Lai Ching-te's Bold Taiwan Independence Agenda Fuels Cross-Strait Tensions
By Yongnian Zheng

Lai Ching-te's Bold Taiwan Independence Agenda Fuels Cross-Strait Tensions

Jun. 25, 2024  |     |  0 comments

Although Lai Ching-te largely adheres to the framework of cross-strait policies established during Tsai Ing-wen's term, he shows ambitions to advance beyond Tsai in advocating for “Taiwan independence.” In his May 20 inaugural speech, he referred to "Taiwan" nearly 80 times, attempting to position Taiwan with mainland China and emphasizing the existence of the so-called "Republic of China." These statements vacillate between "Two Chinas" and "One China, One Taiwan." As a prominent figure in the "Taiwan independence" movement, his speech continues to create cross-strait tensions, increasing the risk of "Taiwan independence." Despite the Tsai administration's gradual shift from the "One China with respective interpretations" and its virtual disappearance of the "1992 Consensus," Lai Ching-te is moving even further in this direction. It is crucial to remain vigilant; the threat of "Taiwan independence" will likely continue to be significant over the next four years. From both domestic and external perspectives, four factors are accelerating the trend toward "Taiwan independence":

The first factor is the domestic political factors inside Taiwan. Despite securing only about 40% of the vote, Lai Ching-te still holds dominant executive power and can influence public opinion to promote "Taiwan independence." His deputy, Hsiao Bi-khim, maintains close ties with the United States, aiming to accelerate Taiwan's integration with the U.S. Given that both Lai and Hsiao are part of local factions within the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), their inclinations for "Taiwan independence" are particularly pronounced.

The second factor is the misjudgment within the DPP. The DPP believes that Taiwan has maintained the status quo of "independence" without acknowledging the "1992 Consensus," attributing this to support from the U.S. and Japan. The DPP thinks these nations have deterred China's unification efforts, believing that as long as Taiwan has U.S. and Japanese support, it can resist and deter mainland China. The DPP also underestimates China's capability to resolve the Taiwan issue. With Lai's administration further strengthening ties with the U.S. and Japan, the new administration's aspirations of "Taiwan independence" will not only persist but also be reinforced.

Third is about the extreme anti-China stance of the U.S. politicians. Today, the U.S. is engaging in a cognitive war aimed at shaping international perceptions of China. The American and Japanese administrations believe mainland China is accelerating its plans for unification by force. Since the Trump administration, the U.S. has strengthened its relations with Taiwan, adopting "balance" strategies to counteract mainland China's influence in the Taiwan Strait and attempting to obstruct China's unification. The U.S. is waging a cognitive war against China on geopolitical, economic, and ideological fronts:

1. If Taiwan unifies with mainland China, U.S. allies, especially Japan, will lose control of the first island chain. The U.S. also fears being ousted from this strategic region.

2. Given Taiwan's dominant role in the global chip industry, if mainland China acquires Taiwan's chip technology, China could dominate global chip production.

3. The U.S. aims to portray Taiwan as a "democratic Jerusalem," creating the perception that global democracy would suffer a severe blow if Taiwan were unified.

The U.S. approach fosters false expectations among "Taiwan independence" advocates, reinforcing their determination and shaping public opinion for potential military conflict. The U.S. promotes a "Global East," emphasizing the binary opposition between democracy and authoritarianism, stirring up a global contest between these systems. It portrays countries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran as an "axis of evil," thereby deepening misperceptions about China among Taiwan and Japan.

China must maintain sufficient strategic composure, make rational judgments, and strive to promote peaceful unification solutions. Objectively speaking, time is still on the Mainland’s side. The domestic political landscape in Taiwan is highly fragmented and divided; the DPP is one of many political forces. Securing over 40% of the vote does not mean Lai Ching-te can govern unchallenged. Unlike the older generation's ideological view of mainland China, Taiwan's younger generation (Generation Z) increasingly sees democracy as an illusory slogan. They have grown up witnessing an assertive China, and domestic development in Taiwan does not satisfy their aspirations.

Most Taiwanese do not want Taiwan to become another Ukraine, nor do they believe the U.S. would genuinely intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict. It is hard to imagine the U.S. sending troops to "save" Taiwan, especially given the risks of confronting the world's second-largest economy.

China should note that while the U.S. continuously provokes the Taiwan issue, it also tries to avoid direct military intervention. This is evident in the Biden administration's "guardrail" policy, which reflects an intention to avoid escalating conflicts. Currently, the U.S.'s appeal to its allies is significantly weakened. Since withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the U.S. has not opened its market to its allies. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) proposed by the Biden administration is mainly symbolic, offering little substantial benefit to its allies. Instead, the U.S. continues to exploit its allies' interests. China's rise is fundamentally different from the former Soviet Union's expansionism. China has no intention of external expansion and is willing to resolve disputes through negotiation, as shown by its proposal to establish a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The U.S.'s maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait are more about amplifying the "China threat" to create psychological deterrence against China rather than preparing for a real war.

To accomplish the historical mission of national unification, the Mainland must take the initiative and maintain its composure. On the one hand, the Mainland should not underestimate the risk of the rise of "Taiwan independence" forces; on the other hand, Mainland should not be swayed by the cognitive warfare initiated by the United States. In dealing with domestic issues in Taiwan, the Mainland should not only focus on the statements of a few "Taiwan independence" politicians but also pay attention to the actual demands of the majority of Taiwan compatriots, especially their pursuit of development interests. The Mainland do not renounce the option of using force to unify Taiwan, but this is by no means the only option. Even if there is only a one in ten thousand chance of promoting unification through peaceful means, the Mainland must make unremitting efforts.

The key to resolving the Taiwan issue lies in the Mainland herself. First, the Mainland must accelerate the modernization of its national defense, exemplified by launching the Fujian aircraft carrier. The Mainland will not relinquish the option of using force to resolve the Taiwan issue; if Taiwan moves towards independence, the use of force will be unavoidable. However, resolving the Taiwan issue does not necessarily mean that military action is the only means, as claimed by "Taiwan independence" advocates, the West, or some populists. The mainland should still regard Taiwan compatriots as fellow Chinese.

Since 1994, National Chengchi University in Taiwan has conducted annual public opinion to gauge the public's views on Taiwan's future with respect to unification or independence. These polls categorize the public's stance into six options: rapid unification, rapid independence, maintaining the status quo leaning towards unification, maintaining the status quo to decide later, permanent maintenance of the status quo, and maintaining the status quo leaning towards independence. Historically, "maintain the status quo to decide later" has been the majority preference. However, the option to "permanently maintain the status quo" has seen increasing support, growing from 9.8% thirty years ago to 33.2% today. It has now surpassed "maintain the status quo to decide later," which currently stands at 27.9%, and is becoming the most favored option for now.

One can interpret the attitudes of the Taiwanese people as follows: although they do not want immediate unification, they also do not seek independence; instead, they prefer to maintain the status quo, preserve peace, and avoid conflict. This attitude is worthy of our understanding and respect. In recent years, mainland China has demonstrated economic resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Chinese-style modernization provides a solid material foundation for achieving unification. For the general populace, development is the most critical issue.

Second, the Mainland must promote cross-strait civil exchanges with a more open posture under the premise of adhering to the One-China principle to create favorable social conditions for eventual unification. The Mainland can explore new forms of communication with the authorities of Taiwan. Additionally, the Mainland should learn to employ more flexible strategies, firmly defending national sovereignty while winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people with "sweeter carrots." For example, the Mainland can adopt unilateral open policies towards Taiwan in areas such as trade and tourism, allowing the benefits of these policies to reach the broad masses of the Taiwanese people, thus isolating and striking against "Taiwan independence" forces on the island. At the same time, the Mainland must focus on engaging with the younger generation in Taiwan, accelerating civil and local exchanges, and using pragmatic actions to earn their trust and support.