China and Taiwan’s Complex Ties Continue to Spiral Downwards in New Year of the Rooster

By Matthew Yang.

In most cultures around the world, the days leading up to the New Year are typically fraught with anticipation and excitement, for the New Year heralds the possibility of a new beginning, with the inherent promise of change and growth. The same is usually true for the Lunar New Year, celebrated by those on both sides of the Taiwan Strait; despite their long-standing political differences, the people of mainland China and Taiwan share a common heritage, culture and language.

However, this year, in January 2017, the navy of the People’s Liberation Army, without any clear forewarning and explanation, sent their one and only aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – across the Strait separating Taiwan from the mainland, accompanied by several warships.

The three ships, which were sailing northwest, ended their voyage at Hainan Island, and while no hostilities broke out, the Taiwanese government immediately mobilized its ships and jets as a possible precaution. This not only caused considerable alarm throughout the Taiwanese public, but also drew the attention of other regional and world powers, including Taiwan’s two closest allies and security partners – Japan and the United States.

The People’s Republic of China (government of the mainland), has so far been involved in three “strait crises”, in which tensions were drastically raised between it and the Taiwanese government (the Republic of China). The Second Strait Crisis in 1958 resulted in a brief armed conflict which cost both sides roughly 450 lives each, while the third and last one, which ended in March 1996, was only defused with the intervention of the United States Seventh Fleet.

While China-Taiwan politics have always been extremely complicated, ever since Taiwan became a democracy in the late years of the Cold War, the mainland government has always favored the right-leaning and more traditional Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China. The main reason behind this is – the ‘Blue Party’ is open to a possible eventual reunification of the two countries, which would be hugely beneficial to Beijing’s economic and security interests.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), or the ‘Green Party’, on the other hand, is left-leaning and progressive, calling for closer ties with the United States and Japan. It is a harsher critic of mainland China’s purported human rights violations, and supports declaring independence from China as a potential option, should that be the will of the Taiwanese people.

The United States, despite no longer having any formal relations with the Taiwanese government, has worked with both parties whenever either one has won the Presidential election in Taiwan, although it officially opposes any change in the tenuous status quo on both sides of the Strait. Most recently, the DPP managed to regain power after many years with the decisive victory of Taiwan’s new President, Tsai Ing-wen, incidentally the first women ever to be elected to the office.

China, for its own part, has made no small secret in voicing its unease and displeasure at the development, telling the United States in no uncertain terms that its historic “One-China Policy” established decades ago is non-negotiable, and also unsuccessfully urging it to stop President Tsai from touring U.S. cities on diplomatic visits to several of Taiwan’s few remaining Latin American allies in December 2016. Tsai has since met with Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott in Houston, Texas, prompting an influential Chinese daily to warn of “revenge” against what it seemingly regards as deeply provocative moves.

The stunning election of the new U.S. President, who has held little restraint in his vocal attacks against what he perceives to be unjust trade and currency manipulation by China, further raises many questions on the future of U.S.-Taiwan and Taiwan-China relations. The decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai merely weeks before her trip to Central America via the United States has not been lost on officials in both the U.S. and China.

Trump has recently called the “One-China Policy” into question, claiming that the U.S. was “hurt very badly by China with devaluation”, and has further expressed anger over the PRC’s apparent inaction over its belligerent ally North Korea’s nuclear program and its controversial moves in the South China Sea.

Steve Bannon, the President’s closest advisor and chief strategist, stated earlier this year that there is “no doubt” that the two major powers will clash over the South China Sea within the next five to ten years. Last month, in his confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson also harshly compared China’s construction of artificial islands within the hotly contested body of water to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and argued that the U.S. should block access to the islands.

While some officials in Russia are allegedly satisfied with the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election believing that it could lead to a possible thaw in sanctions on their nation (which were imposed by Obama in concord with the European Union), their Chinese counterparts have been more careful and ambivalent in their reactions to the new conservative and increasingly nationalist administration heading the United States.

In short, while the recent victories of the U.S. GOP and Taiwan’s DPP may in fact lead to further expansion and growth of democratic relations between the United States and Taiwan, it may conversely cost Taiwan and the U.S. dearly in their respective future engagements with mainland China.

According to the Chinese Zodiac, many roosters, despite their activity and popularity in a crowd, are vain and boastful; they enjoy the spotlight and expect others to listen to them while they speak, often becoming agitated when they do not. Let us all hope that in 2017, all sides and all parties, regardless of their commonalities and differences, speak just a little less and listen just a little more.

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