China’s Shifting Taiwan Policy

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

With the upcoming leadership transition in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from its fourth generation to its heralded fifth generation of leaders, the cross-China Strait relations have warmed significantly between the PRC and Taiwan, a political science professor at Penn claims.According to Penn Professor Jacque DeLisle’s essay “Strait Ahead? China’s Fifth Generation Leaders and Beijing’s Taiwan Policy,” the PRC has scaled back its tense and divisive rhetoric. Their Taiwan-friendly policies came about through six specific reasons outlined by DeLisle in his paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and will continue to contribute to the PRC’s greater goals in the international arena.

The PRC has attempted to influence Taiwan’s democratic elections, suffering several setbacks but has learned from the mistakes of the recent past. Only until the PRC sat on the sidelines in presidential elections did cross-China Strait relations improve with a friendlier president in power. As a result, political barbs and criticisms from both sides have diminished and the drive for reunification (a divisive point in relations) has also abated. Taiwan was rewarded, to an extent, with a de-facto diplomatic truce and moderate increases in Taiwan’s international presence, which will continue the moderate PRC policy towards Taiwan for the foreseeable future.

DeLisle’s essay outlines six primary reasons why the current moderate PRC policy will remain after the leadership transition. First, the leadership succession allows for a gradual change in leadership. Next, there’s little policy change in a transition because the new leader does not have the credibility of his predecessors, and therefore cannot get a consensus from top party leaders to change policy. Third, by creating a crisis with Taiwan, the incoming leadership has more to lose than solely maintaining the status quo. A fourth reason is that incoming President Xi Jinping is not a radical revolutionary, and will not seek a drastic change as a calculated politician. He argues that Xi has a vested interest in Taiwan, having dealt with the cross-China Strait relations early in his career. DeLisle’s last point is that Xi’s predecessor determined the PRC’s Taiwan policy, which gives Xi leeway to direct policy.

DeLisle lays out PRC goals with their relationship with Taiwan as the leadership transitions. First, the PRC’s increased soft power will be hurt if it continues to bully Taiwan. Second, a stable relationship with Taiwan ensures that the PRC can focus and direct its economic development unencumbered. A third goal is that tensions are the lowest it has been in years and allows the PRC to direct its focus elsewhere. The last goal is that a friendlier Taiwan will not force a significant shift in PRC policy.

However, though the transition may be smooth, there is also the possibility of a change of power in Taiwan to a pro-independence president. If that does happen, then there is a possibility for “increased volatility” within PRC circles that could lead to the scrapping of friendly relations with Taiwan. In this scenario, the PRC and Taiwan will revert back to tension-filled relations and lose the progress achieved in recent years.