Monday June 1, 2020


September 12, 2014

Relations between Taiwan and the mainland have enjoyed a period of relative stability since the election of Kuomintang leader Ma Ying-jeou to Taiwan’s presidency in 2008. The KMT has long been the dominant party in Taiwanese politics, and although committed to eventual unification with China on paper, it has maintained the status quo relationship with the mainland. Prior to President Ma Ying-jeou’s election, Democratic Progressive Party held the presidency from 2000-2008. It was never able to take control of Taiwan’s Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, to form a majority, but nonetheless, the DPP’s promotion of de jure Taiwanese independence caused turbulence in cross-strait relations during its tenure in power.

As a two-term incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou will not be able to run for reelection in 2016.  This gives the DPP an opportunity to challenge the KMT government by capitalizing on recent tensions with the mainland, as epitomized by the March 18th Sunflower Movement and resignation of the principal deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. The Sunflower Movement brought a mixture of public sentiments on cross-strait relations to the political forefront. While the majority of Taiwanese residents still prefer the status quo relations with the mainland, the younger generation of Taiwan is more sympathetic to formal independence, due, in part, to a lack of familial ties and personal history with the mainland. Certainly, the movement has made people more aware (and in some cases, wary) of the mainland’s influence and interference in Taiwan’s affairs.  The DPP has pledged more pragmatism in its stance on cross-straits relations in the future, but Beijing is certainly studying the party’s goals and intentions should it win the presidency in 2016 and establish a majority government.

Taiwanese students take over the Legislative Yuan in protest of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement.

In addition to Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections, the future stability of cross-straits relations also depends largely on domestic politics in the mainland. For years, China has pursued an ‘Economy First’ policy, putting other problems second to its peaceful development. However, recent Chinese actions to assert sovereignty in its neighborhood have made some worry that Beijing will become more aggressive towards Taiwan, as well. Beijing’s reaction to the democracy movement in Hong Kong has also made Taiwan question the viability of the one-country, two-systems model. If there were prospects for democracy in the mainland, surveys show that most Taiwanese would be supportive of eventual unification, but so far, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s package of reforms has been more about making institutional adjustments than fundamental reforms to the government.

In regards to Taiwan, Beijing has focused on deepening exchanges. Beijing and Tapei have signed 21 agreements since Ma took office. Beijing has also allowed Taiwan a degree of participation in international forums and organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization. There has also been initial discussions on political issues, like Confidence Building-Measures. After the Sunflower Movement, Beijing has also realized the importance of activities to cultivate a better image at the ‘grassroots’ level.

One initiative that some have flouted is a Ma-Xi meeting at the upcoming APEC meeting. However, even if the logistical challenges of finding a venue appropriate for both sides can be overcome, there are underlying concerns that will most likely preclude a meeting. For instance, a Ma-Xi meeting could establish a precedent for further meetings, which would be troublesome for Chinese leaders if a DPP candidate was elected in 2016. Also, both sides lack political trust to be sure of how the other intends to portray the meeting to the public, press, and foreign powers.

Of course, US relations with Taiwan and the mainland also remain a significant factor in cross-strait relations. The US will also go through a presidential election in 2016. Within the Republican party, a camp favoring retrenchment foreign policies is trending. The call for America to ‘stay at home’ could negatively impact the level of America’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific and potentially lessen America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security. There has also been a noticeable downward trend in US-mainland relations since Obama’s second term and Xi’s accession to power; this negatively impacts cross-strait relations. In addition, it is expected that a recurring arms sales to Taiwan will take place before the end of Obama’s term, which always causes a brief increases in tensions between Taiwan and the mainland, as well as between the US and China.

For more on the latest developments in Taiwan, please see the sources below:

Tapei Times“Survey finds young adults worried about unification”

Tapei Times“Taiwanese prefer independence over unification: survey”

The Brookings Institution – “Relations across the Taiwan Strait: Opportunities and Challenges under New Conditions”

The China PostDPP cross-strait policies unpopular: survey”

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin