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News | April 7, 2024

Rising to the Challenge: Taiwan's Response to a New Era China

By Chen-Dong Tso Working Paper

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The Tsai administration’s cross-Strait policy has three core elements. First, it aims to eliminate the Kuomintang’s (KMT) political appeal in Taiwan so that the Chinese Communist Pary (CCP) is forced to accept the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as its only negotiation counterpart and to do so on DPP terms. Second, it aims to shift the priority in external engagement from Mainland China to the United States to mitigate the negative impact of a souring cross-Strait relationship on Taiwan’s autonomy. Third, it tries not to explicitly challenge the “one China” position as embodied by the Republic of China (ROC) constitution to maintain stability across Taiwan Strait. Tsai’s cross-Strait policy can be considered as interactions between these three elements. Taiwan’s response to the CCP during the Tsai-Xi era can be divided into four issue-areas: sovereignty contention, diplomatic competition, military muscle-flexing, and people-to-people exchange. The CCP’s approach in these areas is centered around weakening Taiwan’s sovereign statehood. This fact is essential to understand Taiwan’s response. Nonetheless, the Tsai administration also sometimes took initiatives to reinforce Taiwan’s sovereignty. Among the four issue areas, Taiwan was relatively proactive in sovereignty contention and people-to-people exchanges, where it had more room for maneuver, and relatively reactive in diplomatic competition and military tension, where it was more constrained.

The dramatic rise in rivalry between the United States and China brought a fundamental shift to the chessboard and helped Taiwan compensate for losses in the diplomatic competition with improvements in relations with the United States. In response, Mainland China heightened its military coercion to stop any significant breakthroughs Taiwan makes in U.S.-Taiwan relations from creating snowball effects that might dismantle the “one China” structure worldwide. Any thoughtful explanation of cross-Strait interactions should take a holistic view and not narrow its focus to any single part of the causal chain. The incoming Lai administration has stated its intent to continue the Tsai administration’s cross-Strait policies. A major factor will be the improvement in U.S.-China relations, which will likely reduce military pressure on Taiwan but will also reduce U.S. ability to help Taiwan retain its diplomatic allies. The Lai administration will have opportunities to improve people-to-people ties, but contention with Mainland China over Taiwan sovereignty is likely to continue unabated.

This is the second in a series of working papers from the CAPS-RAND-NDU-USIP conference series, intended to make policy-relevant findings available in a timely manner.