Impressions from Taiwan and the Mainland

Steven Goldstein, Director of the Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop, reports back from the group’s recent trip to Taiwan and the Mainland.

The Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop meets with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen 蔡英文. Image: Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

As they have for nearly two decades, members of the Taiwan Studies Workshop of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies held a series of meetings on Taiwan and the mainland this past January. On each side of the Taiwan Strait we met with government officials, politicians, and scholars concerned with cross-strait relations.

In Taiwan, this included the President, the minister in charge of the Mainland Affairs Council, the chairperson of the Straits Exchange Foundation and delegations from the major political parties. On the mainland, we had meetings with with the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, the Taiwan Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Institute for Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University, the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.

The Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies research group meets in Xiamen with the Collaborative Innovation Center for Peaceful Development of Cross-Strait Relations 两岸关系和平发展协同创新中心, and the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies of Xiamen University 厦门大学台湾研究院.
Image:  Collaborative Innovation Center for Peaceful Development of Cross-Strait Relations.

Although the trip principally functions to provide the Workshop’s members with first-hand material for their research, discussions inevitably become more than straight-forward interrogatories. They evolve into exchanges of views regarding the existing state of these relations and the political forces that drive them. Over the years, what began as a somewhat formalistic exchange of views on a controversial topic about which all sides had very different views has evolved into a more informal give and take during which conflicting perceptions are presented in often candid and vigorous exchanges.

From left to right: Fairbank Center Associate Ross Terrill and Chen Shui-bian in 1993, Steven Goldstein and Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, and Director Michael Szonyi and Tsai Ing-wen in 2018

The tone and substance of these past meetings have, of course, been shaped by the prevailing situation in the area. For example, during the Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 presidency (2000–2008), the tone was set on Taiwan by the resentment toward United States resistance to destabilizing actions by Chen and, on the mainland, by warnings of the dangers presented by inadequate restraints on Chen’s perceived moves toward independence. During Ma Ying-jeou’s 馬英九 tenure (2008–2016) the tone was more relaxed. Discussions generally revolved around the future possibilities and limitations of what appeared to be a growing rapprochement across the strait and possible American responses.

The Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop meets with the Institute of Taiwan Studies Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2015. Image: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

In our discussions this year, it was obvious that the 2016 election of Tsai Ying-wen 蔡英文 marked the beginning of yet another era of cross-strait relations. It was also clear, however, that the experience of this recent history, embedded in more fundamental historic assumptions held by each side, are shaping the perceptions and policies of both sides in their approach to cross-straits relations. What follows are my own impressions of our discussions and does not represent the conclusions other members of our group might have taken away from our meetings.

Our interlocutors on the mainland clearly saw the current policy of the Tsai administration as being in the tradition of Chen Shui-bian. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is assumed to be a pro-independence party. Tsai, herself, was frequently presented to us in a sinister manner as being “ideologically” committed to independence in contrast to Chen’s “pragmatic” approach owing to her past political activities. Tsai’s policies, ranging from expanding Taiwan’s international participation to promoting the teaching of Taiwan’s history, are all seen as incremental steps toward independence.

The most egregious of Tsai’s policies, however, is seen as her refusal to accept the long-standing underpinning of the mainland’s Taiwan policy, “the One China Principle,” which affirms that the island is part of China’s sovereign territory. In the mainland’s view, acceptance of this principle by Taiwan’s government is both a necessary acceptance of Taiwan’s future status as a part of China and a recognition that cross-straits relations are domestic in nature, and therefore not between sovereign entities. Refusal to do so, is seen as the strongest evidence of the Tsai administration’s goal to declare de jure independence and, by doing so, to join the international nation-state system.

From the perspective of our mainland hosts, the current situation is quite different from the previous administration of Ma Ying-jeou when an historically unification-inclined party obliquely accepted the idea that Taiwan was a part of China, thus making cross-straits negotiations and economic agreements possible. Absent an acceptable recognition of this principle by the DPP successor government, we were told that Beijing would refuse to reopen cross-straits negotiations on an official or unofficial level. Under present circumstances, we were told, the mainland’s policy would be to stymie Taiwan’s independence aspirations while building a foundation for eventual unification — what was sometimes referred to “two handed policy.”

Ma Ying-jeou meets Xi Jinping for the first time in November 2015. Image: Wikipedia

Beijing’s Policy Towards Taipei
From our discussions, it was apparent that thwarting independence would rely on a combination of efforts: to isolate Taiwan internationally, and threaten to use force if Taipei dared unilaterally to declare such a status. Opposition to Taiwan’s participation in international organizations without Beijing’s approval, as well as pressuring other countries to limit ties with the island or replacing these ties with diplomatic relations with the mainland, served the former objective. The refusal to deal with the present government was part of this strategy. Reminders that Beijing reserved the right to use force to put an end to independence aspirations, coupled with displays of military might in the area were said to be the ultimate sanction. Indeed, in this trip, the unusually frequent allusions to the option of coercion struck us an obvious indication of growing mainland frustration with Tsai’s refusal to recognize the “One China Principle.”

Complementing this “hard” policy, however, was an effort to move public opinion on Taiwan in a direction favorable to unification. Efforts at “winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people,” we were told, would continue. Favorable economic conditions on the mainland would attract Taiwan investment and youth seeking to enhance future prospects through education or employment would move Taiwan policy. Moreover, although it was acknowledged that the more mainland-friendly KMT had been severely weakened recently, efforts would continue to cultivate political forces as well as potential supporters in civil society.

Although those with whom we met emphasized that present Taiwan policy was inspired by Xi Jingping’s report at the recently concluded 19th Party Congress, the policy presented to us was not novel. It was essentially consistent with the approach taken by the mainland after Tsai’s election in 2016. There was, however, some indication of change, or rather uncertainty, in respect to the role of the United States.

Taiwan’s Relations with the United States

Tsai Ing-wen takes a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump. Image: New York Times.

Throughout the entire post-World War Two period, the relationship between the government on Taiwan and the United States has been seen on the mainland as the most important obstacle to the achievement of mainland goals vis-a-vis the island and its people. Despite normalized relations with the mainland in 1979, Washington continues to maintain virtual diplomatic relations with Taiwan while, at the same time, selling it arms and engaging in military consultations. On these issues, the argument that we heard was consistent with the past: the actions of the United State were an interference in China’s domestic affairs, that was encouraging independence aspirations, and undermining the mainland’s efforts at reunification.

The uncertainty was, not surprisingly, in regard to possible changes during the Trump administration. Interlocutors noted the improving Sino-American relations and common interests in East Asian security issues. For the most part, however, the overall view of American policy was colored by the December 2017 phone call between Donald Trump and Tsai Ying-wen, recent Congressional actions favoring closer relations with Taiwan, and continued arms deliveries and military cooperation. The policy of the United States continued to be viewed as an obstacle to the the achievement of the mainland’s aims and to improved bilateral relations.

The central place of the United States in Taiwan’s mainland policy was clear in our discussions in Taipei and seemed to substantiate complaints heard in the mainland. In contrast to the view from Beijing, however, which saw continuity with the previous DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian, it was clear that Tsai’s approach to mainland policy was designed to avoid repeating Chen’s errors. This was especially the case, we were told, in regard to relations with Washington. In the 2011–2012 campaign, rumors about American uneasiness regarding Tsai’s mainland policy hung over her candidacy. From the beginning of her 2015–2016 campaign, Tsai was careful to dispel such concerns by striking a cooperative tone in her statements regarding relations with the mainland. Upon taking office, we were told that her objective was “integration” with American policy in the area.

We understood this to mean support of Washington’s security and diplomatic goals in the area as well as renewed efforts to solve controversies that were holding back economic relations. However, it was clear that the term was also meant to convey a determination that this administration, unlike that of Chen Shui-bian, would not provoke cross-straits crises that would complicate Sino-American relations or risk armed conflict in the area. Taiwan simply could not afford to alienate its most important international benefactor. In essence, we were told, maintaining smooth relations with the United States would be an important factor in successfully managing cross-strait relations and, in turn, that a non-provocative relationship with the mainland was essential to retaining American support.

Taiwan and the One China Principle

Image: Google Maps

This second goal of Taiwan’s policy was recognized by our interlocutors on the island to be more elusive due to Tsai’s refusal to accept the position that Taiwan was a part of China. The previous Ma Ying-jeou administration had been able to finesse this central demand of the mainland. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) had its political roots in the mainland-based Republic of China (ROC) which ruled Taiwan after World War Two and was defeated by the Communist Party in 1949. Ma thus could accept the idea of one China by adding the crucial caveat that the “China” in question was the ROC, not the mainland government. Given the unificationist history of the KMT, the mainland chose to overlook this crucial qualification and consider the posture good enough to initiate cross-strait talks.

The case of the DPP is very different. The party has an historical legacy of advocating independence from the mainland. Over time, it has specifically rejected the One China Principle, taking the position that the island’s government is already an independent, sovereign state and that any change in that status must have the approval of the population. From our discussions, it was clear that meeting the mainland’s requirement that acceptance of the one China principle was a necessary condition for the resumption of cross-strait talks would not only be inconsistent with the DPP’s political identity, but also politically damaging in an environment where the public mood is one of distrust of the mainland and of the growth of identification with Taiwan.

Our interlocutors, while emphasizing a determination not to provoke tensions in cross-straits relations, outlined the many positions taken by President Tsai to suggest alternative bases for cross-straits discussions. These ranged from a pledge to maintain status quo in the area to recognition the existence of agreements negotiated by the previous government to recognition of the “historical fact” of the meeting in 1992 when the mainland claims Taiwan representatives accepted the one China principle. None of these formulations, however, met the mainland’s demand for an explicit affirmation of one China. In contrast to the KMT, Beijing would accept no ambiguity in the Taiwan position.

Key Take-Aways

Taiwan Studies Workshop members Steven Goldstein, Alanna Krolikowski, and Michael Szonyi speak at Xiamen University, January 2018.

What are the most important take-aways from this trip? The obvious fact is that cross-strait relations are presently stalemated. The mainland’s unqualified insistence that the government on Taiwan accept that the island is a part of China before official or semi-official talks can be resumed will not be easily reconciled with Taiwan’s own insistence on its sovereign status. In other words, from the perspective of the current administration in Taiwan, the mainland is making acceptance of its preferred solution to cross-strait relations (unification) as a prerequisite for even initiating discussions on the issue. As far as the mainland is concerned, by refusing to accept this condition, the government on Taiwan is demanding mainland acceptance of its separate status of de facto independence. It was apparent in our discussions that neither side is ready to make concessions necessary to break this dead lock.

It was apparent in our discussions that neither side is ready to make concessions necessary to break this dead lock.

In the absence of talks, relations between the two sides are in a state which one commentator has called a “cold peace.” Trade between the two sides continues as does investment from Taiwan on the mainland. Tourist visits continue as do direct flights between the mainland and Taiwan. However, the absence of direct contacts have complicated operations in some of these areas. Interestingly, we were told that the only active area of cooperation is in police work and anti-smuggling.

As noted, our interlocutors on the Mainland expressed frustration in regard to this state of deadlock. The distrust of Tsai is intense and the impact of her government’s policies are seen as creeping toward independence. There were frequent warnings that the mainland might have no choice but to use force to prevent such an outcome. Yet there was also confidence expressed that time was on the side of the mainland because attitudes were changing in Taiwan and the attraction of the mainland was growing.

The impression from our Taiwan meetings is that, at present, there is little basis for this confidence. The KMT, the political party seen as more friendly to the mainland, is in disarray and, based on our discussions, maintains a stance that is out of touch with popular attitudes toward mainland relations. Public opinion polls show a distrust of the mainland that seems to be fed by its harsh policy toward the Tsai administration as well as support for the government’s position on the present nature of relations between the two sides. Ironically, it seems that the mainland’s policy of preventing independence is inhibiting progress toward the goal of reunification.

Steven Goldstein is Sophia Smith Professor of Government, Emeritus, at Smith College, and Center Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. His latest book is China and Taiwan (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015).