Mon, Apr 22, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Ryan Hass On Taiwan: Cross-strait risks are rising and need to be managed

Taiwan’s political atmosphere is growing more fervid as the January 2020 election draws nearer. The roster of contenders includes candidates with experience governing and an understanding of the need for balance, and others who rely on charisma and offer promises without consideration of potential consequences.

There also is growing momentum in Washington for judging that Beijing’s bullying of Taiwan is escalating at intolerable rates, and that the antidote is for Washington to show stronger support for Taiwan to counteract the squeeze that Beijing is putting on Taipei.

Some American experts hold a different perspective, namely that President Tsai (蔡英文) has altered the status quo by not accepting the 1992 consensus or finding a way to manage differences of interpretation with Beijing. By and large, though, this perspective is not ascendant in Congress or inside the Trump administration.

Having spoken with both American and Chinese officials involved in cross-Strait policy recently, it is striking how much both sides hold the other in contempt for seeking to stretch the cross-Strait status quo. From official Washington’s perspective, Beijing’s poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, particularly in the United States backyard, was provocative; President Xi’s (習近平) January 2 speech on Taiwan was bellicose; the People’s Liberation Army’s April 1 penetration of the Taiwan centerline was dangerously escalatory; and Beijing’s ever-expanding meddling in Taiwan’s internal affairs has grown out of control.

From Beijing’s perspective, China has been reacting to actions by Washington and Taipei that it finds unacceptable. Beijing’s grievances include: President Tsai’s inflexibility on finding a way to reconcile differences over the 1992 consensus; the US Congress’s increasing activism on Taiwan; the US Navy’s attention-seeking behavior for each of its transits of the Taiwan Strait; press reports of upcoming big-ticket arms sales to Taiwan; and Washington’s quiet loosening of procedures for Taiwan presidential transits.

In other words, Washington, Taipei, and Beijing are falling into an action-reaction cycle on cross-Strait issues, even as they disagree on who is the initiator of this cycle. This is occurring at a time when there is under-developed muscle memory at senior levels in all three capitals for managing cross-Strait tensions, US-China relations are severely strained, and cross-Strait relations are becoming more contested in more domains.

On top of that, we are entering a dangerous period for resolve-testing behavior. As elections approach in Taiwan in January 2020 and in the United States in November 2020, there may be shrinking political space for moderation in response to perceived Chinese provocations.

All this is occurring at a time when there are atrophying channels of communication between Beijing and Washington and Taipei, respectively, on cross-Strait issues. Some of this is due to Beijing’s reflexive dismissal of Tsai’s initial offers of reassurance, and its preference for punishment over genuine efforts to bridge differences, including by freezing official channels for cross-Strait communication. In the US-China context, the primary channels that previously were used to manage cross-Strait tensions — in-depth conversations at the presidential level and in the Strategic Security Dialogue — are no longer available.

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