from Asia Unbound

Why a Cross-Strait Crisis Will Be Averted in 2021

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military emergency drill in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 15, 2021.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military emergency drill in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 15, 2021. Ann Wang/Reuters

February 18, 2021 2:49 pm (EST)

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military emergency drill in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 15, 2021.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military emergency drill in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 15, 2021. Ann Wang/Reuters
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Many prominent analysts believe that a crisis over Taiwan is brewing and that the chances of a war between China and Taiwan, which has the potential to involve the United States, over the next year is not insignificant. The continued deterioration of cross-Strait relations is a critical factor leading analysts to make this conclusion. While the trajectory of cross-Strait relations is worrying, the coming year is unlikely to produce a crisis over Taiwan because China will remain preoccupied with more pressing challenges, Taiwan will continue to refrain from starting an escalatory dynamic, and the new administration in the United States will bolster stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Since Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration as Taiwan’s president in 2016, cross-Strait relations have been at an impasse, marked by a lack of official exchanges, dialogue, and activity. Beijing blames Tsai, arguing her refusal to endorse the “92 consensus,” a one-China framework endorsed by her predecessor, precludes official dialogue. From China’s perspective, Tsai is salami slicing toward independence, and therefore it should not reward her by opening up communications. Chinese officials would point to Taiwan’s revision of textbooks that separate Taiwanese history from Chinese history, its introduction of a new passport that minimizes the “Republic of China” while emphasizing “Taiwan,” and the recent call to replace the island’s national symbol.

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Tsai, however, would probably counter that she went far enough in her first inaugural address when she sought to reassure Beijing that cross-Strait relations would be conducted “in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.” This was a creative nod to “one-China” that she likely believed Beijing would accept, but instead she was told she had handed in an “incomplete test paper.”

Beijing’s actions, in particular its undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy, have eroded support on Taiwan for closer cross-Strait ties. Xi Jinping still insists that Taiwan must unify with the mainland on the basis of “one country, two systems,” but Hong Kong’s fate reveals that formulation’s fatal flaws. As a result, Tsai felt bold enough to formally reject “one country, two systems,” and her reticence toward the mainland was rewarded with a landslide reelection victory. Taiwanese identity is now at an all-time high, fueled in large part by disaffection with China.

In sum, leaders in both Beijing and Taipei are not happy with one another, believe they are reacting to moves made by the other side, and are not inclined to make a conciliatory gesture to jumpstart cross-Strait dialogue. While some might conclude that cross-Strait relations will continue to deteriorate and could spark a crisis, instead this period of tension will persist without boiling over.

While China has escalated its coercion of Taiwan, primarily by increasing the frequency and scale of bomber flights over the median line and into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, Taiwan has not responded in kind. Tsai has avoided creating an escalatory dynamic. She has also demonstrated an ability to improve Taiwan’s relationship with the United States while not pushing for changes that would provoke a harsh response from Beijing. Tsai is thus unlikely to trigger a crisis.

Although Beijing is displeased with Tsai and has increased its coercion of Taiwan, it is preoccupied with multiple challenges and does not want to add a crisis over Taiwan to its inbox. It is looking to reset relations with the United States (albeit on its own terms), bring its economy back to its pre-COVID level, and maintain a positive atmosphere throughout the year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding. A confrontation over Taiwan would complicate China’s ability to accomplish these tasks.

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The United States is the other principal actor, and while the Biden administration has indicated it will continue to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan relations, it will probably do so in a way that does not test Beijing’s red lines. The Trump administration, although it should be commended for bolstering U.S.-Taiwan relations, often prioritized symbolism over substance and unnecessarily publicized certain developments that in turn prompted a forceful Chinese response. The Biden administration can be expected to take a lower key approach that China will feel less compelled to publicly react to.

In addition, the Biden administration has sent useful signals that it would respond to further Chinese coercion against Taiwan. While President Trump allegedly likened Taiwan to the tip of a sharpie, and his desk to China, undermining deterrence by communicating that Taiwan was not defendable, senior Biden administration officials have stated that the United States should be “crystal clear” about its commitments to Taiwan.

While 2021 is unlikely to see cross-Strait tensions spill over into open confrontation, there are a few ways that cross-Strait relations can be put on a firmer footing to minimize the chance of conflict.

First, while the Trump administration did not make it a priority to encourage cross-Strait dialogue, the Biden administration can publicly and privately urge both sides to resume official communications and press one side when it believes it is acting in bad faith. In a positive sign, the State Department urged Beijing to “engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives” in its first statement on cross-Strait relations under the Biden administration. Such messaging should continue, and it should be repeated privately at the highest levels.

Second, the United States can reinforce deterrence by publicly and privately highlighting its commitment to Taiwan and allocating the resources necessary to back up that rhetoric. This would involve developing a credible denial strategy for Taiwan, shifting additional military assets to Asia and dispersing them throughout the region, procuring long-range munitions and stationing them in the region, coordinating with Japan on contingency planning, and working more closely with Taiwan’s military to improve Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. By making clear it has the will and the capacity to come to Taiwan’s defense, the United States would reduce the chances of a cross-Strait conflagration.

Finally, Taiwan and China can seek to cooperate on practical matters even without agreement on the framework for cross-Strait relations. For instance, they can attempt to establish an exchange of medical information to ease travel during the pandemic. In addition, they can look to resume scholarly exchanges, virtually for the time being. Either of these steps would help build trust and place a floor on cross-Strait relations.

While some are predicting that the deterioration of cross-Strait relations will trigger a conflict between China and Taiwan over the next year, Taiwan’s reluctance to escalate, China’s preoccupation with multiple challenges, and the change in administration in the United States make such a scenario unlikely. Over the next year, cross-Strait relations will remain fraught, but China and Taiwan will avoid a direct confrontation.

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