Even before taking up office the new US Administration has managed to disturb the climate of cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan, leaving us to wonder what position it will take after Friday's inaugration. Will moves be made to instigate momentum towards restoring an antagonistic status quo? If so, this would once more make Taiwan the centre of US-China regional competition in East Asia.
The concerns about the US changing its stance on cross-strait relations first arose after the President-elect broke with protocol and accepted a congratulatory telephone call with President Tsai Ing-wen. Trump subsequently suggested the One-China policy could be used as a bargaining chip, and earlier this month it was rumoured the transition team would meet with President Tsai Ing-wen on a visit to the US (though the Trump camp later declared this won't be happening).
In order to maintain stability and save already achieved agreements, Taipei and Beijing are well advised not to let the US get involved in shaping their relationship. It is particularly incumbent on the Taiwanese government to consider its approach since a more central role in great power relations will hardly benefit its interests.
Under the leadership of Presidents Hu Jintao and Ma Ying-jeou an unprecedented rapprochement process was initiated in 2008 that led to the signing of a whole set of agreements. The negotiation process and the details of the changing relationship were generally criticised as lacking transparency. A symbolic meeting between Ma and President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015 was presented by the Taiwanese media as too orchestrated and not of historic relevance.
Yet, between 2008 and 2013 arrangements were made that were beneficial for both sides. Six agreements enabled such items such as direct charter flights, tourist visas for mainland Chinese, air- and sea transport, food safety regulations, direct postal services and cross-strait shipping. Additionally, both sides adopted a major economic agreement, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), signed in June 2010. The preferential trade agreement provides for access to the labour market, ports and logistics, reduced tariffs and commercial barriers and lifted investment restrictions. Policy makers in Taipei regarded the ECFA as an opportunity to make Taiwan a gateway to China and a door opener for future FTAs.
A subsequent agreement, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), that would have provided much needed access to the growing service sector met with public opposition in Taiwan, including the so-called Sunflower Student Movement in 2014. This was due to suspicion the mainland's motives were political rather than economic. The agreement remained unratified in Taiwan. The current DPP government made the ratification subject to an additional supervision law that would not allow cross-strait agreements to pass without a vote in the Legislative Yuan.
The most important side-effect of the rapprochement was the solidification of the 1992 Consensus and with it a significant shift of the cross-strait status quo. In the agreement both sides confirmed the One-China Principle, while leaving the interpretation as to what this actually means at the convenience of each side. The shift from cross-strait relations, as the defining issues of the regional status quo, toward a stronger bilateral modus vivendi freed Taiwan from the role as lynchpin in regional security.
Since coming to office in May 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has been vague on her course in cross-strait relations. While she has not endorsed the 1992 Consensus, she has emphasised its principles as the cornerstone of relations with the Mainland. The reason for her fuzzy policy approach is a double dilemma the government faces in international realpolitik and public policy. The domestic pro-independence camp is asserting strong pressure on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), claiming that rapprochement with China has dragged Taiwan down a blind alley and made it more dependent. At the same time, the public is divided on the issue while businesses are favouring close economic ties.
Internationally, the need for greater stability and dialogue relations with China is an undeniable fact of Taiwanese policy making. With the shifting regional security status quo towards territorial issues in the South China Sea and Taiwan’s interests in the matter diverging from those of the US, the need for a solid independent policy is more important than ever. Thus, the dubious and renewed attention the cross-strait relations have received from the incoming US Administration and the possible use of the One-China policy as a bargaining chip is no good news and might redouble existing dilemmas.
With the US possibly refocusing on the 'Taiwan Issue', Taipei has little to gain but the spectre of greater attention. This attention would come at the expense of a bilateral status quo that has been strengthened in recent years and helped to improve stability across the strait. Even worse, a return to the old security status quo involving the US would make Taiwan nothing more but a pawn between regional powers pursuing their own strategic and economic interests. Any such status quo would be more disturbance-prone than it has been in the past. This is due to China’s advances in military modernisation and the diversification of US strategic interests in the region.
In sum, Taipei submitting to demands for nationalist self-determination at home will result in greater dependency and shifts of the US' One-China policy. Such a pact with a more self-interested US would come with high uncertainty. If Taiwan moves away from existing arrangements, it is playing a game that it can only lose. At the same time, it is in the interest of both Chinas to prove that previous arrangements cannot be undermined by any third party.