REPORT: Cross-Strait Relations and the Future of Taiwan

Dr. Shelley Rigger and Dr. Robert Wang speak on Cross-Strait relations. Photo Credit: Martina Hukel

By: Martina Hukel, Reporter

On February 22, 2019, the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service’s Asian Studies Program hosted an event on “Cross-Strait Relations and the Future of Taiwan” that featured a conversation between Dr. Shelley Rigger and Dr. Robert Wang. Dr. Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College where her research focuses on Taiwan’s domestic politics, national identity issues in Taiwan-China relations, and related topics. Her current research examines the effects of cross-strait economic interactions on Taiwanese people’s perceptions of Mainland China. Dr. Wang is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He was a career Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Department of State from 1984 to 2016 and served as the senior U.S. official for APEC from 2013 to 2015. From 2011 to 2013, Dr. Wang was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and from 2006 to 2009 the deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).

This event was prompted by recent developments in cross-strait relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan. In a New Year’s speech, PRC President Xi Jinping reasserted that the reunification of the PRC and Taiwan must remain the ultimate goal of the CCP. He also suggested that political relations between China and Taiwan could follow the “one country, two systems” model that China currently practices with Hong Kong. However, Taiwanese President Tsai responded with a speech in which she firmly rejected President Xi’s proposal and publicly rejected the “1992 Consensus” for the first time, stating that “…Taiwan absolutely will not accept ‘one country, two systems.’”

The conversation at the event focused on Taiwan’s domestic political environment as well as relations with the PRC and U.S. Taiwan’s two main political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), maintain very different positions on the PRC-Taiwan issue. The DPP is more focused on Taiwan’s independence, while the KMT prioritizes a closer relationship with the PRC. More extreme factions within the DPP have recently been calling for a referendum on Taiwanese independence, which Dr. Rigger views with alarm given its domestic implications within Taiwan as well as the potential responses it might engender from the PRC. An independence referendum could force the PRC to maintain pressure on Taiwan rather than work towards cooperation, and it could also foment domestic polarization where it otherwise might not naturally exist. Both developments could weaken Taiwan’s position and risk the PRC more aggressively pursuing reunification. However, Dr. Rigger suggested these extreme factions could play to President Tsai’s advantage because they can highlight her relative moderation. Therefore, Dr. Rigger contended that President Tsai could still be a competitive candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

Dr. Rigger and Dr. Wang also emphasized the interconnectivity of Taiwan-U.S. relations with PRC-U.S. relations. The current U.S. administration is viewed as particularly mercurial and inconsiderate of the consequences of its actions towards the PRC for Taiwan. Taiwan is economically “sandwiched” between the two great powers given its strong trading relations with both, and, if trade talks are unsuccessful, Taipei will suffer the fallout. Furthermore, as PRC-U.S. relations sour, the temptation for Washington to boost arms sales and increase engagement with Taiwan will grow. Dr. Rigger insisted, however, that these actions are not a favor to Taiwan, and they are forcing President Tsai into an awkward balancing position between the two powers, especially given the recent downturn in cross-strait relations after the New Year’s speeches.

The session concluded with a brief Q&A period in which both Dr. Rigger and Dr. Wang encouraged those in attendance to keep a close eye on upcoming developments in this important relationship. While current posturing may be consistent with past rhetoric in the PRC-Taiwan relationship, the worsening PRC-U.S. relationship and polarized domestic politics in Taiwan could result in novel and significant variations that students of the region should closely monitor.




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