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Thu. November 14, 2019
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Toward More Hostile Cross-Strait Relations: President Tsai’s Tight Rope Diplomacy Unravels
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By Justin Cheung

On Saturday, June 25th, the People’s Republic of China’s “Taiwan Affairs Office” ended official government communications with Taiwan. While constructive discourse between the two governments reached a pinnacle during a meeting between former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015, the recent move by China highlights the rapid deterioration of the current diplomatic situation since the recent election of Tsai Ing-wen.

China attributed its move to the fact that newly elected President Tsai has remained reticent on accepting the 1992 consensus. The consensus, which has long been a focal point of cross-strait relations, is an agreement between Taiwan and the Mainland which outlined a “One China” policy wherein the two parties agree to disagree over the definition of the true China. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the Taiwanese government’s adherence to the language of the 1992 consensus is an important factor in ensuring the maintenance of a diplomatic status quo with the mainland. Former president Ma Ying-jeou’s acceptance of the 1992 consensus was a crucial bastion of his administration’s China policy, one that was defined by improved cross-strait relations.

On the other hand, Ma’s recently sworn in successor, Tsai Ing-wen, holds a distinctly different agenda, attempting to distance herself from the cross-strait policies of her predecessor. Both Tsai and her party, the DPP, have pushed a decidedly more pro-independence platform and her reticence on the 1992 consensus has been interpreted by China as an earnest step towards an officially declared Taiwanese independence. However, it is important to note that Tsai’s rhetoric has carefully and articulately avoided explicitly calling for Taiwanese independence, a move that would undoubtedly ignite a firestorm among Mainland Chinese authorities.

Tsai’s election platform for cross-strait relations was defined by her hopes to maintain a de facto diplomatic status quo with the mainland while at the same time pushing for policy that will move the Taiwanese economy away from mainland reliance. This middle ground or “tightrope” diplomacy is a unique position to take, especially in light of increasingly polarized stances among East Asian governments and increasingly unstable flashpoints in the region (e.g. South China Sea dispute). Unfortunately for Tsai, China’s recent move to sever ties via its Taiwan Affairs Office may make her current balancing position untenable.

China is very much aware of the political tight rope that Tsai now treads on. On one side, she must appease her constituents: the Taiwanese people, among whom the notion of an “official” independence has grown in tremendous popularity in recent years. Much of Tsai’s electoral support during the presidential election came from voters who had become increasingly exasperated with Ma Ying-jeou’s close relations with China and feared a growing economic reliance on the Mainland. On the other hand, Tsai also realizes the diplomatic and military risk she undertakes in antagonizing the already hostile Beijing government.

These risks have become increasingly tangible in the months since Tsai’s victory. Since her election, China has visibly begun increasing its provocations against Taiwanese sovereignty in a variety of incidents. In early March, China reignited a diplomatic duel with Taiwan when it restored diplomatic ties with The Gambia, one of the few nations at the time which still recognized the Taiwan ROC government as the official government of China. Later in April, Taiwanese citizens arrested and tried in Kenya were deported back to Mainland China amid protests from the Taiwanese government.

As such, China’s recent move to sever communications with the Taiwanese government is unsurprising as it follows a predictable game of diplomacy that China has strategically been playing since Tsai’s presidential election. However, the decision represents one of the more direct challenges to the new Taiwanese president.  

It is evident that Tsai’s intricate political platform of gradually pulling away economically from mainland China while still maintaining the diplomatic status quo sans acknowledgement of the 1992 consensus has made her vulnerable. The duality of avoiding a military confrontation with mainland China while also constructing a more independent economy is one that relies on the cooperation, or at the very least the tacit acceptance, of the mainland.

Unfortunately for President Tsai and cross-strait relations, this balancing act has repeatedly been disrupted by the Chinese government which has made very clear in recent months that it will not allow Tsai to, as the saying goes, have her cake and eat it too. For Tsai, this mean that the tightrope on which she balances the political pitfalls of Taiwanese independence and cross-strait relations is thinning and she must be prudent if she is to maintain her political balance. More likely than not, however, Tsai may be forced to take a side. This would be an ideal situation for the Mainland government as the increasingly polar cross-strait relations will continue to fuel a Beijing casus belli at economic, political, and most dangerously, military levels. 

Justin Cheung is a student in Stony Brook University’s 8 Year BE/MD Engineering Scholars for Medicine Program. He has been published in the Center for International Relation’s International Affairs Forum as well as in Soft Matter and ACS Macro Letters. He has also written previously for The Diplomat’s “China Power” section, focusing on Chinese power projection in Central Asia. Currently, he is a summer research fellow at the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center.

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