Shadow Government

Will the ‘One China’ Policy Survive the New Taiwan?

Tsai Ing-wen's landslide victory could have far-reaching implications for the relationship between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. And Beijing might not be happy about that.


Over the weekend, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive (DPP) Party, was elected as the country’s president in a landslide. Her party also decisively won the legislature for the first time in the Republic of China’s short democratic history.

The outcome was significant and could have ramifications for both the country’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China, as well as the United State’s relationship with the region. Here are a few implications to consider:

1) Democracy works in Taiwan. This sounds trite but is worth repeating, particularly because democracy’s global reputation has taken more than a few hits. But consider Taiwan’s recent political history: in 2008 the Taiwanese people had enough of DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s rocky relationship with both China and the United States and handed the reigns of power to KMT leader Ma Ying Jeou. In turn, Ma’s conciliatory China policy combined with sclerotic economic and political reform resulted in widespread popular dissatisfaction, and his party suffered a resounding defeat at the polls. Just three decades ago these peaceful transfers of power would have been unthinkable.

2) Political Demography is changing Taiwan. It is notable that first-time Taiwanese voters were born in 1996, 47 years after the “mainlander” Chinese came to the island as refugees from the civil war. In the ensuing decades the distinction between mainlander and “native” — those of Chinese descent who had been on the island for hundreds of years — has all but disappeared. There are thus very few citizens from the Republic of China who have any emotional dedication to the idea the Taiwan and China are part of One China. Instead, the Taiwan-China relationship is developing some parallels to the “Anglosphere,” in which people recognize a common heritage but not a unified sovereign.

3) The “One China” construct is in ever greater conflict with reality. The Sino-U.S. “acknowledgement” that there is “one China” of which both peoples across the Strait are a part was a useful diplomatic fiction that helped hasten the U.S.-China rapprochement in 1979. This fiction allowed for great strides in Sino-U.S. relations and has helped avoid conflict across the Strait. But now that the vast majority of Taiwanese are rejecting the idea, it is time for all parties to conceive of more realistic and enduring formulations.

4) Xi Jinping and his lieutenants are in no mood to change tack on One China. The greatest danger across the Strait and maybe even to political stability in Asia is Beijing’s hostility to any new diplomatic approach to Taiwan. With the KMT ousted from power Xi missed his last has best chance to codify the principle of one China for a new era. The Chinese Communist Party’s leadership knows that the only way that unification can be achieved is through force and coercion. As such, the big strategic question is: Will Xi settle for less than unification and, if not, can China be deterred from forcing it?

5) Creative diplomacy is badly needed. Washington needs to get itself out of its current policy straightjacket and try to convince China to do the same. Diplomacy must align with reality: no one is going to persuade a new generation of Taiwanese that Beijing is sovereign over the island. More optimistically, history is replete with examples of countries with common heritages peacefully parting ways, or joining together in some form when peoples from both countries provide their democratic assent (e.g., the British Commonwealth as an example of the former or unified Germany as an example of the latter). Given the absence of political liberty in China and its aggressive mood, this is diplomacy for the long term. In the meantime, the United States needs to maintain a deterrent that includes the acceleration of an improved Taiwanese deterrent. A balance of power across the Strait must be reestablished with some urgency so that the temptation by China to force political change is removed.

6) President-elect Tsai’s most important task will be reform. Taiwan has survived geopolitical shocks as well as turbulence within China by committing itself to reform. The small island has little control over its external environment but internal changes in the past have always vastly improved its strategic position. Under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo in concert with the then dissidents of the DPP Taiwan become a democracy. Sound government policy and private entrepreneurship helped Taiwan become a market force and high-tech powerhouse.

In many ways, however, the island is still living off of these post-Cold War reforms. Tsai must lead a new round reform that strengthens democratic processes, frees up the economy, (as partially outlined in this 2012 American Enterprise Institute report), and by creating a high-tech military deterrent. A truly committed program of reform will secure Taiwan’s place in 21st century geopolitics as it rides the waves of China’s policy turbulence.

The election of Tsai should be viewed as more opportunity than challenge. Washington, Beijing, and Taipei can begin more forthright and creative discussions about Taiwan’s future, a process that can bring about greater stability. And Taiwan has the chance to deepen its democracy and market economy — an effort that will lead to even greater respect and participation in the liberal world order.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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