Mon, Feb 05, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: Assessing cross-strait developments

The end of 2017 and the first weeks of the new year saw several notable developments involving cross-strait relations. In late December and early January, in an alarming new practice, People’s Liberation Army bombers several times conducted reconnaissance flights that circumnavigated Taiwan. On Jan. 4, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) also unilaterally announced a new northbound flight path for its civilian aircraft (the M503 route) along the middle of the Taiwan Strait that violated a longstanding practice to keep such aircraft away from the centerline of this sensitive body of water.

Beijing has also made it clear, despite urging from Washington and other interested parties, that it would oppose a Taiwan delegation attending the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. It will be recalled that during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, Taiwan did send delegations to this gathering.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s friends in the US Congress have advanced several new bills aimed at improving Taiwan’s access to the US. The Taiwan Travel Act, passed by the House in early January, will presumably be taken up by the Senate soon. This seeks to liberalize access by Taiwan military and diplomats in visiting the US. The Taiwan Security Act, currently before the Senate, seeks to do much the same with regard to Taiwan military personnel visiting the US.

Should these bills advance to the White House, it is unlikely the president would sign them, given pass indications that the Executive Branch is loath to have the Congress press policy prescriptions like this on it. That said, this strong support for Taiwan reflects the broad favor Taipei continues to enjoy on the Hill.

In the Executive Branch, in January, the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, in its unclassified summary, singled China out as a “strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features of the South China Sea.” This piece also listed addressing “long-term competition with China and Russia” as the “principle priorities” of American defense strategy.

This hardening attitude in US politics toward China reflects growing impatience over China’s assertive approach in the Asia-Pacific. Imbedded in this is specific concern regarding the threat to our longtime friends and allies in the region, which includes Taiwan, along with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries and Australia to the south.

All this occurred as the second anniversary of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election approaches, and at a time when the Taiwan government has studiously avoided taking any actions that might be perceived as provocative by the mainland. True, tourism by Chinese nationals to the island has dropped significantly since Tsai took office, as has the cross-strait trade which flourished under Ma Ying-jeou’s administration.

With the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) continuing to show significant decline in voter appeal, it is unclear whether Beijing is trying to bolster its favored party’s standing through these actions. Or perhaps it is simply acting in a fit of pique at Madame Tsai’s continued unwillingness to emulate her predecessor’s accommodating approach to cross-strait relations.

It will be recalled that Ma embraced the amorphous and controversial “1992 consensus” as president, and attended the precedent-shattering Singapore meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in late 2015. While Tsai has avoided thus far any move to endorse the “1992 consensus,” neither has she repudiated it. Nor has she or her ruling Democratic Progressive Party taken any steps toward pushing independence, a clear red line for Beijing.

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