(Analysis) Tensions across the Taiwan Strait: Is the 1992 Consensus Permanently Lost?

(Analysis) Tensions across the Taiwan Strait: Is the 1992 Consensus Permanently Lost?

Kareem Salem
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait: Is the 1992 Consensus permanently lost?
General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Source: Getty Images

The relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) is one of the most contentious issues in international politics. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers Taiwan, located only 200 kilometers off the Chinese mainland, to be an integral part of the Chinese territory and should be reunited with the mainland. Over recent years Beijing has sharply increased its military incursions across the Taiwan Strait. This has prompted the weekly news magazine The Economist to name the self-ruled democratic island as the most dangerous place on earth in May 2021.

The “1992 Consensus” has long been regarded as the roadmap for cross-strait political dialogue. The agreement signed in Hong Kong between the CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT) – the party that traditionally defends a Chinese identity across the island – provided both sides to agree on the existence of only “One China,” though the KMT insists that it can hold “distinct interpretations” of One China. The 1992 Consensus was first formally instituted under KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016. This political development sparked an unprecedented rapprochement, leading to the signing of agreements in the areas of tourism, trade and education. It also marked the first-ever gathering of both sides’ leaders since the Chinese civil war, with Ma meeting Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015 – roughly two months before Taiwan’s 2016 general election.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait: Is the 1992 Consensus permanently lost?
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

But in reality, the stability of the bilateral relationship brought considerable tensions across the ROC’s social landscape. Unpopularity with the younger generation who are increasingly concerned about the erosion of the hard-won noble values of self-determination and democracy achieved during the 1980s and 1990s openly protested in early 2014 against deepening cross-strait economic integration. For instance, hundreds of student protesters physically occupied Taiwan’s national legislature.

With growing disillusionment by young Taiwanese with the Ma administration’s CCP engagement policy, young activists were jolted to vote against the KMT in the 2016 general election, thereby leading to the election of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) majority in the Legislative Yuan. In moving away from the engagement policies of her predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, a former academic, has sought to relegate relations with the PRC to the periphery in favor of greater ties with liberal democratic countries. This has led to unprecedented cross-strait tensions, resulting in the PRC conducting increasingly frequent military and cyber-warfare activities over the Taiwan Strait each year.

Expanding International Support

The 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections have ushered a new era in Taiwanese politics. As the first female President of the ROC, Tsai has consistently slammed the CCP on various issues, such as the suppression of basic freedoms in Hong Kong. She has thus become Xi Jinping’s bête noire, the impediment to his “historic mission” to reunify Taiwan with mainland China and erase the “century of humiliation” – period of intervention and subjugation of the Qing dynasty and Taiwan by Western powers and Japan from 1839 to 1949. As a result, the PRC has ratcheted up its campaign to diminish the ROC’s international standing by poaching its diplomatic allies, particularly in Latin America and the South Pacific.

In the face of the CCP’s multifaceted campaign to subvert Taiwan, the Tsai administration has sought to accelerate deeper bilateral military ties with the United States. The military relationship with the world’s leading superpower is indeed broad and deep, despite the commitment of several American administrations to the One China policy. Ever since diplomatic ties with the ROC were severed in 1979, the United States has maintained a political commitment to Taiwan under the rubric of the Taiwan Relations Act, which authorizes continued commercial defense relations between Washington and Taipei. American administrations from 1979 to 2016 have nevertheless sought to deal with the Taiwan issue with great caution and subtlety.  

But amidst the CCP’s geostrategic quest to reorganize the Indo-Pacific region to its advantage, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to strengthen security ties with Taiwan. There is the geographical fact that the ROC is one of the most important linkages in the United States’ First Island Chain strategy – a strategic blueprint for maritime containment conceptualized initially during the Cold War as the first line of defense to contain the expanding influence of the Soviet Union and its socialist allies in East and Southeast Asia. The ROC is the largest landmass between Japan and the Philippines, and thus anchors a chain of islands that American strategists have considered critical to containing the PRC’s access to the Pacific.

In working to deepen bilateral security ties, President Tsai notably held a cordial ten-minute conversation with President-elect Donald Trump in early December 2016 – an unprecedented move for a future American president to converse with the ROC’s top leader. A broader push by the Trump administration to enhance relations with the self-governing, democratic island then became evident when the American State Department approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to the ROC during the Republican administration’s first months in office. With confrontation with the PRC a key pillar of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, with days left in office, his administration brusquely lifted American government rules that prohibited interactions between United States and Taiwanese diplomats. 

Joe Biden’s Democrats have upheld this hard line by authorizing American-led multilateral military exercises southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa. Each backdrop has spurred the PRC to step up the scale of its military activity along the Taiwan Strait. After a series of major American naval exercises southeast of the East China Sea in October, the PRC notably responded by sending 52 warplanes, 36 fighter jets and 12 nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone – testing the resolve of the Taiwanese military and the willingness of the Biden political team to respond. The Biden administration subsequently reacted by boosting arms sales to the Tsai administration: in June, the United States reinforced the ROC’s combat readiness by approving a $120 million sale of naval equipment.

More recently, in an interview with an American media outlet, President Biden reiterated his engagement to defend the democratically governed island – the most explicit to date about committing American troops to protect the ROC.

Other senior level Democrats have held high-profile meetings with Taiwanese decision-makers. In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conducted a series of political meetings with senior ROC government officials, making the Carolina representative the highest-ranking American government official to visit the island in 25 years.

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (L) with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential office in Taipei. Source: Taiwan Presidential Office via AFP

The Tsai administration has capitalized on the growing rift between the PRC and European countries. Following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), the China’s diplomatic efforts to publicize its medical aid, together with the aggressive diplomacy of Chinese diplomats in European Union (EU) member states targeting and exaggerating the difficulties of European countries in combating the outbreak and resolving the health crisis, have significantly contributed to an increasingly tense bilateral relationship.

Amid the volatility in the Sino-European political relationship, the Tsai administration has extended its diplomatic engagement with EU states. In December 2020, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry announced the official opening of a second representative office in Aix-en-Provence – which amounts in essence to a de facto consulate. In November 2021, Taiwan opened a de facto embassy in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. In the wake of this event, the Tsai administration pledged to set up a $1 billion credit fund to finance Lithuanian projects to fend off the PRC’s diplomatic pressure on the Baltic nation. Taiwan and Lithuania are particularly considering enhancing cooperation across the semiconductor industry. The Taiwan Semiconductor Research Institute (TSRI) will notably share its know-how to help the Baltic nation develop its semiconductor expertise.

The ROC’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, has conducted several bilateral meetings with counterparts from Central European countries. In October 2021, Minister Wu held diplomatic meetings with Czech and Slovak foreign ministers to boost cooperation on cybersecurity and green technology.

This dynamic is crucial for the Tsai administration efforts to legitimize its sovereignty and rebut the Chinese mainland’s assertion that Taiwan is merely a renegade province of the PRC. Behind the warm words, Taipei is hopeful that increased high-level contacts and cooperation will ensure that Western liberal democracies fulfil the ROC’s political aspiration: to increase its membership and participation in international organizations in order to strengthen its sovereignty legitimacy globally.

PRC to Maintain Strategic Patience

Behind the Russian Federation’s illegal and premeditated war in Ukraine, it is easy to surmise that President Xi will launch a swift attack on Taiwan – given the Pentagon’s immediate focus on strengthening the offensive and defensive military capabilities of the Ukrainian army.

Even though President Xi successfully ratified his authority for a historic third term following the 20th Party congress, an invasion of Taiwan would nevertheless be politically and economically perilous for the regime. In recent months, the CCP has been confronted with a significant decline in its macroeconomic results. Last spring, the world’s second largest economy experienced a spike in Covid-19 infection rates, leading authorities to tighten health measures. In conform with its “zero Covid” policy, main urban centers like Shenzhen, Beijing, and especially Shanghai, the country’s economic capital, experienced drastic lockdown measures. These restrictions to business activity, combined with a  residential property sector at growing risk of collapsing, have had a heavy impact on economic indicators: youth unemployment (18-24 years) reached 19.3%, industrial production stagnated at 3.9% and sales dropped by 4.6% during the first half of 2022.

These weak economic performances have led the World Bank to forecast annual growth of only 2.8% for 2022 – the slowest pace in four decades – excluding 2020’s Covid crisis dip. A reunification war with Taiwan would carry the threat of severe sanctions from Washington and its allies, therefore worsening an already complicated macroeconomic environment, which could have profound social repercussions for the regime. It is worth remembering that the basis of the CCP’s domestic legitimacy since 1978 has been the generation of economic growth, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. A Chinese invasion could trigger an economic recession at home, especially in the China’s southern mainland economy which is closely intertwined with Taiwanese suppliers and capital, all of which would be decimated by a war.

Militarily, an attack on Taiwan would represent the most complex logistical operation in modern history, involving an amphibious invasion, which the CCP has never accomplished. A Normandy-like invasion would require a force of over 1.2 million soldiers and many thousands of assault ships to defeat a potential Taiwanese defending force of 450,000. During World War II, U.S. forces planned Operation Causeway, a strategy that sought to retake Taiwan from 30,000 Japanese troops with 400,000 soldiers and marines.

To subdue the ROC military units, the Chinese navy and air force would need their first invasion fleets synchronized to strike the island’s beaches and ports simultaneously. Currently the Chinese military only has two amphibious assault ships and many of its top ranked military ranked officers lack operational experience: of the first hundred officers in the Chinese army, only one held the rank of junior officer during the disastrous invasion of Vietnam in 1979, the last major land war that PRC fought. The challenge is further complicated by the Pentagon’s decision to deploy six B-52 Bombers to northern Australia, all of which are fully capable of launching an attack on Chinese territory.

Having bombers that could range and potentially attack mainland China could be very important in sending a signal to China that any of its actions over Taiwan could also expand further,

Becca Wasser Senior Fellow for the Defense Program and lead of The Gaming Lab at CNAS.

This does not mean that the CCP will envisage to sustain selective restraint. Following Speaker Pelosi’s visit, Beijing escalated air and sea military maneuvers across the Taiwan Strait in a bid to create a kind of new normal. Since the official end of these exercises, PRC warplanes have continued to cross the median line daily, usually in double-digit numbers, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense statistics. Moreover, the PRC imposed visa bans on many DPP political figures and suspended imports of Taiwanese citrus fruits, fish and sand.

Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points to Taiwan, in Fujian province. Source: AFP-JIJI

In the ensuing weeks, U.S. warships carried out freedom of navigation exercises in the Taiwan Strait without challenge.

The bottom line is that the PRC will constantly seek to dissuade the ROC from declaring independence while striving to reshape Taiwan’s political landscape in its favor through coercive grey zone activities to instill fear and a sense of inevitability of reunification in the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.

The PRC has spent years coercing small states for political and strategic gains. The Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Sri Lanka are prime examples where the PRC has leveraged its political and economic control over these islands. In Taiwan’s case, the PRC could extend its influence across the island’s political parties, government institutions and electronic communication systems to disrupt the progression of its domestic democratic political system. Over the years the PRC has spent considerable effort and money building ties with groups in Taiwan, from the once-ruling KMT to organized crime.

This scenario will become all the more pronounced if the DPP remains in power for the foreseeable future or if the KMT considers rejecting the 1992 Consensus in order to make headway with the Taiwanese electorate. Since his appointment to chairmanship of the KMT in 2021, Eric Chu, has toned down his stance over cross-strait relations. In his official address marking the launch of the reopening of the party’s representative office in Washington, last summer, he characterized the “1992 Consensus” as the “No Consensus Consensus” – a phrase that elicited an immediate backlash from the KMT’s more traditionalist camps, as well as from the PRC. Growing ambiguity over the 1992 Consensus will increasingly push Beijing to step up its influence campaigns toward the hardline factions of KMT before the critical 2024 general election.

Chiang Wan-an, the great-grandson of former Chinese military leader Chiang Kai-shek, is widely regarded as the PRC’s best hope for driving Taiwan’s volatile relations with the mainland in a new direction. It will be interesting to gauge whether he takes hold of the Party in the weeks and months ahead.

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(Analysis) Tensions acros…

by Kareem Salem time to read: 10 min