On May 20, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn in for her second term, while strains in the tripartite relationship between China, Taiwan, and United States reach unprecedented levels. Taiwan continues to be used as a ploy in the political games between the world’s two superpowers, with both sides turning up the heat in the Taiwan Strait. Tsai’s inauguration coincides with U.S. lobbying efforts to help Taiwan secure observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO)’s 73rd World Health Assembly, as well as increased pressure from Beijing to have more say in the self-ruling island’s status. Though it is likely that Tsai will maintain her track record of capably preserving the cross-strait status quo, U.S.-China competition may emerge as a potential game changer in the unresolved Taiwan Strait crisis, especially with the U.S. presidential election drawing closer.
Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) she represents won a landslide victory in the January election, which was widely seen as a referendum on the future of Taiwan and its relationship with China. Over 8 million voters cast their ballots for Tsai, placing confidence in her ability to defend Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty. The election took place when Taiwan’s heightened sympathy for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy was juxtaposed against the precipitous erosion of the “one country, two systems” formula, originally developed for Taiwan by former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping and only later adopted for Hong Kong. Three decades after the formula’s conception, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overture to the Taiwanese about “inevitable” reunification has been quickly dismissed and the prospect of Taiwan returning to China is a taboo subject for Taiwanese politicians. Not surprisingly, the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition party is still licking its wounds from the electoral defeat that was driven, in no small part, from its struggle to move past its Beijing-friendly position.
On the heels of her successful leadership in steering Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsai’s approval rating has skyrocketed to 75 percent, which has implications both domestically and for cross-strait relations. Tsai’s renewed public mandate to safeguard Taiwan’s interests allows her to push back on Beijing’s persistent intimidation and stand up to what the Taiwanese public view as bullying tactics. However, a steady hand in managing China-Taiwan stability relies on a policy of strategic ambiguity from the United States. The governing U.S.-Taiwan framework, the Taiwan Relations Act, is not an official security treaty — it leaves defending Taiwan an open question: the U.S. has room to intervene in deterring China but need not risk war should Taiwan declare independence from China. This ambiguity, however, has never been on shakier grounds.
Since 2016, China has not only suspended diplomatic contact with Taipei but also compounded its military actions in the air and sea to signal its military advantage over Taiwan. Tsai and her party, which traditionally favors independence from China, have never fully embraced the 1992 Consensus — Beijing’s bottom line for Taiwan affairs premised on the “One China” principle. Even then, Taiwan understands it is not in its interest to openly provoke Beijing, but the United States is not playing the same game. From accepting a congratulatory call from Tsai to welcoming Taiwan’s vice president-elect to Washington — the highest ranking Taiwanese politician the U.S. has received since 1979 — U.S. President Donald Trump sent a signal that he is not bound by the longstanding “One China” policy, and instead in the business of putting China on notice about Taiwan. To further cement the message, Washington has upgraded its strategic ties with Taiwan and elevated the island’s status to the level of other U.S. allies in its Indo-Pacific strategy in an effort to protect the Western-led order in the Pacific. The result: Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.
Moreover, Taiwan’s exemplary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite exclusion from the WHO, has received international praise and attention. It has effectively used cellphone tracking, big data, and mandatory temperature checks (starting as early as December 31) to keep the numbers of infected persons remarkably low. Taiwan’s actions of transparency and willingness to help and share information in the advent of the virus stand in stark contrast to claims from Beijing that its model for combating COVID-19 is superior. It remains to be seen if Beijing’s attempts to keep Taiwan out of the international spotlight and recognition will succeed, but increased international backing is likely to give Tsai less incentive to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing.
These developments are all the more relevant when viewed against the backdrop of U.S.-China competition plunging into an abyss. With COVID-19 poised to wipe out years of job creation and economic gains under Trump’s watch, blaming China is part of his strategy to win re-election. In this context, Tsai is unlikely to have much wiggle room in great power politics as tensions rise, which present both challenges and opportunities. Still, Taiwan must be cautious or it risks becoming collateral damage in this tripartite dynamic.
Zoe Leung is director of the EastWest Institute’s East Asia program. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute.