies that will cause renewed cross-Strait military conflict. But if it hopes to effectively manage cross-Strait relations, the U.S. must work within the parameters set by the Taiwanese public. Taiwan’s example as a Chinese culture that fosters a vibrant capitalist democracy is especially critical as China undergoes substantial economic and even political change over the next decade. Moreover, Washington should align its Taiwan policy with its liberal order, supporting the island’s participation in international organizations and cooperative security efforts. This policy better aligns the U.S.’ Taiwan policy with its overall grand strategy, and it jettisons an increasingly counterproductive compellence framework. In the long-run, the Taiwanese people will accept nothing less.

Dr Raymond Kuo is an Assistant Professor at Fordham University. He specializes in international security, American foreign policy, and his current research focuses on international order and security and the political effects of technology and democratisation. Image Credit: CC by wei zheng wang/Flickr.

Mind Your Language: Why Taiwan Isn’t the Provocateur in the Taiwan Strait

Written by J. Michael Cole

British author George Orwell, one of the greatest polemicists ever to have put ink to paper, once wrote that “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” In that same essay (“Politics and the English Language”), Orwell also observed that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” adding that “bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Much of the standard reporting about Taiwan nowadays is affected by “bad usage” that has spread “by tradition” and “imitation” — and China, which denies Taiwan’s sovereign status, has made large contributions toward the continuation of that practice.

The corruption that has affected the language used when academics and journalists discuss Taiwan originates with Beijing’s framing of the argument for political ends. Many writers today uncritically regurgitate Chinese propaganda such as “Taiwan has been part of China since ancient times,” a claim, similarly made about East Turkestan/Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet, that can only be substantiated through the routine distortion of verifiable history. The endless references to the “re-unification” of Taiwan with China or “the Mainland” that are encountered in newspaper copy, books and documentaries is a perfect example of bad usage spread by tradition and imitation. While any intelligent person would admit that, logically, that which was never united cannot be re-united, the same mistake continues to pop up on a daily basis.

Perhaps even more significantly is the second trope about Taiwan that was also created by China, that of Taiwan as provocateur. A good example of this can be found in a BBC article published just a few days ago, in which the journalists discusses scenarios in the Taiwan Strait following a victory by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the Jan. 16 elections. “Trade, tourism and other exchanges could suffer if the China-wary opposition party DPP regains power and antagonises Beijing,” the author writes (my italics). This is just one of many, many, sad examples. Time and again, such language has been used to describe the Taiwanese government and its people, whereby Taiwan “antagonizes,” “provokes,” “angers,” “hurts the feelings of” and so on, which implies that a “reckless,” if not “irrational” and “anti-China” Taiwan is breaking some code of conduct (determined by Beijing, it goes without saying).

To appreciate the extent to which the argument has been framed for the audience, ask yourself how often you’ve encountered articles or books in which China is said to be “provoking” Taiwan. I’m not even sure such language was standard currency when China bracketed Taiwan with missiles and held large-scale military manoeuvres simulating an amphibious assault against the island in 1995-96. Here we have an authoritarian regime which has repressed minorities and religious groups, silenced critics, arrested lawyers and activists, possibly kidnapped booksellers, turned the screws on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, broken U.N.-mandated sanctions against rogue regimes and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, propped human rights violators abroad, condoned rampant cyber theft, sparked instability in the East and South China Seas and backed its law-breaking activities with an increasingly powerful military, threatened war against a number of its neighbours, organized large-scale military parades that harken back to pre-World War II militarism, and held simulations of an attack on Taiwan’s Presidential Office, and yet when it comes to cross-strait relations… democratic Taiwan is the provocateur? Retired generals can threaten to bomb Taiwan back to the stone age, the South China Sea into a “sea of flames” and Tokyo into a radioactive wasteland in CCP-run newspapers like the Global Times and People’s Daily, but somehow Taiwan faces opprobrium (and presumably would deserve what it gets) if the relationship went south.

Never mind that Taiwanese see what is happening to Chinese society and to embattled Hong Kong and decide, democratically, peacefully and legally, that this is not for them. Does the refusal to be annexed by a party-state that has long repressed its own people, not to mention cultivated an entirely different chosen historical narrative (see Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations) from Taiwan’s constitute antagonizing China? Can a people’s refusal to surrender honestly be described as provocation? It is far less “controversial” to argue that China is “provoking” or “antagonizing” countries like Japan, the Philippines, India and Vietnam with its territorial ambitions; but when it comes to Taiwan, it’s almost always a one-way street. Such a blind spot (and moral turpitude, I would add) can only be the result of the framing of an argument that has been spread “by tradition and imitation.”

Unless proven otherwise, we should attribute such inept reporting/analysis to laziness on the part of the journalist or his/her editors, and not to some ulterior political motive. Responsible journalists, editors and academics should beware of language that, by tradition and imitation, as Orwell puts it, misrepresents a situation and in the process puts an entire peace-loving population at a disadvantage in the international court of public opinion.

J. Michael Cole is editor of Thinking Taiwan and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute. Image credit: CC by Luke Hoagland/Flickr

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