Kevin C. Scott is an independent researcher. His substantive interests include the history of US relations with Taiwan and Asia, and he has written previously on political relations between China and the Vatican. He holds a B.A. in government from the University of Notre Dame and an M.A. in Asian studies from the University of Pittsburgh.
Articles by Kevin Scott
In the run-up to the 19th Party Congress, Beijing has pursued an inflexible policy toward Taiwan, consistently blocking its international participation, establishing diplomatic relations with Panama, and conducting military exercises around Taiwan. Despite such pressures, President Tsai, whose priorities are domestic economic and social reform, has not changed her policy that neither accepts nor explicitly challenges Beijing’s one-China principle, and she has urged Beijing to join in seeking a new formula. With the US Congress expressing increased support for Taiwan, the Trump administration approved a new arms sales package and took other steps to improve ties with Taiwan. Beijing has warned Washington about closer ties with Taipei, raising the prospect that Taiwan will again become a divisive issue in US-China relations. In the absence of dialogue, unstable and risky cross-strait relations will continue in the months ahead.
In February, President Trump told President Xi Jinping that the US would honor its one-China policy. This eased concern that the new administration would radically change US policy toward Taiwan, but it remains unclear how the Trump administration will deal with specific Taiwan issues. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have continued to be in an unstable but calm state in the early months of 2017. The formal channels of dialogue remain closed and no significant effort has been made to reopen them. In the meantime, practical issues have been dealt with, sometimes constructively but often in ways that exacerbate the lack of trust. This unstable and risky situation will likely continue in the months ahead.
After President Tsai’s inauguration, Beijing continued to press her to accept the 1992 Consensus on one China. When China blocked ICAO from inviting Taipei in September, Tsai reacted sharply. In her “Double Ten” remarks, she reaffirmed her cross-strait policy and said she would neither give in to pressure nor return to past confrontational actions. In October, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping made remarks implying Beijing’s understanding that Tsai would not endorse one China. The election of Donald Trump created in Taipei both hope of friendship from Republicans and concern Taipei could become a pawn in Trump’s bargaining with China. Trump’s tweets about his telephone conversation with Tsai and comments about one China and trade have sparked intense speculation and uncertainty about their implications for cross-strait and US relations with Taiwan and China.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated as president on May 20. In her inaugural address, she did not accept “one China” but did reach out further toward Beijing. Beijing gave her address an “incomplete” grade and has continued to press her to accept the 1992 Consensus. Despite this fundamental divide and deep mutual mistrust, the two sides have been able to handle some issues in a pragmatic manner. Although the formal communications channels have been suspended by Beijing, contacts at other levels continue under the network of cross-strait agreements. Many issues will continue to complicate the management of relations. However, Tsai remains committed to maintaining stable relations and Xi Jinping, preoccupied with other challenges, prefers to avoid a confrontation with Taiwan.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was elected president on Jan. 16 by a decisive margin, and for the first time the DPP won a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) election. This outcome has set Taiwan on a new course. Since then, Tsai has adhered to her pledge to maintain the status quo and peace in the Taiwan Strait and has taken steps to continue reaching out to Beijing. Beijing reacted calmly to the election and has repeatedly said the election will not change the basic framework of its peaceful development policy toward Taiwan. However, Beijing is waging a focused campaign to press Tsai to accept the 1992 Consensus in her inaugural address on May 20. Even if she does not fully meet Beijing’s demands, as is expected, it will be in the interest of both sides to avoid confrontation after May 20 in what is likely to be a strained relationship.
General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Ma Ying-jeou held the historic first Cross-Strait Leaders Meeting in Singapore, capping seven years of collaborative work to build stable and constructive cross-strait relations. On Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has conducted a well-run campaign, likely leading on Jan. 16 to Tsai Ing-wen winning a strong majority mandate in the presidential election and the KMT and its allies losing control of the Legislative Yuan (LY) for the first time. After the election, Tsai and Xi will share responsibility for avoiding a confrontation that is in neither of their interests.
The Kuomintang (KMT) Party’s mismanagement of the selection of its presidential candidate has left the party in disarray and increased the prospect that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen will win the presidency along with a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) elections. Faced with the prospect of DPP victories, Beijing has sent mixed messages to Taiwan, while voicing its confidence in preserving the accomplishments of the peaceful development policy for the long-term. Against this background, the Ma administration and Beijing have struggled to keep cross-strait relations moving forward.
Taipei’s relations with Beijing have been adrift with the Ma administration in a reactive mode. The main interactions have been on unexpected issues – China’s M503 air route and Taiwan’s effort to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – and results were mixed. Meanwhile all players are preparing for a different future. The KMT is trying to reform itself; new chairman Eric Chu Li-lun visited China and met General Secretary Xi Jinping in early May. Beijing is focused on working with the new KMT and on deterring the DPP from returning to office in 2016. The DPP and Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen have begun defining its policy toward Beijing before Tsai visits Washington in June.
Campaigning for local elections in Taiwan delayed any progress toward resolving the deadlock in the Legislative Yuan over cross-strait issues. While emphasizing continuity in its peaceful development policy, Beijing is concerned over the Democratic Progressive Party’s increasing prospects and consequently has laid down markers aimed at the party. Student protests in Hong Kong underlined the fundamental political differences between Taiwan and the mainland and occasioned some sharp exchanges between the Ma administration and the Chinese Communist Party leadership. The Kuomintang’s large defeat in the local elections surprised everyone and creates new challenges for Beijing in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in early 2016.
In early May, General Secretary Xi Jinping made clear that Beijing would adhere to its peaceful development policy toward Taiwan in the wake of the student-led Sunflower Movement. In June, TAO Minister Zhang Zhijun made a first official visit to Taiwan reaching out to broader segments of Taiwan society and meeting Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu. DPP obstructionism has continued to prevent the LY from action on cross-strait issues. Tsai Ing-wen was elected Chair of the DPP in July and indicated there will be no change in basic DPP policy toward the mainland.
In February, officials from Beijing and Taiwan met publicly in their official capacities for the first time since 1949. Both sides characterized this breakthrough as a step forward in cross-strait relations. However in Taipei, partisan maneuvering in committee and an unprecedented occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students created a deadlock blocking approval of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement concluded last June. While Beijing and Taipei have tried to maintain progress, these domestic developments in Taiwan represent a serious challenge both for President Ma and Beijing.
Beijing is increasingly exploring ways to address cross-strait political issues and is promoting agreement on a “one China framework” as the way to build mutual trust. However, differences remain very apparent, at least for the present. The first formal exchange of visits by officials is being planned, raising important policy implications. Taipei’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization Assembly as a guest was a positive step while Beijing’s unilateral announcement of an East China Sea ADIZ overlapping in part Taiwan’s ADIZ has set back efforts to build trust.
The slow steady improvement of cross-strait relations hit some not unexpected bumps in recent months. Domestic politics in Taiwan, particularly partisan actions by the opposition DPP, have delayed Legislative Yuan action on important cross-strait matters. Despite these domestic troubles, Beijing is maintaining a steady course and seems confident about the long-term direction of President Ma’s policy. Track II political dialogues are growing, including those involving the DPP, which launched a series of meetings on its policy toward Beijing. Taiwan has been invited to attend the triennial Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a special guest of the ICAO Council.
The contrast between tensions elsewhere in the region and the relative calm in the Taiwan Strait was clearly in focus. In an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of cross-strait exchanges, President Ma said progress is “an example for East Asia and the world by demonstrating peaceful resolution of disputes.” Taipei and Beijing continue to make slow but steady progress in expanding and institutionalizing ties. Health and crime issues, which provoked controversy in the past, have been addressed and talks on an exchange of unofficial representative offices have begun. Nevertheless, fundamental policy divergences and differences over the pace and scope of interaction will likely place real limits on future integration. Taipei and Tokyo successfully concluded a landmark fisheries agreement that constructively focuses on resource cooperation.
Leadership changes have occurred on both sides of the strait. As predicted, the 18th Party Congress saw Xi Jinping appointed as general secretary in Beijing. In Taipei, President Ma announced in September a complete reshuffle of his cross-strait and foreign policy team. In both cases, the personnel changes do not foreshadow any policy changes in the coming months. While Ma remains unwilling to address political issues in direct negotiations, some interesting Track 2 dialogues occurred. In October, Beijing gave visiting DPP politician Hsieh Chang-ting unusual high-level attention, and following his return Hsieh has tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to promote change in DPP policy. Against the backdrop of increasing tensions over the Diaoyu Islands, Ma is focused on asserting Taiwan’s interests primarily through his East China Sea Peace Initiative.