What are the prospects for a cross-Strait detente?

Matthew Fulco

In the past two years, predictions of the timing of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan have proliferated, ranging from the near future to 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China and the target year for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
It is implied that the annexation of Taiwan, which Beijing prefers to think of as “reunification,” must occur to consummate the middle kingdom’s restoration.
Four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan became the latest heavyweight to weigh in on the issue when a memo he prepared leaked in late January. He wrote of a gut feeling “that we will fight in 2025,” though he emphasized, “I hope I am wrong.” Minihan seems to expect political tumult ahead — the memo mentioned “a distracted America” — that could provide China with a window of opportunity to attack Taiwan. Both the U.S. and Taiwan will hold presidential elections in 2024.
Though the Chinese military exhibited an unprecedented show of force and has since operated closer to Taiwan than before then-U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, no evidence exists of an accelerated timeline for annexation.
On the contrary, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has since reiterated China’s focus on a peaceful, if coercive, resolution to what it calls “the Taiwan question.”
To be sure, the U.S. military has concluded that Xi wants China’s People’s Liberation Army to be capable of launching an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. But that is a target, not an expression of intent. A simple timeline will not decide whether Beijing ultimately resorts to force against Taiwan.
For all its gray-zone provocations of Taiwan, the Chinese leadership remains wary of the immense costs of a war and unlikely to launch one on a whim, especially when it has bigger priorities — from weathering a fierce COVID-19 storm to resuscitating the lockdown-battered economy to mitigating damage wrought by its now-muzzled “wolf warrior” diplomats.
But if Beijing felt that it had exhausted all nonmilitary options to recover Taiwan and had the capability to win a cross-Strait war, the risk of conflict would increase exponentially.
Both Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) understand that a sustained lack of cross-Strait dialogue increases the risk that Beijing will eventually give up on a peaceful settlement. Cross-Strait relations have been in a deep freeze for nearly seven years now.
It is partially for this reason that both parties have, in their own ways, quietly sought to lower tensions with Beijing in recent months.
As the less-Beijing skeptical of Taiwan’s two major political parties, the KMT has taken the lead on reaching out to China. The KMT began these efforts right after August’s live-fire drills, despite the inauspicious timing.
That vice chairman Andrew Hsia defied popular sentiment to travel to China shows how concerned the KMT was. During the trip, which was outwardly undertaken in support of Taiwanese businesspeople in China, Hsia met with Zhang Zhijun, Beijing’s point man on Taiwan.
Of Hsia’s visit, KMT chairman Eric Chu said in August: “This is not for the party itself, but for the good of Taiwan.”
Hsia’s controversial trip was reminiscent of the spring 2005 visit of then KMT chairman Lien Chan to China, dubbed the “ice-breaking journey” by Taiwan’s media. Lien made the trip shortly after China passed its Anti-Secession Law codifying the use of force against Taiwan if Beijing deems the island to be seceding.
Lien’s trip paved the way for ever-deeper KMT-CCP exchanges that circumvented Taiwan’s elected DPP government. The strategy paid off though: The KMT won the 2008 presidential election in a landslide.
The KMT continued to extend its olive branch in October, sending a congratulatory letter to the CCP on the first day of its 20th National Party Congress. The letter highlighted the 1992 consensus, the nebulous KMT-CCP understanding that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to the same entity, as well as opposition to Taiwan independence.
The KMT has found a receptive audience in Beijing. Speaking at a conference in December for cross-Strait entrepreneurs, China’s new No. 4, Wang Huning, expressed his hope that the businesspeople would “make continuous efforts to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, promote the peaceful and integrated development of cross-Strait relations and advance national reunification.”
The ruling party too has subtly shifted its tone on cross-Strait relations since its resounding defeat in the November local elections. Voters did not rebuke the DPP for its management of cross-Strait relations but rather its pandemic policies, which overpromised — Taiwan initially pursued “zero-COVID” – and ultimately devastated many small businesses.
Still, the DPP realizes that many aspects of its governance will come under greater scrutiny now that it is politically vulnerable and election season is approaching. With the economy forecast to grow less than 3% this year, the slowest rate since 2018, some Taiwanese may question whether less trade with China — the reality when the DPP is in power — is the way to go.
It is no wonder that President Tsai Ing-wen in her New Year speech called on Beijing to resume talks with Taipei. She spoke of her hopes that people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can resume exchanges “in an orderly manner” this year and also offered to help China deal with its COVID-19 surge.
Even Xi Jinping seems a bit more conciliatory these days. He spoke of Taiwan in convivial terms during his New Year address, saying that people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait “are members of one and the same family.” Nor did his speech mention bringing Taiwan under China’s control.
In line with Xi’s softer Taiwan tone, China in late January scrapped its import ban on Kinmen Kaoliang sorghum liquor following a meeting between Taiwan Affairs Office Director Sung Tao and Kinmen County magistrate Chun Fu-hai. Kaoliang is the Taiwan-controlled outlying archipelago’s biggest export and popular with Chinese sorghum liquor aficionados.
The stakes are unusually high for Taiwan’s next presidential election in May 2024. Never have U.S.-China relations and cross-Strait relations both been so strained with Taiwan going to the ballot box.
The winner will have to play a weak hand against a China that is militarily stronger than ever and unwavering in its determination to bring Taiwan under its control.
The likely DPP candidate, Vice President Lai Ching-te, has stoked controversy in Washington for his alleged “deep-green” (strongly pro-independence) leanings, best encapsulated by his statement in 2017 that he is “a political worker for Taiwan independence.”
He recently clarified his stance, saying that Taiwan has no need to declare independence because it is already an independent and sovereign nation. He added that the Republic of China, Taiwan’s formal name, and the PRC are not subordinate to each other.
This viewpoint aligns neatly with mainstream political opinion in Taiwan. Indeed, only a fraction of voters believe that Taiwan is a province subordinate to Beijing.
How Lai would handle the tense cross-Strait relationship remains uncertain though. Lai lacks Tsai’s experience in the area; she was a senior adviser to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council from 1994-1998 and its chair from 2000-2004, while he is best known for serving as the mayor of the southern city of Tainan.
Of the two likely KMT candidates, party chairman Eric Chu and New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih, Chu has more experience engaging with China. Chu traveled to Beijing in 2015 to meet with Xi, which likely helped pave the way for then President Ma Ying-jeou’s historic meeting with the Chinese leader later that year in Singapore.
Hou, however, is the more popular of the two politicians. Some polls show him defeating Lai. None so far show Chu doing so.
Regardless, the DPP faces an uphill battle to win the presidency for a third consecutive time. Since Taiwan fully democratized in 1996, no party has ever accomplished that feat.
It will be even harder for the DPP to win if the economy continues its downward trajectory. Gross domestic product declined 0.86% annually in the fourth quarter of 2022, the first contraction in nearly seven years. Lukewarm demand for electronics exports, the backbone of Taiwan’s economy, was the culprit.
That said, China has a history of ramping up its intimidation of Taiwan during election season, which helps the DPP make the case that the party tougher on China is the best one to lead the country. Should Beijing repeat that behavior this year, it could cause the KMT to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — and ironically worsen the prospects of cross-Strait detente.