Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

Taiwan’s political atmosphere is growing more fervid as its general election draws nearer and there is growing momentum in Washington for judging that Beijing’s bullying of Taiwan is escalating at intolerable rates. While the US and China are engaged in a frenzied trade war, the hawkish faction of President Donald Trump’s administration is happy to exert pressure on China through Taiwan, even using it as a bargaining chip on the negotiating table, hence a series of legislation friendly to Taiwan has emerged.

The recent development in the trilateral relationship has occurred against the backdrop of rapidly deteriorating US-China relations and heightened tensions in cross-Strait relations. In particular, it’s worth reviewing a few recent reports regarding Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen adroitly manipulating the cross-Strait issue and adding yet another point of tension to already deteriorating Sino-US relations. Tsai would do well to stop provoking Beijing, lest it trigger dark clouds over the Taiwan Strait.

From the perspective of the current US political ecology, the rise of China to all-out confrontation has been the consensus of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The US-China trade war has shaped a “new normal,” coupled with the hawks being on the upswing inside the Trump administration, so US officials are of course happy to play the Taiwan card, hitting Beijing’s most sensitive nerves.

The Trump administration has been playing the Taiwan card based on US national interests, but from Taiwan’s standpoint, the national interests of the Republic of China might be embroiled in intractable risk. The Tsai government cannot be ignorant of this logic, but because of its Taiwan-independence ideology and the selfish workings of the interests of political parties being higher than the national interests, it has endlessly, in rhetoric and policies, ratcheted up anti-China strength. In recent months, such operations have become especially obvious. Tsai has frequently manipulated cross-Strait relations as a bargaining chip in her bid for re-election, leaving Taiwan to move closer to a perilous situation of war.

As Taiwan prepares for presidential and legislative elections in January, the Taiwan issue remains one of the most complex, controversial, and even dangerous policy dilemmas facing the US Congress and Trump administration. This trend is likely to continue to elicit greater rhetorical vitriol from Beijing.

To be a leader, Tsai must face squarely the many constant as well as variable factors confronted by Taiwan and introduce corresponding countermeasures. She must ascertain Taiwan’s relations with the world; several external relationships are 100% ascertained, one of which is the fact that Taiwan cannot avoid being affected by Beijing. At the beginning of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping advocated exploring the policy of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan; Tsai, on the other hand, lambasted China.

It’s obvious that Beijing will not abandon its “one country, two systems” proposal as a modus vivendi for returning Taiwan to the big dome of China. After straying from the 1992 Consensus, Tsai must ponder how to rebuild her basis for dialogue with China.

Observing the Tsai government’s recent cross-Strait statements, policies, and legislative program, none is deployed within the network of three safeguards, that is, people’s livelihood security, information security, and democratic oversight. These measures, in fact, are not related to national dignity, not beneficial to cross-Strait relations, nor conducive to Taiwan’s security; they only limit the constitutional rights of citizens in a disproportionate manner. In sum, Tsai has directly turned the deployment of cross-Strait relations into a tool of the presidential election campaign.

Under Xi, China has pursued a more assertive foreign policy through increased aggression in cross-Strait relations. In his New Year’s address, Xi called for peaceful reunification, but also warned: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” The rhetoric, coupled with Beijing’s reforms for the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization and military drills in the Taiwan Strait, has led some to speculate that China may be planning to compel the reunification Taiwan with the mainland at some point.

Tsai’s cross-Strait policy must be based on determinant factors and not on its own subjective expectations. Now that she has won the Democratic Progressive Party primary, she should pull up the stature in her electoral campaign, and ponder how to regain the goodwill in the past, in order to find an outlet for Taiwan, and in a way, respond to Xi’s Taiwan program for “one country, two systems.” This is not only an electoral battle, but a page of history; President Tsai will sign her name to the merits and demerits in this page.

The PLA has recently started two large-scale military drills close to the Taiwan Strait amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington and as Tsai ramps up her pro-independence narratives to muster public support ahead of next year’s vote. Whatever the outcome of the latest twist in broad US-China relations, the Taiwan issue will continue to rankle.

As long as Tsai remains in power, the potential for a conflict over Taiwan’s future status will dangerously endure and it is conceivable that will provoke a broader conflict between Beijing and Washington. Deteriorating Sino-US relations and heightened cross-Strait tensions are mutually reinforcing. As far as Taiwan is concerned, 23 million people cannot forever blindly consider China as a foe. If the two sides of the Strait remain in confrontation, then we could not but question that the Tsai government was seeking war.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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