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Tom Snyder

Caught Between Two Giants, Taiwan Anxiously Watches U.S. and Chinese Leadership

Taipei 101 looks out over Taiwan’s capital city. (Daymin/Flickr)

It was an interesting November for spectators on the island of Taiwan. Taiwan’s media has been paying close attention to the results of the U.S. presidential election and the recently-concluded 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Taiwan is awkwardly positioned between two giants, having close relations with the U.S. and an undetermined political status vis-à-vis the People’s Republic, two countries with their own fraught relationship. These dynamics heavily influence political discourse in Taiwan.

Optimism about stability

Government officials, public intellectuals and the news media have generally welcomed the continuity and stability of Barack Obama’s re-election. Taiwanese President and Kuomintang party chairman Ma Ying-jeou said that in Barack Obama’s first term, the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan is at its best in thirty years, and expressed hope the next term would continue to bring improved relations. Liu Te-Shun, Vice Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, hoped that Obama’s new term would help support stability in the oft-contentious Taiwan-China relationship. Bruce Linghu, head of the North American division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, likewise acknowledged that “the Obama administration’s US-China-Taiwan policy…[will] basically not be changed.”

The two largest political parties in Taiwan, the pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT) and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), both expressed some degree of relief in the maintenance of the status quo, but media outlets friendly to both parties also acknowledged major challenges for Taiwan’s future. An opinion piece in the United Daily News, whose editorial line has been supportive of the KMT, was optimistic about stability in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, and credited Obama’s win to American voters’ fear of “a Republican Party that would take America down the path of extremism” and wrote that such fears “seem no different from the fear that Taiwanese voters have that the DPP’s anti-China orientation will create national instability.”

An article from ET Today noted that despite this continuity, “From the American perspective, mainland China is not just a foreign relations issue but touches on questions of public finance, employment and other domestic questions, and their degree of mutual dependence far surpasses that of other countries. Under these conditions, how many choices does Taiwan have?” Not many, the article anxiously argued. It quoted Heritage Foundation China scholar John Tkacik as saying that the Obama administration “has basically abandoned Taiwan” and concluded, “Facing these two powers [China and the U.S.], only by exhibiting greater wisdom will Taiwan be able to find more ‘living space.’”

Economic benefits

Questions about economic ties featured prominently in the media. Taiwan, which is heavily dependent on trade, has been mired in recession, and only recently resolved a long-running trade dispute with the U.S. over beef imports. Many Taiwanese media outlets focused on the restart of negotiations for the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), which may lead to the adoption of a final free trade agreement between the U.S. and Taiwan and future participation for Taiwan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). An article in the popular Apple Daily quoted one analyst who contrasted an improving American economy that helped Obama’s re-election and castigated President Ma’s economic policies as a failure. A Taipei Times article noted that restarting talks was possible, and also noted that the U.S., China and the E.U. “account for three-quarters of Taiwan’s exports, which are losing their pricing competitiveness on the world stage, attributable also to a lack of innovation.” Economic Minister Yen-Shiang Shih hoped that with Obama’s re-election, trade talks on TIFA could resume at the beginning of next year.

Others noted that Taiwan’s market liberalization still has a long way to go. Despite President Ma’s goal of joining the TPP within eight years, Professor Ho Szu-Yin of Tamkang University was quoted in an article on Focus Taiwan, an affiliate of the national Central News Agency, as saying that market liberalization in Taiwan still does not reach the standards for TPP participation. Ho stated that liberalization is a national security issue, as Taiwan cannot rely solely on weapons purchases to defend itself, yet Taiwanese politicians “don’t want to antagonize voters, and when they woo voters with big promises, they run counter to trade liberalization.” An op-ed in the pro-DPP Liberty Times noted that disputes over market access may hurt Taiwan, arguing that “it is hard to see major improvements in the [U.S.-Taiwan] relationship, such that even the reinstatement of trade talks would produce friction.” It further noted that “Obama is even taking a hard line on China with trade, and improving the [U.S.] economy and employment rate is his top priority–how can he be polite with a Taiwan that refuses to open up its markets?”

New leadership, new challenges

With the conclusion of the American election, Xi Jinping, the new paramount leader of China, heralds a new generation of Chinese leadership. Hu Jintao’s complete turnover of power to Xi Jinping marked the first instance in which Chinese leaders made a total handover of power—Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin both stayed on in various capacities beyond the start of their leadership transition–which the KMT-sympathetic China Times found worthy of praise.

Another China Times op-ed also argued for optimism about Xi Jinping’s leadership. It argued that the “generation of Xi Jinping has more direct experience with the sufferings of ordinary people, and possesses more understanding of the trends of modernization and democratization, so in dealing with the wealth gap and maintenance of social order they may use more open methods and reforms.” The Apple Daily called Xi the “the leader with the most knowledge about Taiwan” due to his seventeen-year service in Fujian, directly across the Taiwan Strait, where he made extensive contacts with the Taiwanese business community.

The Liberty Times was less optimistic. It warned against “unrealistic expectations” for Xi. The article also forcefully asserted that “China uses both hard and soft methods in order to swallow up Taiwan [and their] basic conspiracy has not changed; Taiwan should not have any illusions about Xi Jinping and must make appropriate and responsive preparations.” Another article in the United Daily News also pointed out that the 18th Party Congress’ plans to continue trade normalization will force Taiwan to change its “investment-driven export” model to prevent its economy from falling into irrelevance due to competition with China.

A way forward amidst friction

Rising tensions between China and the U.S. have prompted worries that Taiwan may be caught in the middle of any conflict. One China Times op-ed complained that China’s role as punching bag during the U.S. election only inflamed tensions between the two rivals: “[It] [d]oesn’t matter if it’s economic competition, currency disputes, regional stability, trade balances, Internet freedom or the question of human rights; it all indicates that strategic mutual trust [between China and the U.S.] is sorely lacking.”

Taiwanese media have also widely questioned the Obama administration’s “pivot” towards Asia. While it’s ostensibly an effort to shore up alliances in the region, China sees an attempt to contain its rise. Any strengthening of the U.S. military posture in the region could lead to a simultaneous reaction from the Chinese, which may tighten a noose around Taiwan and threaten the island’s political status quo. One highly critical article from the Want Daily published on Yahoo! Taiwan argued that rebalancing may “cause the security environment on China’s periphery to become more complicated, and cause the reappearance of Cold War-era bloc-type resistance postures” that could exacerbate tensions in the region. An article in the Apple Daily also emphasized the necessity of cooperation and trust between the two powers: “If China and America are to coexist and prosper in the Pacific, finding a way forward amidst friction is the only option.”

A widely circulated article published in Taiwan’s Common Wealth Magazine noted the main challenges facing both China and the U.S., and a resultant feeling of helplessness in Taiwan. It described China’s lowered growth rate, lowered Purchasing Manager’s Index, and lowered export growth rate as China’s “three lows,” while describing the U.S.’s high unemployment rate, high national debt, and multiple years of high budget deficits as America’s “three highs.” The article warned, “Taiwan has no choice but to face economic realities. China and America are Taiwan’s first and third-largest trade partners… Any single policy implemented by either Obama or Xi Jinping will affect Taiwan’s economy and the welfare of its citizens.”

Taiwan’s political and economic problems are real. President Ma’s approval rating sits around 13%. The country faces a lopsided defense posture against China, with uncertainty over future arms sales from the U.S. and a change to an all-volunteer military from the year-long mandatory military service for Taiwanese males, set to take place in 2014.  The economy faces real questions about its future competitiveness. Caught between two large military and economic powers, it is no wonder that Taiwanese media reflects a belief that the island’s future will likely be determined by policies made beyond its shores.

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Tom Snyder

Tom Snyder lived in northeast China for two years researching economic revitalization programs and teaching. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
  • Gabe

    Wow Tom, that was really well written and researched. I hope everything works out and you do great. It’s nice to see such inspiration from my very own cousin. Look forward to reading more from you.