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Analysis of Cross-Strait Relations and the Implications for International Security

What’s happened?

On March 31st two fighter jets of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the centreline in the Taiwan Strait, breaching an implicit agreement between Taiwan and China that neither side would violate the line . Cross-Strait relations have been the subject of contention and disagreement since the 1950s and has seen a number of crises’ reach troubling flashpoints.

Last month’s incident is not the first of its kind. Three incidences have occurred in 1954, 1958 and 1996 which have all involved military action by the PLA aimed at ‘liberating’ Taiwan. The 1996 crisis holds stark resemblance to last month’s confrontation. A series of missile tests conducted by the PLA in the Taiwan Strait happened just a few months before the 1996 Presidential elections in Taiwan. The next election is scheduled for January 2020.

This piece will address the inconsistent bilateral relations between Taiwan and China and analyse the recent incident in terms of its implications for security in East-Asia.

Background: Cross-Strait Relations

The unresolved issue concerning the sovereignty of Taiwan dates to the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Since then two administrations, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), have fought over control of the island with protracted periods of hostile and warming relations. The ‘one china’ principle states that there is only one legitimate government of China, the PRC yet in the 1980s Beijing proposed a ‘one country, two systems’ approach to Taiwan as a way of retaining power of the island. This was repudiated by the Taiwanese administration because it ceded too much administrative control to China.

Cross-Strait relations began to thaw under the presidency of Ma Ying-Jeuo, a mainland-leaning bureaucrat who wanted to deeper economic integration with China. These quickly cooled when Tsai Ing-Wen assumed office three years ago and refused to accept the infamous One China principle. Despite Ing-Wen emphasising the need to build mutual trust, her increasingly harsh language used when commenting on their relations has riled the Beijing elites to the point of military aggrandisement.

Besides military exercises being conducted in the Taiwan Strait, other elements of Beijing’s increasingly assertive pressure campaign include harassing Taiwanese businesses in the mainland, restricting the number of Chinese tourists visiting the country and diplomatic isolation. Beijing has been pushing the international community to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and denying it recognition in international organisations. Taiwan currently holds only 17 diplomatic ties worldwide.

Why is Taiwan so important?

The geographic location of Taiwan serves a variety of strategic purposes for China. Militarily it can act as a staging platform for the PLA, bringing them in closer proximity to their neighbours in the Indo-Pacific thus giving them greater political leverage. By expanding their maritime position in the South China Sea, China would be able to further assert its territorial claims against Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia; making the ‘nine-dash-line’ an even more pressing reality.

Unifying with Taiwan would constitute a huge economic asset for China as the island sits astride major shipping routes in the South China Sea in which 50% of the world’s shipping passes through. This could significantly affect the region, particularly Japan who depend on energy and raw material imports for their survival . Taiwan’s economic success is remarkable considering China’s efforts to isolate the country from international trade . It is now one of Asia’s major economic powerhouses and a top global producer of computer technology. Besides China’s traditional and expansionist style of foreign policy, the desire to integrate such a strong economy with the mainland is apparent, especially considering China’s slowing economy.

Why did they send the jets?

The reasons for China sending the fighter jets are interconnected; a result of complex triangular relations between Taipei, Beijing and Washington.

2020 Presidential Election 

Beijing is anxious about the upcoming presidential election which make unification harder to achieve in the future. Taiwan has transitioned over the last thirty years to a representative democracy, causing concern amongst the Beijing elites who believe the intrusion of democratic values like freedom of speech has pushed the island further away from the mainland through the election of pro-independence presidents. The Kuomintang has consistently called for closer ties with Beijing yet it seems that their base of support is shrinking in Taiwan. In the 2016 legislative elections, they lost their majority to the pro-autonomous Democratic Progressive Party . The gradual development of a unique Taiwanese social and political identity has created a cultural shift of attitudes in favour of self-governance. As a result, Beijing has resorted to a pressure campaign to intimidate voters and warn them of the dangers of snubbing China.

Response to US actions 

Taiwan is one of the growing number of troubling flashpoints for Sino-US relations between including a trade war and sanctions. Earlier this year the US administration gave approval for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to the Taiwanese army . Although this is far from a done deal, the move has angered Beijing who perceive this as an interference of Washington. The US is Taiwan’s most important ally (despite changing official diplomatic relations to Beijing in 1979) and support the island’s security vis-à-vis the Taiwan Relations Act 1979 which affirms that any action that endangers their safety will be responded to, if necessary, with force.

Just a few days ago the US Navy sent two ships into the Taiwan strait to demonstrate their commitment to free and open Indo-Pacific region and risks being interpreted by Beijing as a sign of support for Taiwan . Combined with the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act  which upgraded relations between Taipei and Washington to allow high-level government officials to visit Taiwan, as well as Trump’s jibes that the US doesn’t have to stick to the ‘One China’ principle, Beijing felt that their claim to Taiwan was being undermined and sent the PLA fighter jets as a signal to both Taiwan and the US that they do not approve of US interference.

What does this mean for peace in the region?

Due to the refusal from China to recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan there have been no formal bilateral talks, impeding on peaceful, diplomatic discussions of the conflict. Taiwan shows no sign of acquiescing in the near future and, as such, we can anticipate further acts of intimidation from China, particularly in the lead up to the presidential election.

Low capabilities of the Taiwanese military are a critical issue. Depending heavily on the US for security places the island in a position vulnerable to US policy changes. Trump’s recent blast on Japan and South Korea for ‘freeloading’ off the American military in the Pacific  and the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggests that Washington may refrain from intervening in the East-Asian region in the pursuit of ‘America First’ policies.

For the Taiwanese military to act as a deterrent force, their capabilities must be enhanced. This requires a cautious and measured approach to avoid China misperceiving this signal as offensive rather than protective and risk escalating the situation. Further acts of aggression not only threatens the security of Taiwan, but the security of its neighbours and the region as a whole. Japan may become indirectly involved since their security treaty with the US commits them to providing logistical support to US Seventh Fleet operations. The durability of peace requires a high degree of mutual trust and cooperation.

Such assertive moves by Beijing may undermine the island’s advanced economy especially if Beijing continues to diplomatically isolate them. This may then have spill-over effects in the countries Taiwan trades with given that the region is highly interdependent.

However, the economic integration of China and Taiwan means that direct military conflict is an unlikely event as it would entail almost certain mutual financial destruction.

China’s main focus is on economic growth and since they are experiencing a slowdown, they cannot afford the risk of military action since resources would be diverted away from development and risk disruption to key areas of growth such as the Belt and Road project.

Final Remarks

The outcome of the 2020 election will determine the next stage of Cross-Strait relations. The election of a pro-mainland candidate is unlikely considering the changes in political climate yet the Kuomintang still holds some popularity amongst the electorate.

Continued military aggrandisement by Beijing and the sailing of US ships in the Taiwan Strait will perpetuate uncertainty in the region. Therefore, much will hinge on how policymakers in China, Taiwan and the US perceive each other’s actions. East-Asian countries should remain attentive to the events and tailor their policies accordingly.


Isabelle de Ferrer

Isabelle is an undergraduate human geography student at the University of Leeds, currently based in Singapore. She is hoping to pursue a career in international security and intelligence with a focus on south-east Asian relations.

Living in Singapore and travelling frequently has intensified her interest in the region and led her to specialise in Asian politics whilst at the National University.

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Kei Koga (2018) Japan’s strategic interests in the South China Sea: beyond the horizon?, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 72:1, 16-30, DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2017.1399337







Kei Koga (2018) Japan’s strategic interests in the South China Sea: beyond the horizon?, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 72:1, 16-30, DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2017.1399337



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