Tyrone Siu / Reuters Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends a military drill in Penghu, Taiwan in May 2017. 

Is a Storm Brewing in the Taiwan Strait?

Tensions Are Rising Between Beijing and Taipei

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

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