Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 25, 2018
Fresh tensions in China-Taiwan-US equation

While the whole world was busy with the high profile Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore, a fresh diplomatic crisis went rather unnoticed except among Taiwan watchers. On 11 June, the US opened its new American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) costing US $ 255 million and considered by many to be its de facto embassy. The move is certainly not sudden. The US has been planning for many years to shift the Institute from the old 1950’s premises. The construction has been going on for almost 10 years. It is the timing of the opening which makes the event interesting.

US participation

Contrary to earlier speculations, the US government sent only relatively low ranked officials to attend the ceremony. The Kim-Trump Summit and the impending US-China trade war may have influenced this decision. Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs headed the American delegation, which also included William Moser, Principal Deputy Director of the US Overseas Office and US Congressman Greg Harper who is also the Co-Chairman of US Congressional Taiwan Caucus. On the Taiwanese side, there was President Tsai Ing wen and the former President Ma Ying-jeou, which reemphasised the bipartisan approach of Taiwan on relations with the US. There are talks of senior US officials like the National security Advisor, John Bolton visiting the new facility in the near future. Further, China fears that when the incumbent director of the institute Kin Moy steps down after his three-year tenure, his replacement could be a high-ranking American diplomat.

The Taiwan question has surfaced repeatedly after Trump became the US President. Before he was sworn in, there was the controversy of his telephonic conversation with the Taiwan President. Trump had subsequently even questioned the relevance of US’s “one-China” policy, a fundamental principle in US-China relations since 1979. Though he changed his stance later, high-level US officials have been raising the question much to the irritation of the Chinese.

Two other recent developments have made the People’s Republic of China (PRC) more nervous about US intentions. One is the renewed talk in the US Congress of new arms sales to Taiwan because of the relaxation in the rules pertaining to US defense contractors’ business with Taiwan. The other is the new Taiwan Travel Act signed by Trump (after the Senate passed it earlier), which encourages more exchanges between officials of both sides.

Deteriorating PRC-Taiwan relations

After a period of eight years of stable relations during the Presidency of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuo-min Tang Party (KMT), the situation began deteriorating with the election of Tsai Ing wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016. Unlike the former who followed a softer approach towards the PRC (there was even a historic Summit between Ma and Xi Jinping in November 2015), the latter rejects the 1992 Consensus, which the PRC considers as the basic pillar of the cross-strait relations. China insists that use of force is still one of its options to prevent any separatist tendencies in Taiwan.

Over the last two years, the diplomatic and political pressure by the PRC on Taiwan has been relentless. Eight months ago, at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping warned Taiwan in strong terms. He said, “We have sufficient abilities to thwart any form of Taiwan independence attempts.” Many countries in Africa and Latin America have switched their diplomatic relations to the PRC in the last 18 months. These include Sao Tome’ and Principe and Panama. The latest to abandon Taiwan is Burkina Faso, leaving only one African country (eSwatini, until recently known as Swaziland) to have ties with Taiwan.

There is little doubt that these shifts have been mainly due to economic incentives and coercion by the PRC. China wants to make sure that all the 54 African countries are with it before the next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in September this year. Worldwide, there are only 18 countries, mostly in Latin America and the South Pacific Islands, which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The other aggressive approach that the PRC has adopted is with respect to international organisations. Under Chinese pressure, Taiwanese delegations have been prevented from participating in various meets like the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in September 2016, the InterPol General assembly meeting in 2016, Kimberly Process Conference on diamond trade  in Perth (Australia) in May 2017 and the World Health Assembly’s annual meeting in May 2017. What is strange is the fact that Taiwanese delegates have participated in all these in the past. Another example of Chinese pressure tactics is how they forced Nigeria to shift the Taiwan Trade Office from the capital Abuja to Lagos.

There has also been pressure on the depiction of China in maps. About a year ago, official maps of the PRC started referring to Taiwan as “Zhongguo Taiwan” in place of “Zhonghua Taiwan.” Though both terms mean “China” in a generic sense, “Zhongguo” is normally associated with post-1948 PRC.

In January, China shut down the website of Marriott International after the company published a survey showing Taiwan as a separate country. Japanese retailer Muji and the American clothing company Gap had to tender apologies for wrong depiction of Taiwan in their maps. In May this year, the PRC issued instructions to all international airlines to clearly show Taiwan as Chinese territory. Most of the Airlines have fallen in line.

Build up to next Taiwan elections

The PRC hopes that sustained pressure on Taiwan could influence voters to choose the more moderate KMT in the next elections. This hope, however, could prove counter-productive if the young Taiwanese take a hard nationalistic stand. One should remember that Tsai Ing wen came to power in 2016 on such a hardstand vis-à-vis the PRC. Further, most of the members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are indigenous Taiwanese without any nostalgia for the Mainland. In all likelihood, the Cross-Strait relations are destined to be tense in the coming months. This puts the US administration on a tough spot requiring deft tight rope walking.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


H.H.S. Viswanathan

H.H.S. Viswanathan

H.H.S. Viswanathan was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF and a member of the Indian Foreign Service for 34 years. He has a long and diverse ...

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