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(Project of Kajima Institute of International Peace)

Overview of the Current Situation in Taiwan -"the Naturally Independent Generation" will affect the Taiwan's politics-

Makoto Ogata
Associate, SSDP
Former Chief of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei

The Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies (SSDP) held a "Japan-Taiwan Dialogue" in Taipei on May 15, jointly with a Taiwanese research institute, the Prospect Foundation, and held exchanges of opinion with officials and political leaders in Taiwan. Taking place just before the first anniversary of President Tsai Ing-wen assuming office, the dialogue aimed to understand changes, the current situation, prospects related to Taiwan's domestic affairs, US-Taiwan relations, Cross-Strait relations, and security. This report presents an overview of the current situation in Taiwan, based on the discussions that took place in Taipei.

1. Domestic affairs

(1) Declining level of support and the precarious stability of the Tsai administration

President Tsai Ing-wen's support has dropped. Although it reached 47% right after her inauguration, her level of support has recently been stabilized to as low as around 27%, according to a public opinion poll. Noteworthy is that "Neutral" has turned to "Dissatisfied" which has risen to 56% --- twice the percentage of "Satisfied." This points to the depth of public disappointment with the Tsai administration. The cause of this disappointment is attributable to Tsai's pledge of "reforms" that have so far failed to materialize with speed and innovation.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sources provide the following analysis. At first sight, Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP seem to have won a great victory, but it was not a triumph that led to overwhelming public support. Tsai Ing-wen's electoral support rate was about 56%, while the DPP's was about 45%; and the maximum support rate for the Tsai camp is probably a little over 50%. Conversely, one might say that half the voters are opposed to the DPP. Currently, about half of her supporters are disappointed, but if the new administration delivers on its the reforms with energy and determination, her support rate will undoubtedly recover. If, however, President Tsai's level of support further declines the chief concern will be its possible effect on the unified local election scheduled for next autumn. The party is at present dominated by the largest "New Tide faction," while non-mainstream factions are not content. In the next election, the DPP is unlikely to lose to the Kuomintang (KMT, the Nationalist Party of China). Therefore, President Tsai should now address the intra-party conflicts, prior to fighting the KMT. If non-mainstream factions increased their influence, the intra-party conflict, inherent to the DPP, will intensify, weakening President Tsai's power base, and undermining her administration stability.

(2) Rise of a Taiwan identity and the possibility of political cataclysm

Tsai Ing-wen's victory was supported by a new generation in Taiwanese politics called "the naturally independent generation." They are younger than their mid-thirties, and are proud of a strong sense of identity that "We are Taiwanese people." To them the fact that "Taiwan and China are separate entities" is evident and natural. This sense of Taiwanese identity will not weaken and will become stronger in the years to come.

In Taiwanese politics, the pro-unity KMT and the pro-independence DPP have concealed their respective ideologies and obtained the election support by winning to their camp the intermediary layer that favors the status quo. The basic ideologies of the KMT and the DPP do not represent the sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity. In the last election, young people who identified with a distinct Taiwanese identity supported Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. However, if the DPP failed to meet their expectation, these young people would find another party capable of embodying their values. Thanks to the development of a distinct Taiwan identity, the "New Power Party" that succeeded to the Sunflower Student Movement contrary to predictions made a breakthrough in the last election. Meanwhile, in the KMT presidential election on May 20, the native-born Taiwanese Wu Den-yih defeated the mainlander Taiwanese Hung Hsiu-chu and other candidates. Taiwanese people finally chose a realistic political course by rejecting Hung's pro-mainland policy that deviated greatly from that shared by dominant public opinion. Furthermore, among the KMT members can be found "the naturally independent generation" who assert that the KMT should abandon its mainland-influenced name of "the Nationalist Party of China" and be reborn as "the Nationalist Party of Taiwan." If "the naturally independent generation" becomes more isolated in the DPP, and the KMT becomes more Taiwanized, a cataclysm could take place in Taiwanese politics in the not too distant future. Some experts are of the view that it is now in an embryonic stage.

The feeling of a distinct Taiwan identity has spread more rapidly than expected. It might lead to a very serious situation if the Tsai administration mishandles the identity. At the same time it is reported that while China believes time will prove to be to her advantage, it is actually increasingly concerned about Taiwan leaving China.

2. The US-Taiwan Relationship

(1) The result of the US' Re-balancing to Asia policy

Taiwanese experts at the recent dialogue meeting expressed negative views on the outcome of the US rebalancing policy. They argued that the rebalancing policy was "only rhetoric," or "only a lot of noise with effect."

In 2011, the United States announced a shift in its rebalancing to Asia policy and decided to sell arms to Taiwan: the United States would upgrade the capabilities of conventional F-16 A/B instead of providing F-16 C/D to Taiwan; and the United States would not sell submarines to Taiwan. After this, US arms sales to Taiwan were not made over the next four years. Hillary Clinton, Kurt Campbell and others who were advocates of the rebalancing policy and valued Taiwan's strategic importance left the Obama administration. Susan Rice who was favorable to China and was not considered pro-military entered the administration as National Security Advisor. "The US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference" on arms sales to Taiwan was held every year, but according to many accounts, Taiwanese requests did not reach the center of the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Ma Ying-jeou was not proactive in arms sales that would invite China's opposition, for he regarded it as his top priority to leave his mark in history by improving cross-strait relations. In December 2015, the Obama administration made its last arms sales, which, however, provided "only second-hand equipment and additional munitions for systems already in Taiwan's inventory," according to the US-Taiwan Business Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers. The last US arms sales achieved modest results and did not make a significant contribution to the strengthening of Taiwan's defense capabilities. This result seems to account for the critical evaluation by Taiwan of the US' re-balancing to Asia policy.

Through these bitter experiences, Taiwan noted with concern that the United States would not always provide Taiwan with necessary weapons. Thus Taiwan shifted her policy to one of self-reliance and to the domestic production of weapons. Raising the banner of "the Independent Defense," the Tsai administration marked a big step toward the domestic production of submarines and advanced training aircraft, under the policy of "indigenous building of vessels (domestic production of national navy ships) and indigenous construction of aircraft (domestic production of national air force fighter planes)."

(2) How to Deal With the Unpredictable Trump Administration?

China considered the Tsai-Trump telephone call as demonstrating the will of Tsai Ing-wen to attempt to "change the status quo". President Trump's simultaneous remarks on a review of the One China policy were viewed by China as the most outright challenge to China since the time of US-China normalization of diplomatic relations. Curiously, however, China's anger was directed to Taiwan rather than to the United States. Public opinion in Taiwan was sharply divided about the telephone conversation. While Tsai's supporters viewed it as the greatest achievement since the severing of diplomatic ties with the United States, critics said that Taiwan would face possible retaliation for unilaterally provoking China and Taiwan's position would be more difficult in cross-strait relations.

Taiwan was rather relieved at the news that President Trump expressed his respect for the One China policy in a subsequent phone conversation with Xi Jinping. The One China policy is the basis of the US-China relationship, and is also a security commitment to ensure Taiwan's survival. Taiwan welcomes whatever means to strengthen this commitment, but not attempts to upset it. Taiwan regards the current move from last year as significant --- "Six Assurances" in addition to the "Taiwan Relations Act" were first included in the Republican party's policy statement at the Republican National Convention. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his nomination hearing also said, "I intend to support the One China policy. The people of Taiwan are friends of the United States and should not be treated as a bargaining chip." Comments from Taiwanese experts at the recent dialogue meeting in Taipei demonstrated their confidence that the reliability of the US-Taiwan relationship has improved through a strengthening of the US commitment. On the other hand Taiwanese experts argued that President Trump's unpredictability would become a source of anxiety not only for US allies but also for hostile powers in the future and the possibility is not removed that Taiwan might become a bargaining chip in the situation in East Asia.

Remarks from the Taiwanese side at the dialogue seem to suggest that the US arms sales were to be notified to the US Congress just after the US-China summit talks. However, adversely affected by North Korean affairs, the nortification is currently shelved and the situation becomes uncertain. The Tsai administration seems to want to convince itself that arms sales are not terminated, but are merely suspended and are a technical problem.

Some Taiwanese participants at the dialogue said, "Prime Minister Abe is doing his best with President Trump, and the world leaders want to emulate his way of doing things."

3. Cross-Strait relations

(1) How effective is China's policy of "verbal intimidation and saber rattling" ?

China's basic policy toward Taiwan is called "verbal intimidation and saber rattling." It is a psychological operation that combines attacks by verbal propaganda and intimidation using military power, thereby increasing pressure on the opponent.

From the Tsai-Trump phone conversation to President Trump's remarks on a review of the One China policy, China's "verbal intimidation and saber rattling" increased in intensity. PLA air force bombers and a fleet led by the flagship aircraft carrier Liaoning were put into operation as if to besiege Taiwan. PLA spokesmen referred to the possibility of warfare across the Taiwan Strait with provocative words and called for the unification of China and Taiwan, citing the surrender of KMT army forces during the Chinese Civil War. Therefore, was "verbal intimidation and saber rattling" really effective as Beijing had anticipated? The result is negative; on the contrary they actually led to the opposite effect.

As a result of the large-scale progress in people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland China during the eight years of the Ma Yin-jeou administration, ambivalent feelings toward the mainland people have firmly taken root in the hearts of Taiwanese people. At the same time, the Taiwanese people's caution and fear toward China have relatively decreased. Especially "the naturally independent generation" seems not to consider the Chinese aircraft carrier and bombers as symbols of possible serious intimidation by military force. The interest of the Taiwanese people is focused on domestic affairs, and large-scale demonstrations regarding gay marriage and the ban on Japanese food imports frequently take place. On the other hand, the Ministry of National Defense has changed its traditional policy and effectively provided timely information to the public on PLA activities. As a result, the people have come to realize that the PLA is not offensively ready; and the Taiwanese national armed forces continuously monitors PLA activities. These developments account for the stabilization of public sentiment. It is a unanimous view among the Taiwanese people that the recent Chinese attempts to threaten the Taiwanese by use of an aircraft carrier ended in failure. The "verbal intimidation and saber rattling" will not earn the friendship of Taiwanese people, but will only serve to alienate them further from China.

The Taiwanese side's analysis on the series of recent ostensibly threatening gestures by the PLA is as follows: The PLA's real purpose was to conduct an annual exercise for improvement of its power projection capability, aiming to realize its naval strategy of "near seas defense and far seas defense" and the "sky-space integrated and offense-defense balanced" air force strategy. This is the primary meaning of the recent PLA operations, while threats and warnings against the United States and Taiwan with the use of armed force were of secondary meaning.

(2) Are Cross-Strait talks static in a situation of "Cold Peace"?

Cross-Strait relations today are represented symbolically as "cold peace" instead of "cold war." China demanded that President Tsai to accept "the agreement in 1992," and unilaterally suspended the intergovernmental dialogue between the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and the Mainland Affairs Council, and the private dialogue between the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and the Straits Exchange Foundation. In effect, exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland China continue in various fields such as economy, tourism, and education. Both sides have many reasons for ongoing discussions on matters requiring quick responses related to accidents and crimes. According to well-informed sources from both sides, while official channels are closed and the mainland does not respond to the calls from Taiwan, channels of communications on private and practical levels are still maintained on a case-by-case basis. Over the past year, some 100 Chinese officials (department directors and their subordinates from the Taiwan Affairs Office) have visited Taiwan for practical business purposes. Various symposiums among both sides' research institutes and universities continue to be held. A Taiwanese senior executive said, "The mainland is receiving our messages, but they do not respond accordingly. For Xi Jinping, it is of paramount importance to strongly survive the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in autumn this year. He needs to demonstrate for domestic reasons that relations with Taiwan are well under control. Therefore, no major movement will occur in cross-strait relations until the CCP has finished." Until the autumn breeze begins to blow, the season of cold peace will continue.

4. The security policy

(1) The Tsai administration's security and national defense policy

On March 16th, the Taiwan Defense Ministry made public its "Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)." The feature of this QDR is a new shift in military strategy. The military strategy of the Ma administration was "resolute defense, effective deterrence," but the Tsai administration has changed it to "resolute defense, multiple deterrence." The new strategy aims at building a multiple and elastic defense posture to achieve "strategic endurance." It is a concept that through an asymmetric strategy, the Taiwanese defense forces should "check the enemies on the opposite shore, attack them at sea, defeat them at the water's edge, and annihilate them on the beach." Obviously this strategic concept is reflective of Taiwan's analysis of the recent military development of China --- China places emphasis on battles in cosmic and cyber spaces; threats from the sea / air space east of Taiwan are becoming realistic, as Chinese power projection capability extends; as a result of improvement of the Chinese capability of Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2 / AD), the arrival of US rescue forces may be impeded and Taiwan will have to address Chinese attacks on her own account for a longer time. For these reasons, the Defense Ministry has adopted a proactive defense strategy of attacking enemies and responding to their attack from afar in stages.

The QDR pointed out for the first time that "The people's awareness of defense slackens, as economic, social and cultural exchanges with China advance." This recognition is noteworthy for its reflection of the recent trends in Taiwanese society.

(2) Precarious Reliability of the Taiwanese National Defense Organizations

The outbreak of successive Chinese espionage and incidents involving the leaking of secrets coupled with military exchanges between Taiwanese veteran officers and their Chinese counterparts have irreparably damaged the credit of Taiwan's national defense organizations.

The incident involving Army Major General Lo Hsien-che which occurred in 2011 attracted attention due to the accused's rank, material leaked, and the tricks employed. In 2014, a Chinese spy network covering the three armed forces was disclosed for the first time. Just before this writer visited Taiwan, the mass media revealed that the former commander (Air Force Major General) of the Air Defense Missile Command was under investigation by the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Justice on suspicions of leaking information to China on air defense missile systems. Lee Ta-wei, Minister of Foreign Affairs, also announced that the United States is paying serious attention to this case.

Regarding the military exchanges between Taiwanese veteran officers and their Chinese counterparts, in 2011 the former President of the National Defense University Hsia Ying-chou (Air Force General) visited the Mainland and said, "Taiwan's armed forces and their Chinese counterparts are all Chinese troops," causing a controversy. The ceremony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Sun Yat-sen's birthday, held in Beijing last November, saw the participation of 37 retired officers from Taiwan. They sang the PRC national anthem, and attended an important lecture by Xi Jinping. The Tsai administration aims at strenghthening the relevant regulations by legislation, but they should be aware that they will not win the trust of friendly nations without stopping the behavior of such veterans. The activities of such veterans are actually impeding the development of security relations with friendly countries.

5. Conclusion

It is fair to evaluate that the current Japan-Taiwan relationship is generally good. 56% of Taiwanese people name Japan as their most favorite country, and the number of tourists between the two countries in 2016 exceeded a record 6 million. Local governments in the two countries are promoting exchanges. Every time any large-scale disaster occurs in either of the countries, a hand of cooperation is extended. Thus "Chains of Good Will" have been firmly established. However, from the state-to-state perspective, there are factors that could jeopardize the development of the Japan-Taiwan relationship. Some of them originate from Taiwan. For example, the conclusion of a FTA with Japan, which is an important political objective of the Tsai administration, has now reached an impasse. The lifting of the ban on Japanese food imports as a prerequisite for FTA talks is hindered both by the pro-China/pro-unity groups' manipulation of information that seriously distorts facts and by emotional populist appeals. Another obstacle is the unresolved issue of fishery rights in the waters around the Okinotori Islands, which Taiwan insists are "reefs." Careful manoeuvring is required for the Tsai administration not to allow domestic nationalistic confrontations to bring about an irrational impasse in bilateral relations.

The following three points are considered to be significant for future development of the Japan-Taiwan relationships. Firstly, the upgrading of the level of diplomatic protocols between the two countries. The contact organizations of the two countries have changed their names lately to "Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association" and "Taiwan-Japan Relations Association," respectively --- a feeling of unclearness for the previous names has finally cleared up. It is necessary for the two countries to continue efforts to resolve such protocol's issues in order to satisfy each other. Secondly, the promotion of the track two exchanges. Since Taiwan maintains a presidential system of government, people who are to play a pivotal role in the future administrations are usually waiting at research institutes and at universities. At the time of a political change or a cabinet reshuffle, they will quickly take up major posts in the government. In this sense, expanding truck two exchanges in many fields will provide a basis for strong and diverse linkages between the two countries. Thirdly, both Japan and Taiwan should properly manage relations with China. As long as cross-strait relations are stable as they were under the Ma administration, even if the Japan-Taiwan relations developed, China will not unnecessarily interfere. On the contrary, in order to prevent China from intervening the Japan-Taiwan relationship, Japan must first stabilize the Japan-China relationship.

This writer's recent visit to Taiwan happened to fall at a time when the issue of Taiwan's participation in the WHO General Assembly was discussed. Gratitude was expressed for Japan's support, and there were expectations for Japan's continuing assistance to enable Taiwan to obtain membership in more international organizations. From the viewpoint of international order in the non-traditional security field, is it really appropriate for the international community to exclude Taiwan --- a political entity with a population of 23 million and the 20th largest economy in the world? This writer thinks that Japan should consider her assistance to Taiwan as one of her significant contributions to the international community.

Almost one year ago, this writer returned home from Taiwan where he had stayed for four years. Recently he visited Taiwan again after an absence of one year. The first impression is that in such a brief period "confrontation and division" have deepened in Taiwanese society. Liberal-influenced reforms implemented by the Tsai administration, such as same-sex marriage, pension reform, and the one-fixed-day-off-and-one-flexible-rest-day system, divide society into opposing factions, causing intense confrontations. There is no prospect for correcting the consequences of the hollowing out of industries and social disparities. The conflict between Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese nationalism is also sharpening. An example is the decapitation of the statue of Yoichi Hatta, followed by the retaliatory demolition of a statue of Chiang Kai-shek.

The 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held in China in autumn this year. The Tsai administration will come to a turnaround point of her first term of office prior to the nationwide local elections next fall. President Tsai in her inaugural address called for "reform" from "confrontation" to "unity." Her administration is now, however, experiencing the birth pangs of reform. Her talent and capability will be really examined on from now on toward next year.

Note) The Six Assurances that President Reagan conveyed to President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1982.

  1. The United States would not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan.
  2. The United States would not do prior consultation with China concerning arms sales to Taiwan.
  3. The United States would not play a mediation role between Taipei and Beijing.
  4. The United States would not agree with the revision of the Taiwan Relations Act.
  5. The United States would not change its position on Taiwan's sovereignty.
  6. The United States would not pressure Taiwan to conduct dialogue with China.