Cross-Strait Relations: De-coding What’s “New” for the New Year?

Written by Raian Hossain.

Image credit: 今日海峽/ Facebook.

An opportunity for reconciliation?

Cross-Strait relations, which includes the question over the Republic of China (ROC), often known as Taiwan, is one of the pressing and geopolitical risks of 2023 and the upcoming years. Despite the complex triangular US-China-Taiwan relations have never been very smooth, the increase in the frequency and intensity of hiccups over the last decade gives rise to the question of peace and stability across the region. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) position on the Russian invitation to Ukraine, along with frequent military power displays following the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022, is making the other side of the strait rethink their policymaking. The frequent dispatching of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) naval vessels and fighter jets across the unofficial median line of the Taiwan Strait (not recognised by Beijing) reflects the PRC’s zero-tolerance policy regarding the question of Taiwan. Despite such heightened tension in cross-strait relations across 2022, President Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen have delivered their English and Lunar new year speeches, showing signs of certain tolerance and a softer tone toward each other. The message from both sides of the Taiwan Strait is not random but rather driven by political objectives and motives likely to determine the cross-Strait relations in the upcoming years. Although speeches by President Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen cover numerous angles, this article uses some specific lenses of the Politics of Security, the local and presidential election of Taiwan, and pandemic politics while de-coding the Cross-strait relations for the near future.

The Politics of Security and its Danger 

Over the last few years, the incursion of Taiwan’s Air Defence Zone by fighters from the PRC has become a frequent practice rather than occasional. In addition, the PRC has conducted live heavy military drills and implemented targeted economic measures that have significantly impacted Taiwan’s defence and security policies. President Tsai referred to these changes in global politics, which have created regional challenges and insecurities, in her speeches for both the English and Lunar New Year. These provided her with the ground to justify her government’s military realignment plan, including the increased mandatory military service for younger men and better reserve force readiness. Many believe that such a step by the outgoing DPP leader will likely impact the party’s popularity in the upcoming presential election in 2024; despite such concerns, policy changes reflect the urgent necessity.

Also, President Tsai recognised ROC’s armed forces for safeguarding the self-governed Island in her new year messages. This public recognition on both occasions provides a moral boost for the armed forces and all islanders equally. Not only that, her messages explained that the ultimate solution to cross-strait tensions is not through war but via dialogues, discussion, and mutual understanding, showing mutual respect toward President Xi’s softer new year message. Therefore, it emphasised the need and kept the doors open for high-level talks, which have been curtailed since the Tsai-led Democratic Progressive Party was in power. However, without a proper dialogue channel, with Chinese vessels or military aircraft crossing the median line frequently while ROC’s armed forces take certain precautions, these might create a ground for unintended escalation or conflict.

Moreover, when any tension is escalated, there is no established conflict mediation channel or a trusted third party leading the de-escalation. Although President Xi had a softer tone in the new year’s messages regarding cross-strait issues, Beijing’s diplomatic and military-led message is clear toward Taiwan and its biggest ally, the US. Despite facing greater resistance from Beijing, Washington has managed to sell US$1.96 million worth of arms in 2022 and pass Taiwan Policy Act approving approximately US$4.5 security assistance toward Taipei over the next four years. The role of the US remains an important determinant for the cross-strait security dynamics in the upcoming years. However, the question being raised is how useful Washington’s strategic ambiguity is still applicable in deterring Beijing. 

From Taiwan’s Local & Presidential Elections to Cross-Strait Relations 

Another important lens for understanding the softer tone of President Xi’s new year messages toward Taiwan can be interpreted via the dynamics of Taiwan’s domestic politics. In the local elections held in late 2022, the ruling DDP suffered an unexpected defeat to The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, Kuomintang), which reflects a certain change in Taiwan’s voting pattern towards the KMT, the party considered to be closer to the PRC. Although the aspects and dynamics of local and presidential elections tend to be quite different, the PRC surely does not want to frustrate people in Taiwan with its sweeping offensive statements, which would help increase the vote bank for the DPP. Instead, it can be seen as a calculated move from the PRC to have a softer tone in words while keep pressing the ROC under military threat continuously. While Tsai’s government continues to have a rocky relationship with the PRC, the situation can be used by the KMT to showcase and frame that the politics of the DPP is pushing Taiwan towards instability and a war-like situation. Also, unlike last time, President Xi wanted to avoid making a similar mistake of taking an offensive stand while trying to exert pressure on the DPP government after local election results and miscalculating it. Therefore, a change in presidential position from the DPP to KMT is much desired by the PRC, which significantly would change cross-strait relations. The good mutual partnership to materialise in the upcoming Taiwan presidential election between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is evident as the KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia led a delegation to the PRC that the CCP widely welcomed in early February 2023. Therefore, domestic politics will likely have a greater impact on cross-strait dynamics in 2023 and beyond.

Pandemic Politics or Buying International Prestige? 

Another important aspect of de-coding while analysing both presidents’ new year speeches about cross-strait relations is the continuing impact of Covid-19. Despite being late but realising it ultimately, the PRC departed from its zero Covid policy, which resulted in a significant spike in the number of cases in late 2022. This itself placed the PRC government in some image crisis not only internally but also globally. While the PRC is battling to overcome such pandemic difficulties, President Tsai’s offering help to Beijing is itself a newspaper headline topic. This helps boost and improve the image of the self-ruled Island, be it on the humanitarian ground, while at the same time earning international prestige. Especially coming at a time when cross-strait relations are probably at one of the lowest points in the last few years; hence, offering help to Beijing in such a situation helps uplift Taipei’s international image. Not only limited to combating Covid-19, but it also denotes that despite limitless difficulties and differences, there is space for actors on both sides of the strait to work toward common and shared challenges in 2023 and beyond.

Strategic moves can’t guarantee long-term peace

This article argues that despite President Xi and Tsai having shown a softer tone comparatively than usual in their English and Lunar New Year messages, they are driven by strategic political objectives. Due to the lack of any high-level communication channel and trusted third-party mediator, tensions can easily escalate as there has been an increase in military presence from either side of the strait. Also, the domestic party politics and the presidential election of Taiwan in 2024 will be an important determinant of how cross-strait relations will shape up in the upcoming days. Cross-strait dynamics can either turn bitter or improve significantly depending on Taiwan’s presidential election of 2024. Besides cross-strait dynamics and partnership with its biggest security guarantor, the US, Taiwan would further seek to buy international prestige and soft corner mostly from likely-minded partners.

Raian Hossain is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Politics and International Relations of the University of Nottingham (UK). Mr Hossain is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Global Studies and Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh. His research interests include China & South Asia, Cross-Strait Relations, Indo-Pacific Affairs, South Asian Politics, Politics and Foreign Policy of Bangladesh.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Cross-Straits relations 2023’.

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