The Chinese leadership is creating a strategy of non-military coercion to shape Taiwan’s behavior toward acceptance of “reunification” without triggering a US response. This can be seen in the series of such coercive steps the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has taken since President Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated. There are also indications that China is developing a number of additional coercive measures that could be applied against Taiwan in the coming years. None of these measures will likely result in military action against Taiwan, and therefore US military steps in support of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) may do little to deter them. Washington now needs to develop new cross-Strait policies to counter this new evolving threat of Chinese non-military coercion against Taiwan.
Since the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, the core of the US “One-China” policy has been our insistence that the future of relations between Taiwan and mainland China should be determined peacefully by the two sides free from coercion. Since 1979, when the United States established diplomatic relations with Beijing and the TRA became law, the United States has expressed concern over possible Chinese coercion, particularly military coercion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) against Taiwan. The United States has provided a variety of military equipment, training, and advice to Taiwan in furtherance of the TRA policy. The Trump Administration announced two tranches of sales, totaling over $1.7 billion to modernize the island’s defense capabilities. The United States has also strongly encouraged Taiwan to increase its defense budget and its defense capabilities to deter any consideration of the use of force by Beijing. Despite the growing strength of the PLA and its focus on Taiwan, US military deterrence and military assistance to Taiwan have helped keep the peace and can, I believe, continue to do so in the near term (the next five years).
Current tensions between the United States and China will leave the United States few ways to influence Beijing to restrain its new strategy of coercive efforts. More concrete moves will be required. I offer below a selective list of some of the steps Beijing has taken against Taiwan, steps it has taken elsewhere that could be applied against Taiwan, and a few thoughts about possible US responses.
Beijing’s Road to non-military cross-Strait Coercion
Beijing has acknowledged its policy to use non-military coercion to move Taiwan toward “peaceful reunification” for almost 30 years. In 1991, PRC President Yang Shangkun (楊尚昆) announced that China would use its growing commercial and investment relationship with Taiwan to advance unification. It never spelled out in detail what that policy meant, but it ranged from preferential terms for Taiwan investors to encouraging Taiwan business owners and managers living and working in the PRC to vote in Taiwan elections for candidates who would oppose Taiwan independence and expand cross-Strait economic ties. In 2010, Beijing signed a series of agreements with the Ma Ying-jeou Administration that were designed to further knit the two economies together. Fears that these agreements might enable the PRC to subvert Taiwan’s economic and social stability led to the Sunflower Protests of 2014 and helped lead to the elections of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the majority in the Legislature in 2016.
None of this is news, and none of this overly worried US policymakers at the time. We thought Taiwan could reap the economic benefits of cross-Strait ties without any political costs. However, China has changed its approach to Taiwan over the last two years in ways that challenge US support for Taiwan and that we have not yet fully thought through or determined how to handle this new scenario.
China’s New non-military Coercion
Beijing has demanded that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” as the basis for any cross-Strait relationship. Beijing has done this fully conscious that no DPP leader could endorse this formulation, which had been popularized by a former Mainland Affairs Council chairman to criticize DPP president Chen Shui-bian in April 2000, over eight years after the 1992 meetings it claimed to characterize. Beijing has dismissed Tsai’s repeated efforts to acknowledge the fact and accept the outcomes of the 1992 and subsequent meetings. Beijing has taken this approach, knowing Tsai could not use the term “1992 Consensus” and survive politically, in order to signal to Taiwan voters and businesses that Taiwan will be denied any further progress in cross-Strait economic relations, and will indeed see cross-Strait trade and investment constrained, so long as the DPP remains in office. Regardless of what Tsai offers, Beijing is committed to use coercive pressure to undermine the political party that it sees as being committed to a Taiwan separate from the PRC in culture, history, and political identity.
In addition, Beijing has renewed its campaign to eliminate all of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic relationships by persuading third countries that China will use its economic and diplomatic muscle to support them if they recognize the PRC and to penalize them if they do not (examples include Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama).
Beijing has insisted that American hotel chains like Marriott and airlines like United and American use terms on their web sites that treat Taiwan as part of China. The Gap clothing chain was subjected to attacks for a map on t-shirts it sold that had omitted Taiwan and the South China Sea from a map of China. Noncompliance would risk the access of these companies to China’s enormous market.
Beijing pressured Spain, Cambodia, and the Philippines to extradite fraud suspects from Taiwan to China despite Taipei’s insistence that they should be sent back to Taiwan. Beijing has begun to issue resident identification cards to Taiwan students and business employees living in the PRC.
Beijing has used money and media access to exert political influence either in Taiwan or elsewhere directed at Taiwan.
Finally, China has conducted extensive cyber operations against Taiwan’s high-tech companies to steal their intellectual property, and we must assume it has conducted extensive operations against Taiwan government and infrastructure IT systems as well.
In addition, other measures could include: destructive hacking websites of Taiwan banks and companies, or Taiwan infrastructure; pressure on international insurance and financial institutions to choose between Taiwan or PRC business; and demanding ICAO to relocate the regional air control center currently in Taipei to another location.
These coercive efforts are intended to signal to Taiwan and to Taiwanese voters that:
- Taiwan is effectively and increasingly isolated diplomatically.
- This diplomatic isolation will have economic consequences when Beijing requires third countries to choose between preferential access to Chinese business and assistance (such as the Belt and Road Initiative) and welcoming Taiwan business and soft-power initiatives like Tsai’s New Southbound Policy.
- Beijing may retaliate against any Taiwanese or foreign business that conduct business with the Taiwan government or with Taiwan companies that avoid demonstrating political loyalty to the “One China Principle.”
- Taiwan passport holders traveling outside of Taiwan risk extradition to the PRC if they are arrested in third countries, whether for crimes we would consider real crimes or for politically constructed crimes.
- Taiwan civil society can be disrupted by pro-unification activists, and Taiwan political campaigns can be reshaped by PRC money and media.
- Taiwan’s government and government services could be disrupted at any time Beijing chooses to do so.
None of these efforts will lead to unification in the short-term, nor does Beijing expect that they will. Instead, they are designed, I believe, to reshape the political and social landscape in Taiwan so that increasing numbers of voters will decide that the cost to their wallets of electing a DPP president or mayor is too high. However, sympathetic they may be to a separate Taiwan identity, they may choose to vote for a KMT or another “Blue” candidate, hoping that it will improve Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan and their day-to-day lives. The net result would not be the kind of short sharp coercive steps that the US government has prepared for since 1979. Instead, it would be a slow-motion coercion.
The Need for a New US Response
The United States has been active in its military assistance to Taiwan in furtherance of the TRA, but far less clear in resisting “other forms of coercion.” The Trump Administration’s criticism of Beijing for its pressure on US airlines and hotel chains and the decision to recall our ambassadors to three Western Hemisphere countries that recently switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing constitute welcome acknowledgments that these changes do have real consequences for Taiwan’s viability. It is less clear whether they will have any real impact.
Now we must, I believe, consider a new approach of further steps in implementing the TRA policy to counter these new forms of coercion. We should:
- Negotiate a free trade agreement or an investment agreement, acknowledging that the economic benefits alone do not justify the effort.
- Take visible steps to integrate the Tsai Administration’s New Southbound Policy with the US and Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
- Press US allies and security partners, beginning with Japan, to work actively with Taiwan on regional security, even if that cooperation is less visible than our own.
- Look for creative ways to increase Taiwan’s visibility in the UN and international financial organizations. We could, for example, expand the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) programs and include Taiwan experts as advisors to US delegations. We could also make statements explicitly advocating Taiwan recommendations or expressing Taiwan’s concerns.
Some will counter that these exceed the limits of the United States’ carefully crafted “One China” policy that has fostered stability since 1971. However, if Beijing is incrementally eroding that stability, and we fail to act now, it may be too late to adjust by the time we and Taiwan find the ground collapsing below us.
The main point: The evidence is increasingly clear that China is implementing a strategy of non-military coercion to pressure Taiwan and Taiwan voters to accept incremental steps toward unification. The United States commitment to prevent Chinese coercion, based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, has focused on military steps to counter Chinese military coercion. The United States needs to develop a strategy of concrete non-military steps to counter China’s new form of coercion.