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China’s Perilous Taiwan Policy

Summary:
China's tough stance toward Taiwan has so far proved counter-productive, bringing no concessions from the government in Taipei and exacerbating tensions with the US. Unless China changes course, an escalating battle of wills with the US could erupt into direct conflict. WASHINGTON, DC – The unfolding geopolitical contest between China and the United States has been described by many as a new cold war. If it ever becomes a hot one, the flash point could be Taiwan, owing in large part to Chinese policy toward the island.  JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images Previous Next China’s government suspended diplomatic contact with Taiwan in June 2016, because the pro-independence

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China's tough stance toward Taiwan has so far proved counter-productive, bringing no concessions from the government in Taipei and exacerbating tensions with the US. Unless China changes course, an escalating battle of wills with the US could erupt into direct conflict.

WASHINGTON, DC – The unfolding geopolitical contest between China and the United States has been described by many as a new cold war. If it ever becomes a hot one, the flash point could be Taiwan, owing in large part to Chinese policy toward the island. 

China’s government suspended diplomatic contact with Taiwan in June 2016, because the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which had just returned to power, refused to recognize the so-called 1992 Consensus, the political basis for the One China principle. Since then, however, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has pursued a moderate policy, disappointing hardline DPP supporters.

That is not good enough for China, which has continued to tighten the screws on Taiwan. For example, it persuaded five other countries to follow it in severing diplomatic ties, reducing the number of countries that maintain formal relations with the island to just 17. China has also taken steps to stifle tourism from the mainland: whereas nearly 4.2 million mainland-Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2015, when the pro-Beijing Kuomintang government was in power, the total fell to just 2.73 million in 2017.

Taiwan’s government has not blinked. But, last November, the DPP did suffer devastating losses in local elections, largely because of anemic economic growth – an outcome that drove the politically weakened Tsai to resign as party leader.

For China, this seemed like the ideal moment to turn up the heat. So, on January 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a major speech on Taiwan, in which he made it clear that China remains determined to seek reunification.

Xi dismissed the argument that China’s autocratic political system is fundamentally incompatible with Taiwan’s boisterous democracy, insisting that the “one country, two systems” formula, first applied to Hong Kong when it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, would be sufficient to protect Taiwan’s interests and autonomy. The formula is, however, now unraveling in Hong Kong, where freedoms have been eroding during Xi’s tenure.

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