Believe it or not, but people used to really worry about Taiwan. The island was the centre of intense geopolitical calculation, the subject of a drawn out wrestling match between the US and China. Over the last few years, however, it faded into the background: the South and East China Seas drew more attention as the theatre of competition between Washington and Beijing.
Now, though, there are signs that the island is very much back in the centre of geopolitical calculation in East Asia. Taipei is ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with a liberal legislative agenda and designs on greater independence from mainland China. The DPP is clearly keen to enhance its global profile: there are indications that President Tsai Ing-wen wants to expand Taiwan’s regional profile via a combination of trade, back-channel diplomacy and participation in regional institutions. Her administration espouses a liberal internationalist agenda and clearly has ambitions for greater status for Taiwan. However, 2017 presents a measure of risk with this opportunity.
Diplomatically, Taipei’s situation is becoming starker. Beijing has renewed its efforts to diplomatically poach those countries that still recognise the Republic of China as China’s official government. In December 2016, a trade delegation from Beijing visited Panama, one of Taipei’s last remaining adherents, as part of a push to convince the government there of the mainland’s political authority over Taiwan. In January 2017, DPP President Tsai responded by touring Taiwan’s Central American allies in the hope of tying down their support. Beijing has also recently won over a number of erstwhile pro-Taipei countries, including Sao Tome and Principe.
In addition to a slipping diplomatic situation, the DPP inherited a flagging economy when it took power. Despite a late-2016 return to growth, the country’s economic output remained sluggish. Furthermore, many Taiwanese have reported feeling left out, as development in the service sector has not yet provided trickle-down benefits for much of Taiwan’s broader society. Indeed, the Taiwanese elected the DPP in part due to hopes that it could resuscitate the country’s economic trajectory. In these efforts, however, the new ruling party faces a tough challenge. As with much of the developed world, economic woes appear long-term: with so much of its economic activity centred on the manufacturing sector, Taiwan runs the risk of becoming uncompetitive when faced with the output of a rapidly-industrialised region.
Militarily, there are signs that Taiwan intends to shore up against an uncertain future by modernising and upgrading its armed forces. It has gone ahead with the purchase of a number of capable new systems and technologies, all designed to protect its territorial integrity against threats from the Mainland. Chief among these are the production of a new indigenous fighter platform due in 2020. Taipei also plans to implement a major upgrade of its missile capabilities in both the anti-ship and anti-missile roles. These would have major impacts in any military confrontation with Beijing and give the Taiwanese a valuable deterrent bargaining chip in negotiations with the People’s Republic.
Of course, no appraisal of Taiwan’s position in the world is complete without due consideration of the US’ regional role. Donald Trump’s position on Taiwan’s relationship with China is still unclear, despite his much discussed phone call with President Tsai. Some commentators have argued that Trump intends to use the Taiwanese issue as a bargaining chip with China, linking the degree of his administration’s support for Taipei to Beijing’s intractability on other issues. There is no doubt that supporting Taiwanese ambition might be a useful way to apply pressure to Chinese policymakers, but Beijing’s historical stance and attitudes towards a strong, independent-minded Taiwan suggests that this kind of geopolitical gambling could have very dangerous consequences. In a reversal of 1995’s Missile Crisis, China recently sailed its single operational aircraft carrier down the Strait to signal both its extreme displeasure and its increased capability. A Trump presidency could very well be playing with fire.
Overall, the DPP faces a mixed bag of opportunity and constraint. An enhanced military supported by a functioning economy ensures that its de facto independence is not under the question. However, Taiwan looks more alone in the world than ever before: its allies and adherents are fast disappearing or changing sides, and America’s commitment to the ROC is now in much greater doubt. Diminishing political capital will ensure that Taiwan faces greater squeezing in the international environment.
Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.