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
Between May 1 and Sept. 1, tensions between Taiwan and China exploded in ways few anticipated but were in retrospect the culmination of well-established dynamics. The US once again was right in the middle. On Aug. 2, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, which Taiwan’s government celebrated as the most important visit in at least 25 years by a US politician. She promised Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that US support for Taiwan’s security would remain “ironclad.” On Aug. 4, the day after Pelosi departed Taiwan, China signaled its displeasure by conducting the most extensive military exercises ever conducted near Taiwan, closer to the island than any before, and launching ballistic missiles over Taiwan’s capital to land in waters east of the island. Throughout these exercises, the Chinese, Taiwan, and US militaries avoided any interactions that might have provoked confrontation. On Aug. 10, the Chinese military announced that the exercises had concluded, achieving their objectives, but that the military would continue its activities around Taiwan.
This crisis occurred three months after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a long-awaited speech on US China policy, claiming that policy toward Taiwan and China, and the US commitment to peaceful resolution of any disputes between them, remained unchanged. China rejected Blinken’s claims of US consistency and insisted that Washinging was hollowing out its commitment to respect Beijing’s position as the only legal government of China, including Taiwan. China expressed particular anger at President Biden’s pledges to defend Taiwan and at the continuing series of high-level US officials visiting Taiwan. Beijing warned it would react harshly if Pelosi visited Taiwan, as she had promised to do. She visited, and China reacted, calling her visit a “political stunt.” China laid out its familiar claims to Taiwan in a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the 1992 consensus and again in its third White Paper on cross-Strait relations. All this comes as Chinese commentators repeat expectations that the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, scheduled for this fall, will reaffirm the party’s tough Taiwan policy.
Largely obscured by these dramatic developments, Taiwan continued to expand its legitimacy as a constructive international actor, attracting more public support from major international actors beyond the US, such as the G7, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
The year 2022 in cross-Strait relations began quite predictably. Both sides repeated their calls for reconciliation, but in completely incompatible terms. Chinese leaders signaled somewhat obscurely that a new tougher Taiwan policy might be announced at the Chinese Communist Party’s Twentieth Party Congress scheduled for this fall, which could further increase cross-Strait tensions. This predictability was upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China insisted that this international confrontation had no lessons for the purely domestic matter of reunifying Taiwan. Nonetheless, China, Taiwan, and the US have all begun seeking military lessons from the Ukraine War. Taiwan and the US have intensified their discussion as to whether and how aggressively Taiwan should adopt an asymmetric defense relying on the small portable weapons—Javelins, Stingers, and others—that have thus far proven so successful in Ukraine. Diplomatically, the Biden administration has struggled to reassure China that it continues to honor the One-China Policy introduced in the Shanghai Communique 50 years ago even as it signals renewed support for Taiwan’s security. China’s support for Russia has antagonized Europe, Taiwan continues to enjoy success in international diplomacy, and Pacific allies Japan and Australia have become more explicit in their support for cross-Strait stability.
In Taiwan domestic politics, President Tsai Ing-wen is in the strongest position of any Taiwan president midway through a second term after leading her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to victories in a local by-election and a local recall effort, both called by the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT). If the DPP does well in regularly scheduled local elections this fall, that success may set the stage for a confrontation with Xi Jinping as he begins his history-making third term as general secretary of the modern Communist Party.
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.