Taipei is looking at some tough options as Beijing moves to the extreme
A top Chinese official recently warned Taiwan that the US won’t be able to preserve the island state’s security and that time was on China’s side in cross-Taiwan Strait affairs. At the fourth annual gathering of media organisations from China and Taiwan, Wang Yang, chairman of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, boasted that while China is planning 100 years into the future, Taiwanese authorities cannot even guarantee what will happen two years from now. This comes at a time when relations between China and Taiwan have become increasingly tense. Recall that ever since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential elections in Taiwan in 2016, Beijing has been heaping pressure in Taipei.
This is because China continues to see Taiwan as a renegade province and seeks eventual reunification. Taiwan, meanwhile, has developed into a vibrant multiparty democracy. Nonetheless, China wants the government of Taiwan to adhere to the 1992 Consensus and the ‘One China’ principle – that there is only one China with both sides free to interpret this differently. In fact, Beijing has made the 1992 Consensus the bottomline in cross-strait relations. However, President Tsai and the DPP regime do not believe that there was any such ‘consensus’ between the two sides in 1992; just a meeting without formal agreement. Thus, the Tsai administration has refused to accept the 1992 Consensus but pledged to maintain the status-quo in cross-strait relations.
But this hasn’t been good enough for Beijing and it has gone on to cut all official ties with Taipei. Further, in January this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first major speech on Taiwan made re-unification the ultimate goal of any talks between the two sides, asserted that re-unification was inevitable and offered a Taiwanese version of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. So the current regime in Beijing is taking a maximalist position on Taiwan which includes conducting threatening military drills – the latest of which was PLA fighter jets crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait in March.
What is happening between China and Taiwan today can be best described by what I like to call the Seesaw Theory of international relations. Imagine that China and Taiwan are two people sitting on two sides of a seesaw. China is considerably bigger than Taiwan for obvious reasons. The 1992 Consensus can be taken to be the mid-point fulcrum of the seesaw. Now if both China and Taiwan position themselves close to this mid-point or the 1992 Consensus, then the seesaw will be more or less balanced despite the palpable difference in size between the two sides. This would visibly make for a stable bilateral relationship, at least in the moment.
However, the DPP administration in Taiwan decided to move away from this seesaw mid-point by refusing to recognise the 1992 Consensus. It did so to give Taiwan more room in the international arena and not put all its eggs in the China basket. China, however, doesn’t like this because it seeks Taiwan’s eventual re-unification. But if it too moves back an appropriate distance from the mid-point to balance out Taiwan’s new position on the seesaw, then a new normal away from the 1992 Consensus would be created. Plus, it would encourage Taiwan to move further back on the seesaw, creating even more distance with China.
But if China wants Taiwan to come back to the mid-point fulcrum of the seesaw, the only way it can achieve this is by moving to the extreme edge of the plank. This way, China being heavier, will hoist Taiwan up at the latter’s side of the seesaw. Now Taiwan will have both weight and gravity working against it. And it won’t do Taiwan any good to move further back on the seesaw – this simply won’t work as, again, China is considerably bigger. So the only option Taiwan has to balance the seesaw is to move back to the mid-point fulcrum of the seesaw, aka the 1992 Consensus.
Taiwan can, however, enlist the US to hold down the seesaw at its end to balance China out. In fact, this is akin to the US recently passing the Taiwan Assurance Act. But as China grows bigger, it will increasingly put a strain even on the US to keep the China-Taiwan seesaw balanced. And then it will be a test of stamina and will to see if the US will continue balancing things out in cross-strait relations or let go and make a deal with China. There is, nonetheless, a third option for Taiwan and that is to enlist the support of the international community to keep the China-Taiwan seesaw balanced. But this option will only yield results in the long-term as most countries don’t have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But if people-to-people and economic relations are pursued between Taiwan and these nations, the international space for Taiwan will eventually increase.
Taken together, these are some hard choices for Taiwan. Only smart, nimble diplomacy can aid Taipei here. But much will depend on how that diplomacy is framed. The China-Taiwan seesaw will take some time to stabilise.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.