The China-Taiwan cross-strait relationship: Stable, but fragile

The China-Taiwan cross-strait relationship: Stable, but fragile

From left to right: Shen Dingli, Richard Bush, Minxin Pei, Bonnie Glaser, Zhu Feng, and Chih-cheng Lo. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

In the past five years, China and Taiwan have succeeded in stabilizing their relationship to the benefit of both. Most progress has been in the economic and cultural spheres, with political issues left aside for the moment. A recent Center for Chinese Studies conference examined how China, Taiwan and the United States view the increasingly complex trilateral relationship.

Taiwan has become economically dependent on China and will be driven further into its economic orbit as its commercial ties with the mainland grow deeper. At the same time, its democracy has become stronger.

Conference summary

UCLA International Institute, May 7, 2013 — The leaders of China and Taiwan have both taken risks over the past five years to stabilize the cross-strait relationship, enabling the two sides to exit from a vicious circle of reaction to perceived threats, said Richard Bush at a meeting organized by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies on April 25, 2013.

Bush, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and Director of its Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, was the keynote speaker at the symposium, “China and Taiwan Cross-Strait Relationship.” The meeting brought together leading experts from China, Taiwan and the United States to discuss how each of the parties views the increasingly complex trilateral relationship after each side recently completed a domestic transition of power.

In China, Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in March 2013. In the Republic of China (ROC/ Taiwan), President Ying-Jeou Ma of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party was re-elected in 2012. And in the United States, President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012.


All speakers at the symposium agreed on certain basic facts: China and Taiwan have succeeded in stabilizing their relationship to the benefit of both. During Ma’s first presidential term (2008–2012), they signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (2010) and opened a path for increasing numbers of Chinese students to attend Taiwanese universities.

Most progress has been in the economic and cultural spheres, with political issues left aside for the moment. The United States is reaping the gains of reduced cross-strait tensions by being able to focus on other foreign policy priorities.

Taiwan has become economically dependent on China and will be driven further into its economic orbit as its commercial ties with the mainland grow deeper. At the same time, its democracy has become stronger, with presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 reflecting the genuine choice of the population and demonstrating the power of Taiwan’s citizens to constrain presidential power.

Taiwanese President Ma pulled back from potential peace negotiations when Taiwanese public opinion soundly rejected the idea. Taiwanese society remains, moreover, very divided with respect to China.

Both sides continue to distrust one another’s motives and are unsure of future developments. The 1992 Consensus Agreement negotiated by the KMT and the PRC is out of date and needs to be reworked to achieve a newer, mutually agreeable political formulation that can serve as a framework for political talks.

China’s military modernization has created a power asymmetry that can no longer be balanced in Taiwan’s favor, leaving the latter reliant on a strategy of deterrence. Taken together, these factors greatly raise the stakes for both sides should either decide to pursue a sudden shift in policy. The nuances of how each side views these facts was the substance of the symposium.

View from the United States

Thomas Fingar, Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies of Stanford University, noted that for China, the current state of the cross-strait relationship was both positive and manageable.

The likelihood of a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan has been reduced, lowering both the threat to the PRC’s economic growth and the potential for a Chinese-U.S. crisis. The situation is, however, mixed for Taiwan. “It’s a bet,” he remarked, “and it takes a lot of resources to keep the bet going.”

Fingar saw two principal alternatives for future Chinese policy in the strait. The PRC could preserve the current relationship in order to attend to its own urgent challenges, or it could deflect attention from these challenges by stirring up problems with Taiwan and other world powers to legitimize the regime.

Pressure on the PRC government from the younger generation, which has no ties to Taiwan and is highly sensitive to issues of sovereignty, will increase over time, he added. In addition, Fingar claimed that the PRC was reaching system capacity—that is, its centralized political system is rapidly approaching the limit of its ability to manage multiple complex issues, a situation that might lead to missteps.

Bonnie Glaser claimed the United States was very supportive of progress in the cross-strait relationship and despite suspicions on both sides, saw no issue as off the table. Glaser is Senior Advisor for Asia and the Freeman Chair in China Studies and Senior Associate with the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

U.S. policy in the strait, emphasized Glaser, is predicated on trusting the people of Taiwan to make the best decisions about their future at the pace that makes sense for them. She pointed out that Taiwan’s economic integration with China was a double-edged sword: it created incentives for both sides to resolve problems peacefully, but would increasingly constrain Taiwan’s sphere of independent action.

Of particular concern is Taiwan’s economic marginalization in the region, she said, where economic integration is proceeding without it. She consequently recommended that the U.S. devote more attention to U.S.-Taiwanese economic relations.

Glaser noted that Taiwan President Ma has established extensive channels of dialogue and information exchange between all government departments of Taiwan and their ministerial counterparts in the PRC. Although she considered it a positive sign that Taiwan is not discussed much in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, nor China in the U.S.-Taiwanese relationship, she argued that it remained vital for the United States to understand how both sides see each other and how they perceive their relationship evolving.

Although China’s formal view is that the ROC officially ceased to exist in October 1949, when the nationalist Kuomintang government was defeated by the Communist Party of China, Richard Bush of The Brookings Institution pointed out that China has been willing to overlook this fact. It has not given up on its ultimate goal of reunification, simply choosing to reduce the urgency of the timeline and to focus on preventing Taiwan from declaring independence.

Bush offered two paradigms for the future of the cross-strait relationship: mutual persuasion and power asymmetry. In the first paradigm, both sides take a shared approach to negotiation and mutual accommodation. In the second, China exploits its greater power and pressures Taiwan to resolve issues on China’s terms.

Bush claimed that Taiwan could take several actions to strengthen its hand, such as sustaining its competitiveness, liberalizing trade relations with all of its trading partners, reforming its political system (including the legislature and the media) and ensuring a strong and positive relationship with the United States. He also pointed out that a broader and deeper consensus in Taiwan would make it both more confident and more able to withstand pressure.

View from Taiwan

Taiwanese society may be divided with respect to the cross-strait relationship, said Associate Professor of Political Science at Soochow University (Taiwan) Chih-cheng Lo, but it has reached consensus on two key issues: the Taiwanese already believe that Taiwan is an independent country and that its future will be decided by its 23 million inhabitants in a democratic way.

Lo noted that the greatly enhanced economic and cultural integration of the two sides did not seem to be moving in the preferred direction of the PRC, given that public opinion polls reflect a growing sense of a Taiwanese identity apart from China.

Both KMT and PRC leaders use the catchword of “irreversibility” when speaking of improved cross-strait relations. Although he agreed that the current trend could not be reversed, Lo argued that Taiwan could try to influence the direction of the relationship by taking more initiative with the PRC. Rather than ask why Taiwan chooses independence, he urged China to ask why Taiwan did not choose unification.

The need to reach a new, mutually agreeable political framework for China and Taiwan has become a chicken-and-egg problem, said Lo. There is no agreement, he explained, as to whether dialogue should lead to the basis for political talks, or whether the political basis must be established before dialogue begins. Whatever the process, he urged the PRC to include the petitions of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the deliberations, stressing the parallel need for China to develop institutionalized channels of communication with the DPP as an additional safeguard against a potential crisis.

Minxin Pei, Director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, considered Ma’s policy toward the PRC very sensible, given the constraints within which Taiwan must work. The stabilizing force for the relationship, he said, is Taiwan’s democracy.

Pei predicted that the “Black Swan” event that would force action on the political front was China’s own democratization, which he foresaw occurring in the next 10 to 15 years. “The more successful Taiwan’s democracy,” he observed, “the more positive impact it [can] have on the prospects for democracy in China.”

Pei urged Taiwan to start thinking concretely about political integration. “The two Germanys,” he said, “did not think about integration until the [Berlin] Wall came done. [They] could afford not to think about it — the people of Taiwan cannot.”

View from the PRC

Taiwan has great importance for China as a metaphor for national aggrievement and nationalist feeling, said Zhu Feng, Professor and Director of the School of International Studies at Peking University, leaving it no space to entertain the idea of letting Taiwan go.

Zhu noted that the Taiwan issue has loomed larger in East Asian security in recent years, creating ripple effects in the region. For example, he noted that Japan has come out against the idea of forced reunification and that small actors, such as North Korea, may seek to exploit conflicts between Taiwan and the PRC for their own ends.

The strategic question is whether time is on the side of China or Taiwan, said Zhu, a question he said had split the Chinese academic community down the middle. In his view, the new PRC government seeks durable stabilization, penetration through many diverse contacts with Taiwan and preparation for handling a cross-strait crisis.

The key challenge is to manage the relationship well, which Zhu said was best done through the Beijing-Washington axis, as well as by ensuring that Beijing and Tapei both recognize the limit of acceptable action.

Zhu predicted that China would end up with federalism, as its centralized system is slowly fading away, and that the country’s democratization would be a long process. He claimed rapid democratization would not be the best “medicine” for cross-strait relations, as it could radicalize Chinese public opinion and increase both nationalism and populism. 

According to Shen Dingli, China and Taiwan are two people with shared sovereignty. Yet, Taiwan cannot represent China and its independence would threaten China’s well-being. A Professor of International Relations and Director of the non-government–based Program on Arms Control and Regional Studies at Fudan University, Shen spoke as an individual and not a representative of the PRC.

He congratulated Taiwan on its success in becoming a democracy, noting that China had failed to meet its own promise of doing so. Had China succeeded in becoming a democracy, he remarked, there would be less reason for conflict with Taiwan.

In fact, Shen attributed the latter’s survival not to U.S. protection, but to its successful economic and political reforms, including land reform. He urged Taiwan to respect China in the way that China, in his view, now respected Taiwan’s democracy. Although there is a big divide between the two sides, he claimed that as long as they wished to solve it, the process would not be too problematic.

To that end, he proposed a new political formulation: “There is only one China — Mainland China and Taiwan are both a part of China — The unification of China has yet to finish.” In his view, a united China could be the PRC or the ROC or even the “Chinese Republic,” as long as it was a mutually acceptable, new China. He predicted that the United States would abandon, or greatly change, its relationship with Taiwan in another 10 to 15 years, as China was ultimately more important to U.S. security.


The day’s discussions were perhaps best reflected in the question of a Chinese student, who asked why China wanted Taiwan in the first place. Pei responded that in addition to providing China access to the open seas, Taiwan remained unfinished business in the Chinese narrative and part of the national integration needed to become a great power.

Bush pointed out that the KMT had promised to return Taiwan and that the PRC was simply continuing a long-established policy of seeking to win it back. He claimed that Taiwan’s democracy had become an asset for China, as it is an obstacle to both radical anti-Chinese ideas and foolishly rapid unification. Bush argued that it was up to China to come up with a more appealing proposal on reunification. It is also, he said, time for Taiwan to consider what the various political options means for all of Taiwan.

Published: Tuesday, May 07, 2013