Kyle Churchman is a graduate student concentrating in China studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Prior to attending SAIS, he was as a resident junior fellow at the Center for the National Interest, where he published articles on cross-strait relations, Taiwan’s domestic politics, and Chinese foreign policy for The National Interest. He previously served as a researcher for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and the National Bureau of Asian Research. He graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a B.A. degree in international affairs and Chinese.
Articles by Kyle Churchman
At the end of 2021, Taiwan and President Tsai Ing-wen stand in as strong a position as they have enjoyed in years. Taiwan has parlayed its opening of a representative office in Lithuania and Beijing’s sanctions against Lithuania into public support from other European nations. For the first time Taiwan was invited to a US multilateral event, President Biden’s Democracy Summit. On Dec. 18 Tsai unexpectedly defeated four opposition Kuomintang (KMT)-sponsored referendums that would have reversed a series of her executive actions as president, one of which would have obstructed her efforts to move forward on a bilateral trade agreement with the US. These victories effectively gave the Tsai administration a mid-term vote of confidence and embarrassed newly elected KMT Chairman Eric Chu Lilun. Chinese President Xi Jinping used the anniversary of the 1911 Xinhai revolution to underscore that reunification of Taiwan with the mainland would be the measure of the Communist Party’s success in rejuvenating China. Repeated Chinese air sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) made clear China’s willingness to employ coercive tactics short of war to advance its aims. The combination of Taiwan’s successes and China’s determination to subjugate Taiwan may presage a contentious cross-Strait 2022.
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.
Taiwan’s economy continued to boom despite the pandemic, but its dominance in high-end computer chip production became the subject of worries by US officials and industry groups over supply chain security. China’s military activities near Taiwan included two days of especially intense activity, which were clearly intended to signal its displeasure with the Biden administration’s support for Taiwan. China also banned the import of Taiwanese meat and pineapples and announced preferential treatment for Taiwan investors in mainland agriculture, all clearly targeted at disrupting support for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party and President Tsai Ing-wen among its rural political base. Both strategies appeared more likely to backfire than not. Increasing tensions between the US and China, especially over Taiwan, have led to concerns on all sides that a diplomatic or military confrontation may be growing more likely.
Taiwan’s successful management of COVID-19 infections and the pandemic’s economic impact has elevated Taiwan’s international profile and President Tsai Ing-wen’s already high domestic approval ratings, but did little to ameliorate Taiwan’s confrontation with mainland China. Growing US–China economic and security tensions have continued to swirl around the island. Chinese air and naval forces have increased intimidation operations around Taiwan, with the Chinese media threatening that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft might even overfly the island. Taiwan has committed to increasing its defense budget and upgrading its reserve forces, and the US approved a series of military sales that are more closely aligned with Taipei’s porcupine strategy than some earlier high-profile sales. Taiwan’s IT companies have struggled to preserve their production base in China, while assuring the US that they would not contribute technology to US-sanctioned Chinese companies. They also opened facilities in third countries and the US in order to ensure US market access and political support.
Tsai’s decision in late August to allow imports of US pork treated with ractopamine was intended to reopen negotiations with the US on a bilateral trade agreement and it was driven by a strategic calculation that closer economic ties with the US would advance the island’s economy and security. That move caused a storm of domestic opposition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT) but with no response from the US Trade Representative, a combination that risks undermining the initial successes of her second term in office. The election of Joe Biden caused anxiety in Taiwan that the new Democratic administration, in an effort to reduce tensions with China, might be less supportive of Taiwan than President Trump has been.
Simmering tensions across the Taiwan Strait were a concern in May at the World Health Assembly meeting, along with President Tsai’s second inauguration, China’s National People’s Congress, and the 15th anniversary of the Anti-Secession Law. The beginning of Tsai’s second term was defined by Taiwan’s success in overcoming the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. Taiwan failed to win a seat at the World Health Assembly, but won unusually broad and public support from Washington and other typically silent partners. Taiwan offered assistance to victims of the Beijing’s National Security Law for Hong Kong, prompting Beijing to warn of Taiwan’s “black hand.” Taiwan’s ties with the US were showcased by the August visit of Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taipei.
Elsewhere, seeking to jumpstart negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement with the US, Tsai announced that Taiwan will allow imports of US pork and beef. The Nationalist Party’s recent presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu was recalled as Kaohsiung mayor and replaced by DPP candidate Chen Chi-mai. Meanwhile, the new KMT leadership’s initiative to sever ties to the “1992 Consensus” provoked generational dissension and a sharp warning from Beijing. Lee Teng-hui was mourned at his death as a democratic hero.
After President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election and her Democratic Progressive Party retained its legislative majority, COVID-19 dominated the news, further embittered cross-strait relations, and provoked a sharp confrontation over Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization. Beijing conducted more military operations near the island in response to concern that Taiwan is pushing independence, and the Trump and Tsai administrations strengthened ties. The opposition Kuomintang chose a younger, reform-minded leader following the latest in a series of defeats.
President Tsai Ing-wen triumphed over her populist Kuomintang (KMT) opponent Han Kuo-yu in Taiwan’s January 11, 2020 presidential election, garnering 57.1% of the vote to Han’s 38.6%. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also retained its majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY), albeit with the loss of some seats to the KMT and third parties. While there has been considerable attention to Beijing’s influence operations, the election illustrated Beijing’s limited ability to manipulate Taiwan elections. The outcome portends continued deadlock and tension in cross-strait relations in the coming months. Meanwhile, Taipei and Washington have strengthened ties by launching a series of bilateral and multilateral cooperative projects, intended in part to counter both Beijing’s influence operations and its continuing diplomatic, economic, and military pressures on Taiwan.
The coming elections in Taiwan have shaped cross-strait relations. To a surprising degree, Hong Kong demonstrations have influenced the early campaign, helping President Tsai Ing-wen win her party’s nomination and requiring opposition candidates to reject Beijing’s “one country, two systems” more firmly than they would have otherwise. In the midst of US-China tensions, Washington has approved two major arms sales to Taiwan and taken other steps to improve US-Taiwan relations. Beijing opposes Tsai and has taken steps publicly and behind the scenes to boost the KMT’s populist candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu. Beijing’s hardline response to Hong Kong demonstrations will likely continue to benefit Tsai as the election approaches in January.
The year began with General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Tsai Ing-wen making major statements that underline the fundamental gap between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan. In the face of Beijing’s continuing pressure on Taiwan, Washington and Taipei took steps to strengthen relations and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). In Congress, members proposed new measures, some of which challenge the established framework for US relations with Taiwan and China. Beijing repeatedly protested these efforts and in April sent two PLA fighters deliberately across the midline of the Taiwan Strait for the first time in 20 years in an ill-defined warning. In Taiwan, maneuvering for the 2020 elections has begun creating a confusing situation with unclear implications for cross-strait and US-Taiwan relations.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a stunning defeat in Taiwan’s November local elections. Although local issues and personalities were the focus of the campaign, cross-strait economic issues did play a role. The Kuomintang’s (KMT) revival, which improves its prospects in the 2020 legislative and presidential elections, was welcomed in Beijing. While Taipei continues to be concerned about seriously strained US-China relations, Taipei and Washington continue to strengthen their ties.