In 2022, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen will pursue the leitmotif of recent years: resisting the encirclement syndrome.
Tsai Ing-wen is the leader of de facto, but not de jure, independent Taiwan. As a pro-independence politician, she tries to walk a fine line between “flying her independence flag” to garner domestic and overseas support and not provoking the Chinese leadership in Beijing to take action to bring what they consider the “renegade province” under formal control. This is a delicate balancing act, and in performing it, Tsai has shown skill and caution over the last five volatile years. The citizens of Taiwan may chafe at their nation’s ambiguous status, but the fact is that they enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and a vibrant democracy. While concerns relating to Taiwanese independence grab the attention of the outside world and are a key driver of Taiwan’s divided domestic politics, Taiwan faces many of the same challenges as other developed nations, and Tsai has also had to focus on issues promoted by her Democratic Progressive Party, such as social, equality and institutional modernisation. With her successor’s election not until early 2024, the coming year will see debates over proposed changes to Taiwan’s constitution, a continued focus on pandemic mitigation, efforts to diversify Taiwan’s economy and navigating the choppy waters of cross-Strait relations and U.S.-China geopolitical competition.
When first elected in 2016, Tsai refused to accept an earlier agreement between Beijing and Taipei – the so-called 1992 Consensus – that essentially papered over the issue of Taiwan’s independence by conjuring disparate versions of an inclusive “one China.” This allowed both sides to sign and enact multiple agreements regarding trade, investment and other practical issues, enabling them to see millions of travellers, hundreds of airline flights and ever-increasing levels of trade and investment crossing the Taiwan Strait. After Tsai declined to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus that established the “one China” basis for previous cross-Strait exchanges, Beijing refused to engage with her government and moved alternately either to woo Taiwan residents directly with benefits or to punish those they see promoting Taiwan independence. Neither approach has worked, partly because of the very negative impression left by Beijing’s squeezing of freedoms in Hong Kong following the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020. At the same time, all the previous cross-Strait agreements afforded by the 1992 Consensus remain in place and operative, albeit under pressure from the pandemic and strained relations.
The absence of official communication between Beijing and Taipei makes the situation more precarious, and circumstances will keep tensions high in the coming year. Given the level of mutual distrust across the Strait, official signals are often mis- or over-interpreted. Beijing is continuing its rapid military build-up and is responding militarily to perceived provocations by Taipei and Washington. Although not all Beijing’s military moves are necessarily aimed at pressuring Taiwan (some exercises and flights through Taiwan’s ADIZ are routine training), Taiwan is committed to responding to all proximate flights, meaning that highly public responses and the drumbeat of media stories about military incursions will continue. Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Joe Biden that Beijing “has patience” and will “make utmost efforts for peaceful reunification,” seemingly trying to damp down public concern over the issue.
2022 is an important political year for Xi: the 20th Party Congress, at which he will probably secure a third term in office, will be held in the fall, and stability is the watchword for CCP elites. Xi would rather not have a crisis over Taiwan in 2022. But he also warned Biden that U.S. actors trying to use Taiwan to provoke China are “playing with fire.”
2022 is also an important political year in the United States, and the issue of Taiwan appears to be one that politicians in the U.S. are interested in elevating. Several groups of U.S. lawmakers from both political parties have visited Taiwan recently in apparent shows of “toughness” in facing down Beijing. Joe Biden’s “tough on China” policy is likely to remain and his emphasis on “good democracies” (Taiwan and the U.S.) vs. “bad autocracies” (China) will continue to inflame tensions in 2022.
What will Tsai do in such delicate circumstances? She faces a number of conflicting pressures and will try to navigate them carefully and determinedly while furthering the interests of her party and hoped-for successor. These include:
dealing effectively with the impact of the pandemic and Taiwan’s economic prospects;
the need to improve Taiwan’s defence strategy and capacity, despite internal disagreements over how to do so;
seeing through constitutional changes about voting rules and other items without triggering a crisis with Beijing;
extracting as much support for Taiwan from the global community as possible, without crossing China’s red line.
It should be possible to get through 2022 without a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. After all, Taiwan’s current ambiguous status has endured under varying levels of tension for 50 years and there is no obvious change required in 2022. But political stakes are high, and the atmosphere is ripe for miscalculations. Just because Xi Jinping desires stability does not mean that he will shrink from a perceived crisis. And just because Americans do not want a conflict with China over Taiwan does not mean that their politicians will work to avoid one. Tsai Ing-wen is a canny politician who claims to understand that people in Taiwan want, above all, to maintain the status quo. Whether she understands and can manage impulses in Beijing and Washington well enough for this to happen is another matter.