Taiwan’s Future: Narrowing Straits
Report from the NBR Analysis Series

Taiwan's Future
Narrowing Straits

by Robert Sutter
May 18, 2011

Indigenous weakness and eroded U.S. support give Taiwan little choice other than continued accommodation of overwhelming and ever-increasing Chinese leverage.

A cost-benefit analysis of the recent policies of the Taiwan, China, and U.S. administrations shows that the constructive relationships developed since the inauguration of Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan in 2008 likely will continue and develop further. The negative example set by the tumultuous and often dangerous crises in cross-strait relations from 1995–2008 continues to provide a strong incentive for each administration to seek the positive and avoid confrontation.

The 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, which could return leaders of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power, has the potential to complicate the positive trajectory in Taiwan-China relations. However, the new DPP leadership would likely follow a much more moderate approach on cross-strait relations than did President Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008). DPP leader Chen caused enormous controversy and tension by seeking greater independence and separation for Taiwan from China, resulting in a backlash by voters who gave a mandate to the Kuomintang (KMT) and its leader Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.

Media commentary and policy discourse in Taiwan, China, and the United States have been preoccupied with tracking the positive trajectory of cross-strait relations and the implications of recent improvements for the security environment. In the United States, government statements have been fully supportive of such progress and have encouraged further steps. Officials in Taiwan and China have similarly endorsed this trend. An exception to such support is DPP partisans; but even they have been compelled to appeal to more mainstream popular sentiment in Taiwan by toning down their opposition to Ma’s cross-strait policies.

What has not yet been systematically assessed, however, is the erosion of Taiwan’s freedom of action in the face of the remarkable growth of China’s influence over the island strategically, economically, and internationally, which since 2008 has been enabled and accelerated by the growing cross-strait interchange and cooperation. The weak efforts in Taiwan to strengthen freedom of action have reinforced China’s leverage and thus underscore the need for further investigation. [1]

Meanwhile, there has been little discussion of a concurrent erosion of U.S. support for Taiwan, especially if Taipei were to follow a course of action that would shift the recent positive direction of cross-strait relations. Current U.S. policy focuses, on the one hand, on deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan, while, on the other hand, sustaining conditions both for a peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan impasse and for a resolution of this major obstacle in…

[1] Key challenges facing Taiwan’s “self-strengthening” as Taipei deals with China’s rise and other circumstances are examined in Richard Bush, “The Social Foundations of Taiwan’s Future: Guns, Wheelchairs, and Shark’s Fin Soup” (conference speech at Columbia University Symposium on Taiwan in the 21st Century,Washington, D.C., June 13, 2010), http://www.brookings.edu/speeches/2010/0613_taiwan_bush.aspx.