Written by Don Keyser.

Since 1949, China and Taiwan have waged the international dimension of their contest on four principal battlegrounds: [1] “hard power” realities, especially their relative military capabilities including those of allies; [2] ideological or normative appeals; [3] competition for diplomatic “partners” or “allies” (i.e., nations conferring diplomatic recognition); and [4] participation in the United Nations and its associated bodies. Numerous studies and diplomatic memoirs have exhaustively addressed the U.S. role in the strategic calculus and foreign policy choices of both Beijing and Taipei. This post focuses rather on Taiwan’s quest for international partners, legitimacy and “breathing space”; its efforts to project soft power keyed to its economic development and/or peaceful democratic transition; China’s policy response to these challenges; and the outlook for the evolving Taipei-Beijing contest in the international arena.

For Taiwan, everything follows from the need to manage the cross-Strait situation. China since October 1949 has represented an existential threat: to its survival, sovereignty, de facto independence, meaningful access to the international community, and economic security. Taiwan’s foreign and domestic policies alike have been crafted to maximize its freedom of action and ability to withstand Chinese pressures applied through both peaceful and non-peaceful means. Taiwan’s external policy since 1950 has been driven by a small set of core requirements: withstanding China’s military threat; holding the good will and firm backing of Taiwan’s major security guarantor the United States; and securing the maximum possible degree of international legitimacy and concomitant “breathing space.” Taipei has well understood that international breathing room is the sine qua non for preserving a robust economy, buttressing its assertion of sovereign status, and successfully resisting Chinese attempts to strangle the island’s viability as a functionally independent entity. All of this has had a profound impact upon Beijing’s grand strategy and its adoption of specific tactics to deal with Taiwan’s challenge in the foreign policy arena.

This post reviews the vision, strategy and tactics employed by the two sides on each of these “battlefields” during discrete historical periods:

  • 1949-71 (Mao’s proclamation of the PRC to Beijing’s assumption of the UN “China” seat):  Mao was forced to defer armed “liberation” of Taiwan because the PRC-Soviet alliance required Beijing’s subordination of nationalistic goals to the requirements of socialist internationalism and the reality of Mao’s “junior partner” status vis-à-vis Stalin. Mao’s commitment of forces to North Korea — and not to Taiwan’s early “liberation” — related to such considerations. Recognizing China’s inability to accomplish Taiwan “liberation” in the face of Soviet opposition to “adventurist” policies, Mao sought assiduously to deny international legitimacy to Taiwan. Beijing’s insistence upon the “one-China principle” has been the bedrock of its diplomatic strategy for dealing with a separate, not-yet-unified Taiwan. It has also been the organizing principle for Beijing’s 60-year battle with Taiwan over diplomatic recognition by foreign nations, participation in the United Nations system, and, later, the parameters for Taiwan’s “international breathing room.” Insistence on the “one-China principle” – hence no dual recognition — worked to Taipei’s advantage and Beijing’s disadvantage through the 1960s; this was especially true of the competition over the right to hold China’s seat in the United Nations.  In the early Cold War context, U.S. allies and friends followed Washington’s lead in maintaining ties with “anti-communist Free China.” China was unable through the mid-1950s to augment the number of its formal diplomatic partners.
  • 1972-78 (China’s breakout from international isolation, Chiang Ching-kuo’s implementation of a corresponding survival strategy): On October 25, 1971 the United Nations General Assembly voted to seat the PRC as the sole representative of China in the U.N. For Taipei, the humiliation of the unseating was secondary to the fear that its future viability and de facto independence were threatened by political, economic and cultural marginalization within the international community. Conversely, Beijing’s election as a UN member, entitled to occupy China’s permanent and veto-wielding seat on the Security Council, afforded it new international prestige and legitimacy; a vehicle for promoting its “Third World” diplomatic line; and a venue for sharply reducing Taiwan’s international space by cajoling member states to shift their recognition from Taipei to Beijing.  Taiwan’s loss of the UN “China” seat and President Nixon’s February 1972 visit to China were a one-two punch that many assumed would prove mortal. However, Premier Chiang Ching-kuo presented to the Legislative Yuan on September 29, 1972 a set of “unchangeable principles” underpinning Taiwan’s foreign policy. These emphasized reinforcing Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships through directed trade and investment policies.
  • 1979-93 (The Deng Xiaoping period): Deng Xiaoping asserted that Taiwan (re)unification was on the “concrete policy agenda” and enunciated the “one-country, two-systems” formula. Taiwan consolidated its “economic miracle,” launched democratization and concomitantly expanded its “international breathing room” through membership in the Olympics, Asian Development Bank, APEC, and GATT/WTO. By 1990-91, Taiwan had become a significant economic player regionally and internationally. Taiwan emerged as the world’s second-largest holder, after Japan, of foreign exchange reserves; the seventh-largest investor in foreign economies; and the 14th largest trading nation by total volume. Conversely, Beijing found itself on the defensive: dealing with the ideological challenge posed by the collapse of the USSR and socialist camp; rethinking foreign policy options in the new post-Cold War environment; and under international economic sanctions and political pressure after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
  • 1993-2008 (The Lee Teng-hui/Chen Shui-bian presidencies): Beijing was unprepared for the new reality of Taiwan – democratizing, prosperous, confident, a Japanese-educated Taiwanese in the presidency, with waning attraction to the “one-China” principle and an emerging new identity. Deng Xiaoping, in physical decline and wounded politically by the June 1989 events, had stepped back from day-to-day supervision of China’s policy making. Jiang Zemin had assumed the post of party general secretary, but lacked experience, an independent national power base and credibility both at home and abroad. And so Beijing at the outset of the 1990s was hard-pressed to meet the new challenges Taiwan’s domestic evolution and external strategy posed to Beijing’s once-confident assumptions about the tide of history flowing inexorably toward peaceful reunification. Lee Teng-hui posed a robust challenge to China through “pragmatic” and “omnidirectional” diplomacy, assertion of Taiwan’s democratic values, wielding of economic muscle, renewed quest for new diplomatic partners and UN participation, and postulation of a “special state-to-state relationship” with China that effectively negated the “one-China principle.” By 2000, however, a marked shift of the international balance of power in Beijing’s direction had taken place. Nevertheless, Chen Shui-bian relied upon the Lee Teng-hui playbook without acknowledging Taiwan’s weakened competitive position, without bridging sharp political divisions in Taiwan, and without shoring up its diplomatic support in Washington and other major capitals.  China’s economic prowess strengthened through the 1990s and early 2000s, affording it an increasing ability to out-compete Taiwan in the battle for diplomatic recognition by paying out unmatchable sums of above-board, no-strings-attached development assistance and low-interest loans.
  • 2008-13 (Ma Jing-jeou’s presidency): Ma’s May 2008 inauguration brought a palpable sigh of relief in Beijing and an adjustment of its cross-strait policy and concomitant handling of Taiwan in its external relations. Beijing and Taipei inaugurated a cross-strait détente featuring economic accords and expanded contacts; agreed quietly upon a “diplomatic truce” that ended competition for diplomatic allies; halted the most blatant and odious forms of “checkbook diplomacy”; ended Taiwan’s annual application for UN membership; and permitted Taiwan’s expanded “international breathing room” via formal observer status in the UN World Health Organization and negotiation of free trade agreements with New Zealand and Singapore. While Beijing took satisfaction in Ma’s ending of Taiwan’s efforts to push the envelope toward international recognition of its independent status, it remains frustrated by Ma’s unwillingness or inability to move faster on its cross-strait political agenda. Negligible progress has pushed to the fore previously muted Chinese worries about core attitudes on the island, the prospect that the DPP could regain power, and the possibility that a DPP-led government might yet persuade foreign partners to support its pro-independence program.

            In sum, Taiwan held its own, against all odds, into the new millennium. Its success — on its own terms and by obliging Beijing to respond to its foreign policy initiatives — rested upon creative diplomacy, economic heft, international sympathy, U.S. backing, and China’s own self-inflicted wounds. In 2013 Beijing and Taipei are waging a more muted struggle in the international arena. But the battleground remains familiar. The two continue to thrust and parry over Taiwan’s legitimacy, sovereignty, foreign partnerships, and international breathing room. China’s strengths are obvious, its long-term strategy is in place, and most, including many in Taiwan, seem to believe that the game is over and China has won. China’s military capabilities – its 1500-1600 missiles poised to strike Taiwan, its modernizing air force and navy, its heavy investment in so-called “anti-access, area-denial” systems to deter Washington from considering intervention – illustrate for Taiwan’s leaders what could happen should cross-strait détente break down.

            Conversely, it has not been difficult to elicit private admissions of discouragement even from Taiwan’s elected political leaders and career foreign affairs professionals. Though they express confidence – or at least guarded hope – that the U.S. security pillar is secure and unshakable, they often admit in the next breath that Taiwan’s international position has steadily worsened, that Beijing holds the high cards, and that Taiwan presently lacks a promising long-term vision and strategy. Taiwan’s past resilience and adaptability have surprised outsiders and served it well. Few would have imagined in 1972 or 1979 that Taiwan’s de facto independence could endure another 3-4 decades. The question is whether the current correlation of forces suggests elements of a plausible winning strategy to avert undesired outcomes (e.g., military hostilities, unification on Beijing’s timing and terms, “Finlandization,” or international ostracism).

            Any Taiwan strategy to defend its continued separate existence will necessarily rest upon [1] international norms, [2] its record of international “good citizenship,” and [3] international constraints upon Beijing’s freedom of action. Relevant considerations and arguments include the following.

  • Right to Exist Apart from China. Taiwan is not without a compelling case “for the defense.” The ROC government has exercised sovereignty on the island for over six decades. The international community has broadly accepted the norm of political self-determination, even when in conflict with the norm of preserving established national boundaries and resulting in a new state of uncertain long-term viability.
  • Contributions to Global Public Goods. Taiwan has earned respect for its contributions to global public goods, adherence to global regimes and standards of conduct, and past generous contributions to international humanitarian assistance and economic development programs. Put simply, Taiwan behaves admirably in an “international stakeholder” role.
  • Diplomatic Partnerships.  Taiwan’s effort to retain its 23 diplomatic partners is a national security imperative: a means of playing defense against Beijing’s unremitting efforts to deny it international legitimacy and corresponding international breathing space, and thus a barrier to Beijing’s ability to achieve unification on its terms and schedule without international objection. Were the “diplomatic truce” to break down, Taiwan’s ability to maintain ties with even half of its current partners is questionable.
  • Unofficial International Relationships. Taiwan also maintains unofficial representative offices, trade offices and cultural missions in around 60 nations. Its representative offices, accurately perceived to function as quasi-embassies, are established in the capitals of all major world powers (excepting China). Taiwan holds formal membership in 32 international governmental organizations — including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and World Trade Organization (WTO) – and quasi-membership, according to official ROC reckoning, in another 22 bodies. In short, Taiwan is well positioned to conduct its business in the international arena.
  • International Breathing Space. Taipei continues to press vigorously, for reasons already mentioned, to regularize and expand its participation in UN-affiliated organizations as well as other international regimes and activities. It maintains that annual participation by its health minister in the World Health Assembly is no longer an issue. It seeks now to win analogous “observer” or full participating rights in such UN “technical” bodies as ICAO, IMO and the UN Climate Change conference. Its ability to do any of this hinges – is dependent – upon Beijing’s active good will.
  • Taiwan’s Soft Power Appeal in the International Community. Taiwan’s luster as “beacon for democracy” began to fade by the turn of the millennium. More precisely, arguments pitched to Taiwan’s successful democratization lost traction. China’s economy surged, its power increased, and its developmental-societal model proved seductive to many nations. Authoritarian regimes applauded China’s stance: non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, assistance without IMF-style conditionality, and insistence that western-style “democracy,” ill-suited to many societies, will spawn social chaos and political conflict. Taiwan today can point to few if any “diplomatic allies” much less prospective partners that are swayed by Taiwan’s normative arguments and example.
  • Taiwan’s Democracy: A Catalyst for Change in China? Taiwan today still advances the “catalyst” argument, but without great conviction. While the notion of “democratic contagion” is appealing, “reverse contagion” may yet be the outcome for China and Taiwan. Taiwan remains resilient but is on the defensive, treading water while awaiting a game-changing event that may never occur. Taiwan’s often messy democracy may not win the battle of ideas against authoritarian China’s pitch to patriotic pride, cultural traditions, social stability, rising living standards and, in new leader Xi Jinping’s signature slogan, fulfillment of the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation, wealth and power.
  • Taiwan’s Economy: Still Competitive, But Highly Dependent on China. The contemporary state of Taiwan’s economy invites debate over whether the glass is half full or half empty. Growth rates have slowed; wage and standard of living differentials have widened; a feasible route to continued global competitiveness has proven elusive; and concerns in Taiwan have deepened over the island’s increasing dependence on mainland markets and production facilities transferred to the mainland. Over 40% of Taiwan’s exports now go to the mainland: over a quarter to China, and another 15% to the Hong Kong SAR. On the other hand, Taiwan’s international trade and investment continue to be an effective selling point for the island’s importance in the regional and global economy.
  • Taiwan’s Foreign Assistance Programs. Taiwan shows an undiminished capability to contribute significantly to international public health, environmental protection, support of civil society, and other transnational challenges where international organizations and NGOs have a major role. But it can no longer compete with China, and has scaled back its programs accordingly.
  • Constraints on China’s Ability to Pressure Taiwan. As Beijing seeks to strike a policy balance that advances simultaneously its cross-strait and other national security objectives, it must take into account how its approach toward Taiwan factors into other nations’ assessments.  Beijing’s resort to coercive diplomacy or outright military force against Taiwan would be a wake-up call heard throughout East Asia and beyond. Conversely, Beijing’s de-emphasis on bellicose rhetoric and pressure for concrete steps toward unification will reassure its neighbors – especially those locked in long-standing territorial disputes – of its peaceful, cooperative intentions.  If China were no longer constrained by the need to focus on Taiwan, nations in the region must wonder if China will next turn its military capabilities on them.

Don Keyser, a retired U.S. State Department senior Foreign Service officer, is a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Nottingham China Policy Institute.

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