A hungry dragon

As its economy cools, Taiwan warms ever so slightly to Beijing. By Steve Tsang Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang took office last May, elected on a platform that promised the easing of tension with China, in part to help bolster Taiwan’s flagging economy. Since then, the economic outlook has grown dimmer: Taiwan’s GDP ...

586254_090430_taiwan12.jpg
586254_090430_taiwan12.jpg

As its economy cools, Taiwan warms ever so slightly to Beijing.

By Steve Tsang

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang took office last May, elected on a platform that promised the easing of tension with China, in part to help bolster Taiwan’s flagging economy. Since then, the economic outlook has grown dimmer: Taiwan’s GDP is expected to shrink 3 to 7 percent this year. Already, Ma’s administration has held three rounds of high-level talks with Beijing, and the two sides reached an agreement on April 26 to forge closer economic ties and air links. The rapprochement is not, from Beijing’s angle, entirely based on altruism. China is cleverly taking advantage of Taiwan’s weakness to interlace the two economies and make it more difficult and costly for a future Taiwanese government to push for de jure independence.

Since the United States switched recognition from Taiwan (as Republic of China) to mainland China in 1979, Taiwan, China, and the United States have maintained an awkward but stable triangular relationship. Beijing wants Taiwan to “rejoin” mother China at the lowest possible cost but will eventually use force to achieve this if necessary. Taiwan will not give up its independence without a fight, though it prefers to avoid one. The United States, meanwhile, does not wish to see its most successful postwar protégé being swallowed up by an authoritarian state run by the Chinese Communist Party, and it prefers to achieve this by preempting any cross-strait confrontation that may require it to interfere.

The new warmth between Taipei and Beijing doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of the triangle, but it does alter the atmospherics. China thinks it can put the Taiwan issue on the back burner, given that it has won a significant battle already, and allow Taiwan to join the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s governing body, as an observer. That’s something Beijing had resisted in the past because it did not trust previous Taiwanese administrations not to use the assembly as a means to enlarge Taiwan’s representation in the international community. The United States sees its role as moderator much diminished because it no longer has to rein back Taiwanese leaders from making statements that China sees as belligerent, and possibly unwittingly provoking an unequal war.

As for Taipei, while the Ma administration tries to make as much economic and political capital out of the agreement, it faces a delicate task: maintaining a degree of momentum in improving cross-strait ties without putting Taiwan’s own security at risk in the long term. Ironically, the easing of tension presents Taiwan with a security dilemma: As the threat from China appears to recede, it will be more difficult to procure desperately needed weapons systems without a clear enemy to justify them. Taiwan requires another batch of 66 U.S.-made F-16 fighters to replace its aging F-5s. It needs small diesel submarines to make the Taiwan Strait and the East China coast unsafe for the Chinese Navy, so that the United States will be more likely to dispatch carrier battle groups to waters east of Taiwan in the event of a confrontation with China.

In reaching their recent agreement, China and Taiwan have stuck mostly to low-hanging fruits. Further progress will require tackling more sensitive and controversial political and diplomatic issues, including allowing Taiwan greater scope for official representation in the international community. And the success or failure of these talks could mean a great deal for Taiwan’s future security and independence. For Taiwan, China is a very greedy neighbor.

Steve Tsang is the Louis Cha fellow in modern Chinese studies and university reader in politics at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. He is the author or editor of 14 books, the latest of which is Taiwan and the International Community
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Photo: SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

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