Policy Succession and the Next Cross-Strait Crisis

Policy Succession and the Next Cross-Strait Crisis

by Bruce Gilley
July 15, 2013

This article argues that China’s policy on Taiwan is likely to evolve toward political engagement as a result of the multiple actions of policy actors rather than politicians on both sides.



This article draws on policy-science theory concerning public-policy change to identify the possible trajectories of and likely actors in China’s future policy toward Taiwan. It identifies three scenarios—policy transformation, policy stasis, and policy evolution—and evaluates the possibility and implications of each. The article argues that policy evolution, probably in the form of a policy succession toward political and military issues led by programmatic and other policy actors, is the most likely outcome. This conclusion diverges significantly from the mainstream belief by analysts in Taiwan and the U.S. that policy stasis held in place by the new leadership of Xi Jinping is the most likely scenario.

  • China’s policy toward Taiwan is more likely to evolve toward noneconomic issues in the Xi period, possibly under the influence of programmatic and other policy actors.
  • Taiwan needs to have a forward-looking and proactive strategy for meeting this expected evolution in cross-strait policy.
  • The U.S. will continue to play a role in creating supportive external conditions for the reconciliation, as well as appealing to both sides to work toward a practical solution to their formal conflict.
Policy Succession and the Next Cross-Strait Crisis

Bruce Gilley is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the PhD Program in Public Affairs and Policy in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. He specializes in the comparative politics and international relations of China and Asia and is the co-editor of Seeing Beyond Hegemony: Middle Powers and the Rise of China (forthcoming) and the author of The Nature of Asian Politics (forthcoming).

There is a common belief among analysts in Taiwan and the West that the new leadership chosen in China in 2012 will continue to pursue the successful reconciliation with Taiwan that was begun by the two sides in 2005. This belief may be dangerous, however, because it presupposes a certain view of how policies evolve in light of prior commitments. By assuming that policy continuity in the Taiwan Strait means no policy change, analysts may have forgotten that policies evolve over time. In particular, Beijing may intend to continue its cross-strait policy by successively expanding it into political and military spheres. If this model of “policy succession” more accurately renders what Beijing means by policy continuity than a model of “policy stasis,” then future cross-strait relations are at risk. There seems to be a slow-moving crisis emerging in which Taipei clings to a belief in a status quo relationship while the relationship shifts into new areas. Understanding the dynamics of policy change in Beijing is key if both Taipei and Washington are to successfully manage the cross-strait relationship in coming years.

This article is organized as follows:<?p>

  • The first section (pp. 141-43) briefly introduces a theory of policy change in order to frame the discussion of cross-strait policy.
  • The second section (pp. 143-58) considers three alternative scenarios for Beijing’s future cross-strait policy: policy stasis, policy transformation, and policy evolution, and contends that one form of policy evolution, known as policy succession, is the most likely scenario.
  • The third section (pp. 158-59) concludes the article with a consideration of how Taipei and Washington might creatively respond.


Public policy theory includes the study of how policies change over time. In effect, there are three broad directions in which such change can occur. [1] Public policies can remain largely fixed in terms of both overall goals (sometimes called long-term impacts) and immediate objectives (sometimes called short-term outcomes), changing only in terms of the context of implementation (sometimes called stasis or stability); they can change dramatically in terms of both goals and objectives (radical, transformative, root, major, or innovative policy change); or they can remain fixed in terms of goals but evolve in terms of objectives (incremental, first order, evolutionary, branch, or momentum policy change).

Within the evolutionary or incremental category of policy change, a range of subtypes can be identified. Perhaps the most noteworthy is what Brian Hogwood and B. Guy Peters call “policy succession,” which involves a significant refurbishment of policy objectives, program characteristics, and organizational forms, while still operating under the same overall goals. [2] Where change builds upon the same policy image (the assumptions of the context of the policy), it is “linear” policy succession; and where it involves a shifting policy image, it is “nonlinear.”

In general, policy scientists emphasize the importance of seeing policies as dynamic ideas whose significance changes over time with implementation and revision. Legislative acts or authoritative pronouncements from political leaders are not the only factors shaping the content of policies. The endogenous role of policy actors (including networks, entrepreneurs, and programmatic actors) that shape policies on a daily basis may be equally significant. In particular, programmatic actors generate the ideas for how policies should change, making use of their resources, ideas, and existing authority. William Genieys and Marc Smyrl define these actors as small, closely integrated groups of policy managers motivated mainly by the desire to gain more authority over a given issue area. [3] Moreover, policies as implemented are also shaped by a range of exogenous factors—economic, technical, social, political, and administrative.

Policy change in foreign relations is a relatively new field because traditionally foreign policy has been seen as the tightly managed realm of political leaders. But the number of policy actors in this sphere has proliferated with globalization and the complex interdependence it produces, making conventional models of policy change more relevant. Any foreign policy agenda (such as cross-strait reconciliation) that operates across several domains (such as finance, transport, trade, investment, health, travel, maritime safety, policing, arbitration, and international representation) will be managed by many different groups of policy actors. This will give programmatic actors a strong incentive to change policies in order to gain authority and autonomy…

[1] Nancy Roberts and Paula King, Transforming Public Policy: Dynamics of Policy Entrepreneurship and Innovation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

[2] Brian W. Hogwood and B. Guy Peters,Policy Dynamics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983).

[3] William Genieys and Marc Smyrl, Elites, Ideas, and the Evolution of Public Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[4] Deborah D. Avant, Martha Finnemore, and Susan K. Sell, Who Governs the Globe? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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