current topics

(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

"Taiwan Identity and Cross-Strait Relations" and "Trump's Taiwan Policy and the Future of Taiwan-US Relations" -Discussion at The Second Japan-Taiwan Strategic Dialogue (June 21, 2018, Taipei)-

OGATA, Makoto
Former Chief of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei
Associate, the Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies

The Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies (SSDP) and The Prospect Foundation held a Japan-Taiwan Strategic Dialogue in Taipei on June 21, 2018 --- a sequel to the same-titled conference held last year. The SSDP delegates took this occasion to visit to Taiwanese leading figures. Two years have elapsed since the inauguration of the Tsai Ing-wen administration, and President Tsai has passed the half-way mark of her first term. Public support for the administration is still stagnant, and the prospects for the betterment of cross-strait relations are not visible, while China is increasing its unconcealed pressure on Taiwan. On the other hand, the Tsai administration finds a hope in US-Taiwan relations comparatively rich in forward-looking topics. The focal topics of the recent bilateral dialogue were "Taiwan Identity and Cross-Strait Relations" and "Trump's Taiwan Policy and the Future of Taiwan-US Relations." The following is a recapitulation of discussions between the two sides.

1. Taiwan Identity and Cross-Strait Relations

(1) Changes in Taiwan Identity Formation

The issue of Taiwan identity or of Taiwanese self-identification continues to be of vital importance in political, social and cultural aspects against Taiwan's complex historical background. Since 1992, The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, has been annually conducting a public-opinion poll regarding the issue of Taiwan identity. When Lee Teng-hui took office as President of the Republic of China in 1992, the people who identify themselves as Taiwanese accounted for only 17.6 % of all the poll respondents, while those who recognize themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese constituted the majority of 46.4 %. ;25.5% of respondents considered themselves Chinese. Since then the "self-identified Taiwanese" population has continued rising, thanks to the effects of the policy of "Desinicization and Taiwanization" in the eras of the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian administrations, while, on the other hand, the "self-identified Chinese" respondants decreased in number. Under the Ma Ying-jeou administration's "Detaiwanization and Sinicization" policy, the "self-identified Taiwanese" population continued increasing, and today approximately 60 % of the people think that they are Taiwanese; Those recognizing themselves as "Taiwanese and Chinese" have decreased to 33 %, and those who think of themselves as Chinese drastically fell to only 3.7 %. In this way the issue of Taiwan identity has undergone drastic changes. Meanwhile, the majority of Taiwanese people support "the status quo" in cross-strait relations, accounting for some 60 % of the population. The Taiwanese supporting the "independence" of Taiwan account for some 24 % and the supporters of "unification" are the smallest in number or about 10 % of the population. In other words, over 80 % of Taiwanese people are against "unification."

(2) A Political Profile of Taiwan's Youth

At the time of the January 2016 elections in Taiwan that gave rise to the first ever female President and the first change of government administration in 8 years, The Wall Street Journal summed up the elections as "a counter attack of the Taiwanese strawberry generation." Taiwan's strawberry generation refers to young people 20-30 years of age, born in 1980s. Attractive as they are in outward appearance, those youth are disparaged for being unable to handle pressure, self-complacent and spiritless. Yet the strawberry generation youth acquired the wherewithal to voice their political beliefs through participation in the Sunflower Student Movement, and have now come to be called "the Naturally Pro-Independence," capable of wielding a significant influence over the future of Taiwan's politics.

At the recent dialogue, the Taiwanese side gave a detailed presentation based on a Taiwan Foundation for Democracy's report on the public-opinion poll published in April 2018, "A Political Profile of Taiwan's Youth: Democratic Support, Natural independence, and Commitment to Defense."

The survey was conducted in the light of the following three major concerns regarding Taiwan's democratic development and young people's political inclination:

1) The youth in the West seem to be less committed to democratic values. How about Taiwanese youth?

2) Concerning the future cross-strait relations, are Taiwanese youth "naturally pro-independence?"

3) Is it true that the Strawberries are characterized by a weak commitment to self-defense and are irresponsibly provocative?

"There exist some problems with democracy, but is it still the best political system?" In response to this question, some 76 % of respondents answered "YES." Notably as many as 86 % of respondents under the age of 39 answered in the affirmative. Taiwanese youth highly support democracy in contrast with Western youth, and this tendency is conspicuous with younger generations. Just a small number of youth are oriented to autocracy. On the other hand, Taiwanese youth show "relatively low democratic satisfaction and democratic optimism."

Answers to a three-choice question (the status quo / unification / independence) regarding cross-strait relations revealed that 1) the people under the age of 39, like older people, predominantly support the status quo. Those supporting unification are quite small in number. 2) The people under the age of 30 support the status quo more strongly than those of 30-40 of age. 3) A research executed by Dr. Wu Nai-te of Academia Sinica also indicates that the Taiwanese under the age of 39 hold a feeling of strong Taiwan nationalism but are indifferent to Chinese nationalism. Their support for the status quo is obvious. Incidentally, research conducted by Dr. Wu in 2005 is also informative. 1) Asked a question about whether or not Taiwan and China should be unified if China becomes a democratic country, some 73 % of people under the age of 39 answered in the negative, and only 24 % in the affirmative. When it comes to the people 40 years old or more, the pros and cons are equal or some 43 %, respectively. 2) Asked a question about whether or not Taiwan should proclaim independence, provided such a unilateral step does not provoke a war with China, some 51 % of the people under the age of 39 and 53 % of the people over the age of 40 answered in the negative --- indicating almost the same ratio. Meanwhile, some 46 % of the people under the age of 39 and 36% of the people over the age of 40 answered to the same question in the affirmative --- younger people are more supportive of Taiwan's independence. The Naturally Pro-Independence generations are reported to tend to support independence; yet the above research results show that they are naturally against unification.

Asked whether or not the existence of China will be beneficial to Taiwan's economic development in a longer perspective, some 51 % of respondents answered in the affirmative. Particularly, as many as 63 % of younger people answered the same question YES. It is interesting that those youth accept China's economic influences positively. Taiwanese youth cling to their Taiwan identity and at the same time behave quite pragmatically, ready to take advantage of economic opportunities provided by China.

Lastly, Taiwanese youth's commitment to national self-defense. :1) Asked whether or not they would fight for Taiwan if Taiwan formally declares independence, in response to which China uses force against Taiwan, some 56 % of respondents answered YES, while some 36% replied NO. The percentage of affirmative responses is almost the same in all the generations. 2) Asked whether or not they would fight for Taiwan if China uses force against Taiwan for the purpose of unification, some 68 % of respondents answered YES. The percentage of YES to this question is 12 points higher than that to the previous question 1). The survey makes an assessment that Taiwanese people's commitment to democratic values is the cornerstone of safeguarding them from military unification by China.

From the above results, the survey publicized in April this year came to the following conclusion:

1) Taiwanese youth are not irresponsibly provocative. They have a firm commitment to democratic values and self-defense.

2) Taiwanese youth have a stronger Taiwan nationalism. But the 20-29 age group has a stronger tendency to maintain the status quo than other age groups.

3) The youth of 20-29 are more inclined to the status quo than to independence.

4) The essence of "naturally pro-independence" lies in "anti-unification."

5) In facing China's military threat of forced unification, some 70% of Taiwanese are committed to fighting back.

6) Democratic values provide a spiritual help for Taiwanese people to combat military threats of China.

(3) Taiwanese People's Good Feelings for China amidst Intensified Taiwan Bashing

A recent public-opinion poll regarding Taiwan identity conducted by The Election Study Center, National Chengchi University, reveals a trend that the percentage of respondents who recognize themselves as "Taiwanese" has decreased after a height of 60 % in 2014, dropping by 5 % to 55 % in a period as short as three years. Meanwhile, the percentage of people identifying themselves as "Taiwanese and Chinese" has increased after registering the record low of 32 % in 2014, rising to 37 % last year. The percentage of people identifying themselves as "Chinese" remains the same. Part of the people regarding themselves as "Taiwanese" seem to come to recognize themselves as "Taiwanese and Chinese." The year of 2014 is the year the Sunflower Student Movement came into existence. Taiwan identity attained a peak that year, and then entered a period of backlash. Similarly, the ratio of people who supported "the status quo" fell from 60 % in 2014 to 58 % in 2017, and the percentage of people who supported "independence" dropped from 24 % to 22 %, while that of people who were for "unification" rose from 9 % to 12 % over the same period of time. It is noteworthy that the supporters of anti-unification are decreasing, and those of unification increasing.

The Taiwanese participants at the dialogue commented on the results of a public-opinion poll on Taiwanese people's positive feelings for foreign countries conducted in June this year by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, a private research institute related to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Among countries that Taiwanese people have the most positive feelings toward are Singapore, Japan, Canada, the EU and the United States, in this order of preference. Notable is the fact that people feeling sympathy for China (49%) has exceeded those antagonistic toward it (44%) for the first time. This result was met with surprise, as China has been blatantly bullying Taiwan since the inauguration of the Tsai administration, in various ways including the severing of bilateral diplomatic relations; efforts to exclude Taiwan from international organizations, and demands for airline companies to drop any references to Taiwan as an independent country. The Xi Jinping regime's policy toward Taiwan can be said to be a double-standard strategy --- with severity towards the Taiwan government, while demonstrating a positive friendliness to Taiwanese people. With the background of the current economic stagnation in Taiwan, China's policy of preference for Taiwanese companies and individuals is alluring to Taiwanese people, particularly to the youth, who are eager to share the benefits from the growing Chinese economy. The Taiwanese people's increasing sympathy for China is attributable to such a situation.

The Taiwanese participants in the dialogue opined that it is necessary to analyze Taiwan identity and the anti-unification trend, along with Taiwanese people's good impression of China. The dialogue participants were invited to make a cautious judgment on these topics.

2. Trump's Taiwan Policy and the Future of Taiwan-US Relations

(1) What is President Trump's Taiwan Policy?

At the beginning of the June 21 dialogue, the Taiwanese participants raised a direct question "What is President Trump's Taiwan Policy, if any?" It was bewildering to many Taiwanese experts that President Trump unprecedentedly held a telephone talk with President Tsai, and soon after that announced his support for the "One China Policy" at the request of Xi Jinping. They are skeptical whether President Trump really understands the "One China Policy." Thus, this question gives rise to another question, which in turn invites another… Is the "One China Policy" the same with what President Trump understands about the contents of the policy? To which contents does President Trump attach much importance in the "One China Policy", to the contents concerned with China or to those with Taiwan? What is the goal of the "One China Policy" under the Trump administration? Does the Trump administration maintain its status quo policy which Taiwanese people acknowledge? Or does the Trump administration pursue a new status quo policy? There remain many questions like these that have yet to be clearly answered.

(2) What is the Trump Administration's "One China Policy"?

According to the US government, the "One China Policy" consists of three communiques between the United States and China, and the Taiwan Relations Act (plus six guarantees). Taiwanese experts think that there is room for administrative discretion in the "One China Policy," and that it could change dependent on how the US government assesses the effect of external and internal factors upon the policy's strategic and logical foundations. Taiwanese experts admit that the United States is more inclined than ever to try to separate its Taiwan policy from its overall China policy. For example, the United States sold weapons to Taiwan, calling for a strengthening of military alliance in accordance with National Defense Authorization Act, and enacted the Taiwan Travel Act.

Taiwanese experts analyze that the overall US-China relations are shifting from engagement / cooperation to containment / competition. They argue that this shift is discernible from the fact that the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) defines Russia and China as the most significant regional challenges against US strategic interests. If competition occupies the most dominant place in US China policy, Taiwan's value as a strategic asset for the United States will increase all the more. However, Taiwanese experts show a grave concern with President Trump's action of destroying the traditional relationship between the United States and Taiwan, and are becoming skeptical whether Taiwan is for the United States a genuine strategic asset or an ostensible, temporary asset for the purpose of trading-off.

There is a general recognition in Taiwan that the United States is attempting to increase the value of Taiwan as a strategic asset. A Symbol of this is the amicable Taiwan Travel Act the Trump administration has enacted. President Trump signed the bill on March 16, and clarified his position of support, and guaranteed once more his commitment to Taiwan. To be frank, however, the act would have been enacted automatically even if President Trump declined to sign the bill.

China's bullying of Taiwan is bound to bring Taiwan nearer to the United States. The Chinese authorities, however, interpret this in the opposite manner. China is punishing Taiwan in accordance with her policy of strategic competition against the US, aimed at imposing pressure at weak parts of the US alliance system. With a view to strengthening the alliance system considered fragile by China, the United States began transferring to Taiwan a sensitive weaponry technology, thereby encouraging US defense industry to help foster Taiwanese domestic industries in a great measure. This is an analysis by Taiwanese experts.

(3) The Future of US-Taiwan Relation

Taiwanese experts are of the view that the current US-Taiwan relations are good, but there remains ample room for improvement. What is most important to this end, they say, is to make clearer the role of Taiwan in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The US basic idea regarding its Indo-Pacific strategy can be construed as a continuance of her rebalance strategy from a military point of view. Taiwan looks forward to developing a closer military cooperation with the United States in this regard. Especially, the Taiwanese government cherishes a strong expectation for developing her current cooperation with the United States in the field of national defense industry into "a genuine marriage," which once realized, would upgrade Taiwan's defense system a great deal.

Secondly, the Taiwanese participants in the dialogue hope that the United States and Japan can reconfirm the status of Taiwan in the international community. Recent Chinese diplomacy is intensifying its offensive character, attempting to oust Taiwan from the international community. If, however, the United States and Japan reaffirm that Taiwan is not part of the People's Republic of China, such a move will have a profound significance for the Taiwanese government as well as for the international community.

Some Taiwanese participants referred to the necessity for Taiwan to initiate a negotiation of a FTA with the United States and Japan at the earliest convenience. The revision of relevant Taiwanese domestic laws, however, would be a prerequisite to such a negotiation.

(4) Conclusion

The Taiwanese side acknowledges that the US-Taiwan relations have so far evolved satisfactorily, but doubts if the present good relations will continue forever into the future. The Taiwanese dialogue participants are apprehensive about President Trump's proclivity for a deal. They argue that much attention should be paid to the extent of such a deal as President Trump decides matters depending on his intuition. They are also apprehensive about the possibility of a grandiose deal between President Trump and Xi Jinping for some shared goals.

On the other hand, many countries in Asia are now adopting a hedging strategy of taking the winning side, and Taiwan is keenly anxious about the possibility that such a trend would help disturb the alignment of US alliance system. Different from other Asian countries, Taiwan has no other options but to look to the United States for support for survival.

3. Topics Discussed in and out of the Strategic Dialogue

(1) The US-North Korea Summit

The Taiwanese side raised public views that the US-North Korea Summit was disappointing and futile, and that the United States committed a great mistake. CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization) which the United States had clung to was not referred to in the Trump-Kim Joint Statement and the United States conceded to agree to the step-by-step process in the Korean Peninsula denuclearization that North Korea had persisted in srequesting. While Kim Jong-un made no additional important concession regarding weapons of mass destruction, President Trump made an easy compromise and concession, affording Kim security guarantees. President Trump went so far as to mention the suspension of US-ROK joint military drills and the withdrawal of USFK. It was essential for President Trump to successfully complete the historic Summit, or to create a feeling of success more than to have the substance of the agreement.

Taiwanese experts said it was interesting that the process toward the Summit proceeded, not just simultaneously but intertwined in a complicated manner with the US-China talks on trade friction. The Unites States is seriously confronting China as indicated by the emerging trade war with China and the North Korea issue. In order to draw some concessions from the United States, China is alleged to have capitalized on President Trump's impatience for success in the bilateral Summit and have proposed to him a deal. China intensified economic sanctions against North Korea by cutting off imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and other mineral resources. Thus, China tried to evade criticism for the ineffectiveness of its economic sanctions against North Korea and made ostensible efforts at easing tensions. Some sources say that the United States responded to North Korean overture for talks to decouple North Korea from China. The US-China trade war had been in a cease fire state before the June 12 Summit, but upon completion of the talks, the United States and China resumed an exchange of sanctions and retaliations.

South Korea has emerged from the recent Summit as a victor. President Trump says that South Korea is a beneficiary of the talks. In defiance of China's interference, South Korea supported efforts to realize the Summit throughout all the stages of its preparation. Thus, South Korea has now acquired a greater influence on North Korea than China; at least, China's influence on the North is deemed to have decreased due to South Korea's involvement from an early stage of preparation for the Summit.

Incidentally, a week after his return from Singapore, Kim Jong-un once again paid a visit to China --- such an action of his symbolizes the relationship between China and a Korean Peninsula state which had been a tributary of the Middle Kingdom. After returning from the Summit, Kim Jong-un lost little time in visiting Beijing and expressed his gratitude to Xi Jinping for flights the Chinese supreme leader provided to transport Kim to the venue of the US-North Korea talks. Kim strictly abided by decorum required of a leader of a tributary state. It has been a traditional custom for China to make public the North leader's visit to Beijing only after he had returned home. This time, however, China announced Kim's visit almost at the same time as the North leader's arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport. How should we interpret this? Since Xi Jinping harbors concern that the Korean Peninsula situation has taken steps without China's engagement, he intended to bring it home to Kim Jong-un and simultaneously appeal to the international community that China's commitment will be indispensable for the solution of the Korean Peninsula problem. Kim Jong-un also prefers to receive continuing support from China based on the traditional tributary relationships until the end of negotiations with the United States, although the way has been opened for Kim to have direct negotiations with the United States. An interpretation of Kim's conduct could be that with a show of an ostensible courtesy, he is preparing a letter of divorce against China.

(2) Cross-Strait Relations

After the cabinet reshuffle this spring, Chen Ming-tong, professor at National Taiwan University, took office as the Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. He is a Taiwanese of aboriginal descent. With a pair of piercing eyes, he is known for his outspokenness. Chen is very close to President Tsai. In his capacity as a political scientist and as the last Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council in the era of the Chen Shui-bian administration, he experienced direct contact with China for a long time, witnessing changes in China's Taiwan policy. In addressing the frozen cross-strait relations, he is attracting expectations as a reliable figure capable of taking necessary actions against China. He always replies with a quick and adamant rebuttal to the Chinese authorities' ill-intentioned criticism or to fake news emitted by the pro-mainland media. Such reactions have never been made by a former Mainland Affairs Council. As a political scientist, Chen maintains an amicable relationship with Chinese scholars, and they amicably call him "Brother Tong," considering him a man of importance. Outward appearance aside, the Chinese authorities are considered to listen to the words of Minister Chen. Recently, the more China bashes Taiwan, the more the US involvement in cross-strait relations becomes deeper. The Chinese authorities seem to think about accordingly modifying its pressure-alone strategy against the Tsai administration. The Chen-led Mainland Affairs Council is expected to bring about a breakthrough in cross-strait relations now in a stalemate.

(3) Taiwanese Local Elections and the Revival of the KMT

Taiwan is now in an election mood, waiting for the local elections (the nine-in-one elections) held once every four years. The voting day is scheduled for November 24. On the occasion of the previous elections in 2014, the Ma Ying-jeou administration of the Kuomintang of China (KMT) suffered a terrible defeat because of public criticism over the issue of service trade agreement with China. As a result, a change of government ensued. In the coming elections, the people's judgement will be brought to the Tsai administration that came to power two years ago.

One of the focuses of the coming elections is the mayoral election for Taipei city. At this moment the incumbent Ko Wen-je (nonpartisan) is taking a lead. For the DPP, the focal point is New Taipei city rather than Taipei city. Two candidates, ex-Premier Su Tseng-chang (DPP) and ex-deputy mayor Hou You-yi (KMT), are in a harsh competition. If Ko and Su win the mayoral elections for Taipei city and New Taipei city, respectively, the KMT would lose all the mayoral seats in direct-controlled municipalities, and suffer an irrevocable damage. Though such a possibility may be quite low, yet if the KMT wins both at Taipei city and New Taipei city, Tsai would be obliged to resign her office of the DPP Chairperson in accordance with the Party constitution.

At this moment Wu Den-yih is Chairman of the KMT. Actually, cross-strait policies of the KMT and the DPP are not so different from each other, except whether or not to approve the 1992 consensus. Pro-mainland Ma Ying-jeou advanced cross-strait relations too far, and lost public support. Wu, therefore, cannot adopt a similar policy; if he adopts a cross-strait policy, keeping some distance from the party's pro-mainlanders, such a policy may be regarded as almost the same as the DPP's status quo policy. It is becoming more difficult for the KMT to differentiate its position from that of the DPP in terms of cross-strait policy, which is to be the most decisive issue of contention distinguishing the KMT from the DPP. Among the reasons that the KMT still fails to make a resurgance are: 1) Wu's low personal popularity; 2) difficulty in policy coordination between pro-Taiwan and pro-China members inside the KMT, and 3) obscure points of contention of the KMT cross-strait policy. If the KMT's native Taiwanese wing fails to recover its influence in the coming elections, the KMT pro-mainlanders would not gain broad public support either. Furthermore, as the Tsai administration does not enjoy popularity among pro-independence factions in the DPP, a defeat in the coming elections would expose the administration to severe criticism from the party's pro-independence factions. The outcome of the coming local elections would not immediately accelerate internal strife in the DPP or the KMT to the degree of a possible party split. Anyway, the future political situation in Taiwan is unpredictable in a longer perspective.

4. Conclusion

Japanese and Taiwanese strategic dialogue participants saw each other after a year's time. Two things that have evolved after the previous dialogue seem to have caused a perceptible change in Taiwanese participants' outlook on the circumstances surrounding Taiwan. One is the US Indo-Pacific strategy to which Taiwan is looking forward to making an active commitment. The other is PLA operations in the neighboring waters of Taiwan that are becoming increasingly active, offering a serious threat for the island state.

Taiwan's commitment to the US Indo-Pacific strategy constitutes part of the security policy of the Tsai administration, which aims at deepening a multilateral relationship with ASEAN states and India through cooperation with states sharing universal values, such as Japan and the United States, as well as through its New Southbound Policy. The US Indo-Pacific strategy is also consistent with Taiwan's geopolitical recognition that the island state is located in the center of the region comprising the South and East China Seas and the western Pacific. Moreover, Taiwan criticizes the rebalancing policy of the Obama administration for failing to be effective, while favorably accepting the stronger security commitment of the Trump administration to Taiwan. Taiwan's expectation for the US Indo-Pacific strategy is growing significantly.

Since May 2017, one year after the inauguration of the Tsai administration, PLA aircraft and military ships have appeared in the waters and airspace east of Taiwan, which had never happened, and have also more frequently engaged in circumnavigating Taiwan. Every time they acknowledge such behaviors of the PLA, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense announces that since they monitored PLA activity, the Taiwanese people should feel relieved. A rapidly widening military imbalance between Taiwan and China, coupled with the latter's expanding power projection capability, is emerging as an overt threat against the national defense system of Taiwan.

In the foreseeable future, the security environment surrounding Taiwan will continue to become more serious, instead of becoming relaxed. It is difficult for Japan to take concrete actions relevant to the Taiwan's security situation. The best option for Japan in this connection will be to strengthen a bilateral security dialogue with Taiwan and a multilateral security dialogue with related countries including Taiwan.

current topics