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Can China and Taiwan build mutual trust?

Though North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes hog the headlines today, the Taiwan Strait remains a major potential flashpoint as cross-strait ties have been frosty since Ms Tsai Ing-wen came into power and as Beijing becomes more assertive.

Can China and Taiwan build mutual trust?

China expert Richard Bush says that a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations could come once Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (picture) explicitly accepts the 1992 Consensus and says explicitly that the mainland and Taiwan are both territories of one and the same China. Photo: AP

Though North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes hog the headlines today, the Taiwan Strait remains a major potential flashpoint as cross-strait ties have been frosty since Ms Tsai Ing-wen came into power and as Beijing becomes more assertive.

As the United States would invariably be involved in any conflict between Taipei and Beijing, the stability of the three-way relationship is therefore critical for the regional order.

TODAY’s Ben Ho speaks to Dr Richard Bush, a leading expert in China and Taiwan affairs, on the dynamics of the relationships and how they would develop going forward.

Dr Bush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution based in Washington DC. He was previously the chairman and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the mechanism through which Washington conducts relations with Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

 

TODAY: Cross-strait ties have been frosty since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came into power in May 2016, but she recently called for a “breakthrough” in relations with the mainland. So what would be such a breakthrough and how do you see cross-strait relations developing going forward?

Dr Bush: From Beijing’s stated point of view, the breakthrough should come once Ms Tsai explicitly accepts the 1992 Consensus and says explicitly that the mainland and Taiwan are both territories of one and the same China. But I doubt whether she will do that.

From her point of view, the more acceptable way to induce a breakthrough would be if Beijing accepted Ms Tsai’s somewhat ambiguous way of addressing, in her inaugural address, the issues of the 1992 Consensus and the question of One China (she did address them).

If Beijing were flexible in this way, it would permit the two sides to return gradually to the sort of cordial relationship they had during the second term of Ms Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.

More importantly, it would permit a mutual trust-building process between the two sides and would reduce the fears that each side has about the intentions of the other.

TODAY: How has the US-Taiwan relationship fared under the Donald Trump administration?

Dr Bush: It got off to a shaky start after the election with Mr Trump’s phone call in early December with Ms Tsai and then his media statement several days later that suggested that he would use Taiwan as leverage vis-à-vis China. Things have calmed down since then.

Trump administration spokesmen have implicitly blamed China for the impasse in cross-Strait relations and acknowledged Ms Tsai’s good will. However, there are differences between Washington and Taipei concerning trade and security issues. The wild card here is the possibility that President Xi might go to Mr Trump in order to make progress on Taiwan.

TODAY: The principal security concern for the Trump administration currently appears to be North Korea, rather than Taiwan. How does Taiwan fit into the overall list of US security priorities in the Asia-Pacific?

Dr Bush: Taiwan is either second or third on the list, depending on where one puts the South China Sea. Both issues seem rather quiet for now. The South China Sea seems to have more potential to quickly flare up, either because of an accident between coast guard ships or fishing vessels or because of unexpected oil or gas drilling.

The larger issue for the medium or long term is what security role Washington will play in the region and therefore which issues will remain on America’s “list”.

TODAY: Moving ahead, what are the challenges and opportunities for the US-Taiwan relationship?

Dr Bush: Washington and Taipei have the opportunity to make gains in their economic and security relations, but this requires some policy changes and adjustments by Taiwan and a certain amount of flexibility on the US side, particularly on trade.

The challenges will come if Beijing increases the political and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, placing Taipei on the defensive. There are some ways the US can help, but in other areas it’s difficult.

TODAY: Chinese President Xi Jinping has emerged stronger as China’s leader after the 19th Party Congress last month. What implications would this have for Beijing’s foreign policy and the region?

Dr Bush: It would seem to presage a more active and even assertive role in regional affairs. But we have already seen that over the last five years, and the results haven’t worked to China’s advantage.

Look at the way in which China’s pressure on South Korea over the Thaad anti-missile system caused a decline in China’s favourability ratings in Korea.

Looking forward, China will probably seek to take the lead on regional economic architecture through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in competition with Japan’s leadership of Trans-Pacific Partnership-11. It will likely seek to consolidate its position on issues relating to the South China Sea. The big questions are how it chooses to handle North Korea and Japan.

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