On June 24, in her first interview with Western media in well over a year, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called on the international community to “work together to reaffirm our values of democracy and freedom in order to constrain China and also minimize the expansion of their hegemonic influence.” These are remarkably strong words for a president of the Republic of China (Taiwan)—even for Tsai, a member of the notionally independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Since Tsai was elected in 2016, she has remained committed to the status quo in cross-strait relations, despite what she called in her interview “immense pressure” from Beijing. This means maintaining de facto rather than de jure independence for Taiwan, conducting cross-strait affairs in accordance with the ROC constitution and extant legislation, and respecting previously negotiated cross-strait agreements. 

Beijing, on the other hand, has intensified its efforts to unify Taiwan and mainland China under Beijing’s “one China” principle. In response to the 2016 election in Taiwan—in which the DPP gained simultaneous control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time—Chinese President Xi Jinping immediately launched a pressure campaign on the island, beginning even while the relatively China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou government was still in office. In the 35 months since Tsai’s victory, Beijing has cut off official communications across the strait, stolen Taipei’s diplomatic allies, used economic leverage to punish Taiwan, ensured Taiwan’s exclusion from international forums, and increased the pace and scope of military exercises in the waters surrounding the island. Xi shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Xi’s pressure campaign, however, should not be read simply as a sign of displeasure with the current DPP government. Although the DPP has in the past considered moves toward formal independence, so far the government has not openly threatened the cross-strait relationship. On the contrary, it has eschewed talk of independence and even offered the occasional olive branch to Beijing. The real reasons for Xi’s concern run deeper than any one government or party. Support for unification is plummeting among the population of Taiwan at the same time that Xi is making unification a more important component of his vision for the future of China—his so-called China Dream. Tsai’s recent foreboding remarks suggest that she sees what many in the West are failing to recognize: the relationship between Taipei and Beijing is becoming untenable, and trouble is brewing in the Taiwan Strait. 

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The nearly 70 years since the initial split between the two governments has been characterized by varying degrees of animosity. But in recent decades, Beijing’s approach to pushing Taiwan toward unification has not always been as outwardly aggressive as it is today. During Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, from 2009 to 2016, China’s strategy was to increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland, thus, in its thinking, making unification inevitable. But to the frustration of Hu Jintao, the president of China from 2003 to 2013, and now Xi, the people of Taiwan considered more than just their pocketbooks when it came to defining the nature of their relationship with China.

The signature achievement in the cross-strait rapprochement of the Ma era was the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), essentially a cross-strait free trade agreement. The ECFA did not have the positive economic impact that many economists anticipated, but even a wildly successful free trade agreement would not necessarily have increased Taiwanese support for unification. Many Taiwanese at the time, especially younger citizens, were wary of tightening cross-strait ties. For them, Beijing had always been essentially a foreign power with malign designs on the island, and they questioned whether rapprochement was in their interests. During Ma’s second term, in 2014, student and civil society groups occupied the Legislative Yuan to halt the passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade agreement, a treaty aimed at liberalizing trade in services between the mainland and the island. More than 100,000 people took to the streets in Taipei to support the occupiers’ demands. Later that year, the DPP made significant electoral gains in local polls, and in 2016, it achieved unified control of the central government.

The success of the independence-minded DPP occurred in the context of a long-term trend that should be worrying for Beijing, but that it has proved incapable of controlling: over the past three decades, the percent of the population in Taiwan that identifies as Chinese has plummeted as Taiwanese identification has surged. In 1992, 46.4 percent of those surveyed by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University reported that they identified as “both Taiwanese and Chinese”; 25.5 percent identified as Chinese; and 17.6 percent identified as Taiwanese. In December 2017, dual identification had fallen to 37.3 percent and Chinese identification to 3.8 percent. Taiwanese identification, on the other hand, had risen to 55.3 percent of respondents.

Interestingly, the percentage of respondents identifying as solely Taiwanese peaked at 60.6 percent in 2014, during Ma’s second term, while Taipei and Beijing had a closer relationship than is typical. During the same period, support for eventual independence grew, as did support for maintaining the status quo indefinitely. Support for eventual unification and for near-term unification have both decreased since the survey was first conducted in 1994. Put simply, distance did not make Taiwan’s heart grow fonder, but familiarity apparently did breed contempt. 

Taiwan’s Place in the China Dream

All of this spells trouble for China’s goal of unification. In fact, since Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, China has failed to make any progress toward this goal. The past 20 years of cross-strait relations, together with decreasing support for unification in Taiwan, suggest that at this point un-coerced unification is simply not in the cards.

Since Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, China has failed to make any progress toward its goal of unification.

But rather than accepting this reality and attempting to shift focus away from the island, Xi has made unification an important component of his China Dream. He began talking about the “great renewal of the Chinese nation”—which, for him, requires formal unification with Taiwan—during a speech he gave in 2012 as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, perhaps even more pivotal to the China Dream than territorial expansion is guaranteeing the economic well-being of Chinese citizens. Last fall, at the 19th Party Congress, Xi asserted that by midcentury the CPC would “develop China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.” But as policy experts Derek Scissors and Dan Blumenthal have argued, the Chinese economy may be entering a period of stagnation. “Absent powerful pro-market reform that is nowhere in sight,” they posit, “true economic growth will halt by the end of this decade, no matter what the government claims.”

If Xi turns out to be unable to deliver on his promises of economic prosperity for all Chinese people, as may well be the case, the other components of the China Dream will become more important. Unsurprisingly, he spoke about Taiwan in strident terms at the Party Congress. In what was reportedly one of the speech’s biggest applause lines, Xi affirmed his commitment to “safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” “We have the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatists’ attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form,” he declared. “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China!”

Beijing’s coveting of Taiwan is not new, but under Xi its aim has grown steadier. Broadly speaking, Xi’s pressure campaign against Tsai’s government has three primary goals. First, China hopes to isolate Taiwan on the international stage and advance its one-China narrative, with the aim of decreasing foreign interest in Taiwan’s plight and discouraging intervention on its behalf. Second, Beijing seeks to convince Taiwan’s people that the island’s continued existence as a de facto independent state is a lost cause, and that they lack both the means and the allies that would be necessary to resist unification. Finally, China strives to normalize its military operations in Taiwan’s vicinity, all the while wearing down the island’s own military assets by forcing them to constantly react to Chinese military activities.

To be sure, China still prefers to achieve unification nonviolently (although such unification would of course still be coerced). But the possibility of Beijing turning to violence cannot be ruled out—in fact, it is currently seeking to create the conditions in which the use of force against Taiwan would be a more viable option.

Rough Seas Ahead

In 2013, Xi told Vincent Siew, a former vice president of Taiwan, that “the issue of the political divide that exists between the two sides must step by step reach a final resolution, and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” But Taiwan’s leaders have reason to worry about the freedom of future generations should China get its way.

Xi is clearly eager to make measurable progress toward unification, but that is proving difficult to do without a willing partner across the strait. Even if the nominally pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT) were to take back the presidency in 2020, it still might not cooperate with his agenda. Like the DPP, the KMT is shaped by larger societal trends. Given the direction in which public opinion is moving in Taiwan, in coming years it is more likely that the KMT will move closer to the DPP on China than vice versa.

China and Taiwan are looking more and more like an unstoppable force and an immovable object, separated by only 100 miles of open water. Taipei has proved itself a responsible actor in East Asia and will seek to avert a potentially cataclysmic collision, as long as doing so does not require submitting to Beijing. Whether Beijing will accept anything less than submission, however, is not at all clear. If Xi finds he cannot deliver on his promise of a better life for all Chinese, he may welcome a confrontation with Taipei. The Taiwan Strait is already known for its strong winds and choppy waters—but rougher seas lie ahead.

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  • MICHAEL MAZZA is a Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
  • More By Michael Mazza