June 27, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

Flare-ups in Taiwan-China Relations Here to Stay


Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen celebrates after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

As Tsai Ing-Wen assumes the presidency of Taiwan, there is evidence that Taiwan-China relations are set for a chill. Ms. Tsai heads the Democratic Progressive Party—which favors an “independent and sovereign” Taiwan—and her inauguration speech was the first measure of the direction her China policy would take. An abrogation of the 1992 consensus (full overview here) would anger China and risk diplomatic or economic retaliation. A full embrace would be a betrayal of her base as Ms. Tsai’s party does not recognize the 1992 consensus. President Tsai tried to leave it somewhere in the middle but that was not enough to satisfy China. On June 25 China suspended diplomatic contact with Taiwan due to President Tsai’s failure to “endorse the idea of a single Chinese nation.” But it is unclear whether or not President Tsai’s hesitance to fully endorse the consensus falls in line with public opinion in Taiwan

The most recent poll was commissioned by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and conducted by Taiwan Real Survey Co. via telephone. The survey had 1,084 respondents between June 2 and 4, 2016 and the margin of error was ±2.98 percent. It is also important to note that MAC is a Taiwanese administrative agency at the cabinet level and is responsible for advising Taiwan’s government on relations with China.

In the poll there is clear majority support for maintaining the status quo across a range of questions. For example, 85 percent were in favor of using existing mechanisms to expand communications and dialogue. Further, three-quarters (75%) were in favor of setting aside differences to seek common ground with China. This data aligns nicely with data featured in a recent article in International Security by Scott Kastner. As he notes—citing polling done by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center—Taiwanese support for the status quo was at 60 percent in 2014, up from 40 percent in 1995. In that same time, however, support for unification has halved, falling from roughly 20 percent to 10 percent. (These surveys have been conducted by telephone from 1994 through the present, with differing sample sizes each year. Here is a full accounting of the methodology.)

Fears that cross-strait relations would immediately fray upon Ms. Tsai assuming office are now starting to be realized. In the short-term, China’s decision to suspend diplomatic contact is not the worst-case scenario although it is obviously worrying. In the long-term, however, the prospect for relations is opaque. One of the major reasons for this lack of clarity has to do with a long-term trend on national identity in Taiwan, and how that shifting identity will be used by future administrations.

As this piece argues, President Tsai’s inaugural address emphasized the idea that the Taiwanese have a separate national identity from the Chinese—a change from the views of previous presidents. This position aligns with recent polling done in the country.

Meanwhile, a growing percentage of Taiwan's citizens self-identify as Taiwanese, rather than as Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese. According to the NCCU surveys, in the early 1990s more respondents self-identified as solely Chinese (about 25 percent) than as solely Taiwanese (about 20 percent), with about half of respondents self-identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese. By 2014 fewer than 4 percent of respondents self-identified as solely Chinese, with a clear majority (more than 60 percent) self-identifying as solely Taiwanese (with about 33 percent self-identifying as both Chinese and Taiwanese). These trends have intensified since Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president in 2008. [Kastner]

Despite this shift on national identity, the broad support for the status quo suggests that the Taiwanese public will remain pragmatic when it comes to dealing with China. This should limit the range of options available to President Tsai and may ensure a steady relationship. Instead, her approach will likely be incremental setting the stage for flare-ups in the Taiwan-China relationship in the years to come. But these flare-ups can be contained. If they are not, get ready to add another major challenge to a region already overflowing with them.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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