China-Taiwan Cross-Strait Relations: Evaluating Taiwan’s Response to China’s Reunification Quest
Reunification with Taiwan has been a top priority for Beijing since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Recently, President Xi Jinping declared that China will not tolerate the separation of even one inch of its territory. To achieve this goal, Beijing has employed a variety of tactics from enticement to intimidation. This article will examine the shifting patterns of cross-Strait engagement and its impact on Taiwan’s stance towards China’s goal of reunification, focusing on two case studies.
China has maintained a consistent goal regarding Taiwan since 1979: reunification as “one China” under mainland rule. Beijing’s leadership has employed a variety of carrot/stick approaches towards achieving this reality. Taiwan’s stance has evolved from its initial one China under a return to Nationalistic KMT rule to an inconsistent pattern under democratic governments, trending more towards economic integration versus sharper restrictions on cross-Strait ties. The Taiwanese population has been caught between motivation to promote economic growth via increased cross-Strait trade and desire to maintain independence from mainland rule in some format.
While Beijing’s goal is reunification, the question confronting Chinese leadership has been how best to accomplish this objective. Achieving reunification through peaceful economic and social ties would necessitate persuading the population of Taiwan’s blossoming democracy that unification under some form of mainland sovereignty is in their best interest. Cross-Strait economic interdependency has been mutually beneficial but has been imbalanced with China’s economy burgeoning in contrast to anemic Taiwanese growth, and with increasing dependency of Taiwan’s economy on China.
China has tried to promote positive cross-Strait relations through tourism and by appealing to Taiwan’s business community for investment. When that approach has failed to shift attitudes towards reunification, Beijing has employed diplomatic isolation and economic coercion. In addition to its refusal to renounce force as a possible option, the mainland has utilized military tactics designed to intimidate the Taiwanese.
This paper will examine the shifting patterns of cross-Strait engagement and its impact on Taiwan’s stance towards China’s goal of reunification, focusing on two case studies. While Beijing has explored a potpourri of tactics towards swaying Taiwanese public opinion, it has failed to achieve reunification under PRC sovereignty. Taiwan’s support for de jure independence stands at a tiny minority, but convincing the Taiwanese to relinquish some form of sovereignty in the absence of a democratic mainland has proven elusive.
Taiwan’s resilience in the face of a dominant adversary provokes the question of what factors underlie the continued resistance to the mainland’s model of “one China: two systems.” Since 1996 and the initiation of free and direct presidential elections, increasing numbers of Taiwanese identify by their nationality, rather than by ethnic origin. This trend corresponds to the development of a flourishing democracy. The growing sense of Taiwanese national identity, combined with a high value placed on preserving a free and independent democracy, has resulted in the majority of Taiwanese from both major political parties being opposed to reunification under the mainland’s terms.
Case Study I: Growing Tensions: the 1996 election and President Lee Teng-hui’s third term
The first case illustrates a period when Beijing reacted in a largely bellicose manner to perceived moves by Taiwan towards independence. This study will examine the actions and messaging of the third Lee presidency, and how a series of misinterpretations, as well as fundamental ideological differences, led to increased tension. An assessment of Taiwan’s response to China’s threats supports the conclusion that the mainland failed to anticipate the Taiwanese people’s degree of commitment to their budding democracy and to their growing sense of national identity. Even the more conciliatory gestures extended to the Taishang (Taiwan’s business community) failed to bring Beijing’s goal into reality.
The election of President Lee Teng-hui in 1996 was a hallmark in Taiwan’s political history, as it was the first direct presidential election. Having initially inherited the presidency, Lee embraced democracy and ultimately won the election in 1996 with 54% of the vote. The transition to democracy provoked increased debate on Taiwanese identity and movement away from the “pan-Chinese nationalism” of the previous authoritarian period.
In June 1995, quite possibly as a move to enhance his standing with the Taiwanese electorate, Lee persuaded President Clinton to allow a visit to the United States that included a presentation at his alma mater, Cornell University.   This speech proved to be far more political in content than anticipated, and would thus become a critical turning point in Beijing’s response. Just two months earlier, Lee had responded to China’s call for unification under the Hong Kong model by basing unification on the condition that both sides endorse a shared commitment to democracy. Previously, Lee had angered Beijing by reaching out to countries that had not established diplomatic relations with Taiwan.  When Lee issued his plea for Chinese respect for Taiwanese democratic values, Beijing’s negative reaction was about more than Lee visiting his alma mater.
Interpreting Lee’s U.S. trip as a trend towards defining Taiwan as a sovereign entity, rather than as a campaign effort to impress domestic voters, Beijing concluded that a tough response was mandated. In the summer of 1995, anticipating legislative elections, and in March 1996 just prior to the presidential election, China conducted a series of military exercises, including missile tests in proximity to Taiwan.  Lin attributes this show of force to Beijing’s “attempt to discourage voters from supporting pro-independence DPP candidates.” By contrast, Bush contends that Beijing was responding to Lee’s perceived provocative behavior. While the mainland was certainly opposed to the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence stance and generally preferred KMT candidates, it also clearly found Lee’s views on democracy and separatism, as expressed both at Cornell and previously, highly objectionable. The most plausible explanation is that Beijing was sending a warning to the people of Taiwan to back away from de jure independence or any actions implying a redefinition of its international status.
One important impact of the missile tests on public opinion was a consolidation around Taiwanese national identity. Surveys show that in the period from 1992 to the time of the military exercises in 1995-1996 there was a significant rise in identification as Taiwanese, with a concomitant decline in self-identification as purely Chinese. By exposing the “China threat,” the tests also brought economic and security concerns to the forefront. Mistrust of China’s intentions, having been provoked in 1994 after the murder of twenty-four Taiwanese tourists on a lake in Zhejiang, China, was fueled.  These events illustrate the vicious downward cycle of mistrust and misunderstanding that often characterized cross-Strait relations.
Another Taiwanese response to the missile tests was a dramatic rise in support for restrictions in cross-Strait economic ties. Although Lee had previously guided Taiwan towards increased engagement with China, he implemented extensive regulations to enable Taipei to track mainland investments and promoted diversification. Based on the “fear that excessive dependence could lead to ‘blackmail by Beijing,’” according to Murray Scot Tanner, this approach was formalized as Lee’s “Go South” policy in 1994.  The list of countries targeted for investment was expanded from ASEAN countries in 1993 to include Central and South America and Africa.
Six months after the last missile test, “Go South” evolved into the “No Haste, Be Patient” policy intended to further crystallize Taiwan’s control of funds heading for the mainland. Tanner discusses the link between national security and preventing economic dependency:[Lee] issued a report arguing that as long as Beijing continued its hostility toward Taiwan, unrestrained Taiwan investment in the mainland would undermine national security. The report buttressed its contention with numerous quotes from senior mainland leaders that called for expanded use of economic ties as a source of political leverage to prevent Taiwan’s independence.
Initially, fear of domination by the mainland corresponded to support for Lee’s restrictive policy, although the Taishang hoped that this would be a temporary reaction to the missiles.
An additional tool in Beijing’s arsenal for thwarting Taiwanese sovereignty has been diplomatic isolation. As Taiwan scholar Bush notes, “Perhaps the political issue that has the greatest significance in the stabilization of cross-Strait relations and beyond is that of Taiwan’s participation in the international community, the extent of which is one measure of Taiwan’s sovereign status.” Bush contends that one element of Beijing’s motivation is to reduce Taiwanese “resistance to reunification.”
During Lee’s second term in office, China blocked Taiwan’s participation in the first annual APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in 1993, as well as its bid to join the UN. Beijing’s campaign to weaken Taipei’s international status also resulted in a reduction of the number of countries maintaining diplomatic relations with the ROC from thirty to twenty-six. Taiwan only gained admission to a small list of international governmental institutions due to pressure from the United States, and by changing its name to avoid offending Beijing. China’s diplomatic isolation of the ROC did not yield a thaw in Taiwanese resistance to unification under mainland sovereignty.
While generally employing a tougher approach during the period of Lee’s third term, China made conciliatory outreaches to Taiwan’s business community. “During the 1995-1996 crisis,” Tanner states, “Chinese officials explicitly reassured Taiwan investors that their holdings would be safe.” Beijing also refrained from employing economic coercion against Taiwanese investors after Lee’s provocative 1999 statement that “China-Taiwan relations were a ‘special form of state-to-state relationship.’” These extensions of olive branches to the Taishang were part of the PRC’s inconsistent approach towards recruitment of this group as “conduits of influence.”
Tanner contends that Beijing made critical false assumptions about the Taishang’s ability to be leveraged by Beijing for its political agenda, asserting: “Beijing’s inconsistent tactics, from seductive entreaties to petulant attacks to hollow threats have undermined its own efforts to leverage the Taishang.” Surveys of Taiwan business executives revealed that, regardless of their personal political leanings, they did not endorse being used by Beijing as conduits for cross-Strait relations. They preferred to maintain the status quo politically and avoid accusations from the public of selling out Taiwan. 
As Lin notes, Beijing’s strategies for promoting Taiwanese endorsement of unification backfired, not only failing to sway public opinion on the One China model, but solidifying Taiwanese identity:
But Beijing’s counterproductive strategy-its demonstrations of military power to influence Taiwanese elections and public opinion-produced a distinct anti-Chinese feeling among most Taiwanese leading to unusual solidarity in support of the government’s policy of restricting Taiwanese investment in China. Equally important the missile tests contributed, as polls showed, to the emergence of a Taiwanese identity that would have even longer consequences.
Surveys reveal a rise from almost twenty percent identifying as Taiwanese in 1996 to over forty percent in 2001. Those claiming dual identity dipped from almost half the population in 1996 to about forty-three percent in 2001. Significantly, identification as purely Chinese dropped from over a quarter of the population in 1994 (the highest point in the 1992-1996 surveys) to about ten percent in 2001.
Between 1994-1996, over forty percent of Taiwanese preferred the status quo, with only about twenty percent favoring unification. By 2001, the status quo category had risen to over half the population, while pro-unification dropped slightly. Support for independence, which was about ten percent in the earlier survey, rose slightly to between fifteen to twenty percent in the 1997-2001 data. The statistics for unification changed dramatically if China would become “democratic and prosperous,” with nearly half in favor.
These findings show that Beijing’s tactics of intimidation failed to sway Taiwanese opinion towards reunification on mainland terms. Even outreach to business leaders was not enough to overcome the deep distrust engendered by the more negative approaches. By the end of Lee’s third term, over eighty percent of the population identified as either Taiwanese or dual, with only a minority claiming to be purely Chinese. Only a small percentage favored independence, whereas a strong majority preferred the status quo. Beijing staved off de jure independence, but since Taiwan has political autonomy with its own democratically elected government, maintaining the status quo essentially means de facto independence.
Case Study II: Economic Liberalization: 2008 Election of President Ma Ying-jeou
By the end of Lee’s term, the economic costs of restriction of trade with the mainland would become more apparent. In the next election, the DPP candidate, who campaigned on a platform of improving Taiwan’s economy by moderating Lee’s constraints, prevailed. However, soon after taking office, he started to place economic controls on investment in China, and by his second term, was advocating even stronger restrictions. His inability to halt the “economic downslide” set the stage for the next episode. In 2008, KMT Ma Ying-jeou was elected with a resounding fifty-eight percent of the vote, with economic issues as the primary motivator.  This case study will illuminate the Taiwanese response to the liberalization of cross-Strait economic and cultural ties and a less antagonistic approach from the mainland.
Ma promised improved cross-Strait relations, while simultaneously speaking to the growing sense of Taiwanese identity in calling for “Taiwan’s renaissance.” Ma campaigned on a platform of increased “prosperity, security, freedom and international dignity by reassuring and cooperating with Beijing.” Yet, in his inaugural address, he referred to the Republic of China (ROC) and Taiwan as if they were a single identity, and refrained from using the term PRC when discussing the mainland. With Beijing sensitive to symbolism, these semantic distinctions held significance.
On the issue of reunification, Ma reassured both Washington and Beijing that he would not promote de jure independence. Taiwan experts Bush and Rigger assert that “the true significance of Ma’s election” was to clarify that:
Taiwan voters would not support a candidate who openly advocated independence and that they preferred a leader who would credibly seek constructive cross-Strait relations (particularly in the economic realm) … and simultaneously resist any outcome with Beijing that did not enjoy broad public support.
Herein lies the existential Taiwan dilemma of how to capture economic benefits from engagement with China while preserving Taiwan’s autonomy by maintaining the status quo.
This underlying dichotomy was evidenced in Ma’s policy statements designed to pacify Beijing while appeasing his domestic audience. Maintenance of the status quo and avoidance of unification, as well as military force, were geared to the Taiwanese, whereas the rejection of de jure independence would allay China’s fears. Like Lee, Ma stressed the value of democracy and endorsed the “Taiwan first” principle. Although his stated goal was to improve trust and cooperation with Beijing, Tanner states that Ma clearly affirmed the position that unification was contingent on the mainland’s democratization. Bush quotes Ma’s “intriguing remark that ‘in resolving cross-Strait issues, what matters is not sovereignty but core values and way of life.’” Beijing could focus on Taiwan’s apparent willingness to abandon the sovereignty issue, whereas the linkage to “core values” would appeal to Taiwanese.
While Ma openly called for negotiations based on the 1992 consensus, his definition of “One China, different interpretations” did not actually align with Beijing’s. Bush contends, “In effect, Ma made a bet that China would accept his 1992 consensus pledge as long as the two sides did not dwell on what consensus meant.” According to Bush, Ma “sought to foster the PRC’s confidence that someday it will achieve its fundamental objectives.” Throughout Ma’s first term, Beijing and Taipei made progress economically but avoided open political conflict by skirting around any explicit discussion of the underlying dispute.
Under the leadership of Hu Jianto, Beijing took a more conciliatory approach toward Taiwan. Hu announced in 2005 that the foundations for unification would be “safeguarding peace” and “developing cross-Strait relations.” In 2008, Hu endorsed taking a gradual approach towards “peaceful development” of cross-Strait relations and advised approaching skeptical Taiwanese “with the greatest tolerance and patience.” In response to Ma’s liberalization, Hu Jintao issued six proposals for improved cross-Strait relations, including economic cooperation and increased participation by Taiwan in international organizations, contingent on abiding by the “one China” principle. China turned down requests from Paraguay and El Salvador to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing. However, progress in cross-Strait relations occurred mainly in the economic arena, with little accomplished politically.
With public opinion in 2008 focused on Taiwan’s economic interests, “the question,” according to Lin, “was not whether Taiwan should expand relations with China, but how far and on what terms.” During Ma’s first two years as president, Taiwan’s growth rate declined significantly. Ma believed that liberalizing cross-Strait relations would revitalize Taiwan’s economy after the global economic downturn. He contended that lifting restrictions would yield the additional benefit of convincing China to permit increased Taiwanese participation in regional agreements and in the global economy.
Over the course of Ma’s two terms in office, he signed over twenty economic agreements with the mainland, with fourteen concluded in his first two years. Improved economic relations with China boosted trade by 2010, and in this more positive economic environment, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was signed to lift trade barriers further. One benefit of the ECFA was a bilateral dispute-settlement mechanism, which was important due to Beijing’s unwillingness to utilize the WTO route because of the sovereignty implications. The agreement also conferred trade concessions, investment-protection for the Taishang, and highly favorable terms for investors.
Despite the high level of praise and publicity for the projected impact of these cross-Strait agreements, the actual results were tepid, and there was domestic opposition.  While large corporations saw benefits, average citizens failed to reap rewards. The only area to produce significant economic gains was tourism. Even for corporations, implementation was not entirely smooth; difficulties included respect for intellectual property. Furthermore, Taiwan was at a competitive disadvantage in East Asia due to a 2011 free trade agreement (FTA) between China and ASEAN. 
Politically, Taiwanese reaction was mixed, with sixty percent of corporate executives favoring economic integration but others, especially the DPP, worried that liberalization could increase dependence and lead to Taiwan becoming a de facto colony to the mainland. The pubic supported trade talks but believed more regulation was necessary and did not endorse cross-Strait liberalization. Ma’s low poll ratings stemmed from his inability to revitalize the economy, and his perceived weakness towards Beijing.
Albert highlights public dissatisfaction and mistrust: “Many residents also believe that Ma brought Taipei closer to Beijing without transparency and against the will of the Taiwanese people.” Statements from Mainland representatives at a 2009 conference in Taiwan sparked outrage from the DPP, who declared that “the Chinese officials…are in Taiwan to dictate and to threaten – not to listen or learn..” The issue that provoked Taiwanese ire was at the heart of the dilemma: focus on the one-China principle.
These sentiments align with the statistics on preferences for national status. In 2010, only ten percent favored unification, with over twenty percent for independence and sixty percent for the status quo. Economic liberalization and a thaw in negative messaging from Beijing also did not alter the trend on Taiwan’s national identity. Over half identified as exclusively Taiwanese, forty percent as dual, and less than five percent as Chinese. A 2017 survey showed that national identity had stabilized, with fifty-five percent identifying as Taiwanese alone, thirty-seven percent as dual, and only Chinese remaining at about four percent.
Albert attributes this trend to the maturation of Taiwan’s democracy: “Generations of democratic practices seem to have bound together the Taiwanese people and polity.” By the end of Ma’s presidency, disapproval for his “China warming policies” led to KMT electoral losses. China was no closer to reunification.
An examination of these two case studies reveals that, regardless of the party in power in Taiwan, and whether or not China used the carrot or the stick approach, the Taiwanese people have been moving further away from reunification under PRC rule. Instead of bringing Taiwan into a closer relationship with the mainland, Hu Jintao’s more positive overtures in response to Ma’s economic liberalization failed to meet with widespread public approval in Taiwan. As Bush notes, economic integration does not automatically translate into political integration. While Beijing’s strategy of military intimidation during Lee’s presidency may have strengthened Taiwanese fear of declaring outright de jure independence, it did not yield support for reunification.
China had believed that the missile tests in 1995-1996 would push the electorate into embracing a KMT government more favorable to Beijing. Paradoxically, the military exercises further alienated the Taiwanese people and provoked economic restrictions by President Lee. Significantly, China’s abrasive actions correlated with a consolidation of Taiwan’s sense of national identity, and this trend continued, even under Ma’s “China warming policies.” The underlying issue seems to have been a deep mistrust of Beijing engendered by the contradictory policies and history of intimidation, in combination with the failure of economic liberalization to revive Taiwan’s domestic economy.
Taiwan has been torn between motivation to improve its economy, through increased trade with China, and fear of dependency. As political economist Lin notes, “Taiwan faces a rare dilemma in that its most important economic partner is also an existential threat.” The growing power asymmetry has only exacerbated this problem. Under the current president, Xi Jinping, China is unlikely to democratize anytime soon. In response to the 2016 election of DPP candidate Tsai and her refusal to accept the 1992 consensus, Xi issued a warning against independence and reconfirmed China’s willingness to use force if that were to occur. 
Beijing’s continued efforts to influence the media and elections in Taiwan, as well as their intrusive interjections in Hong Kong governance, have thus far failed to sway Taiwanese opinion away from support for their own democracy. The trend towards increased Taiwanese identity, which corresponds to the establishment of Taiwan’s democracy, continues to this day. Recent events in Hong Kong have only served to dramatically strengthen Taiwan’s resolve to preserve their rights. The protest movement and the steps to curtail freedom in Hong Kong that motivated the dramatic response of its citizens clearly revealed the lack of validity of the “one country-two systems model.” Beijing’s erosion of free and fair elections by allowing only PRC-approved candidates and the attempt to change the venue for trying Hong Kongers accused of a crime to mainland China demonstrate that the acclaimed “two systems” model of governance is merely phase I in a plan towards full integration of all Chinese territory into the CCP’s tight control.
Taiwan’s response to events in Hong Kong was the overwhelming reelection of President Tsai, despite strong efforts from Beijing to interfere on behalf of her KMT opponent. “Democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation,” Tsai declared to throngs of enthusiastic supporters after her landslide victory. Just six months earlier, Tsai’s prospects did not appear bright. The Kuomintang candidate, Han Kuo-yu, touted forthcoming economic benefits and security resulting from closer ties with Beijing. Polls showed him ahead.
At a rally on the eve of the election, Tsai clearly tied the fate of Hong Kong to Taiwan’s critical choice in the path forward: “Young people in Hong Kong have used their lives and shed their blood and tears to show us that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible. Tomorrow, it is the turn of young people of Taiwan to show Hong Kong that the values of democracy and freedom overcomes [sic] all difficulties.” Fear of losing their democratic way of life propelled voters to support the anti-reunification candidate. The Taiwanese value of freedom underlies the contradictory approach to economic integration and strong opposition to political reunification with China.
 Syaru Shirley Lin, Taiwan’s China Dilemma (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2016), 30.
 Ibid, 64.
 Murray Scott Tanner, Chinese Economic Coercion Against Taiwan: A Tricky Weapon to Use (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 2007), 92.
 Richard C. Bush, Unchartered Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2013), 14.
 Ibid, 13.
 Lin, 53.
 Ibid, 64.
 Bush, 14.
 Lin, 54, 65.
 Ibid, 54.
 Bush, 14.
 Lin, 54-55.
 Ibid, 64.
 G. Van der Wees and Mei-chin Chen, “Fire on the Lake: The Thousand Island Lake Tragedy,” Taiwan Communiqué, July 1994, International Committee for Human rights in Taiwan, http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/tc61-int.pdf.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 53.
 Tanner, 42-43.
 Ibid, 43,45.
 Lin, 59.
 Ibid, 59-60.
 Tanner, 48.
 Lin, 73.
 Bush, 75.
 Lin, 65-66.
 Bush, 75.
 Lin, 66.
 Tanner, 113.
 Ibid, 111.
 Ibid, 112.
 Bush, 150-151.
 Lin, 87-88.
 Ibid, 55, Figure 3.1 and 92, Figure 4.1.
 Ibid, 56 Figure 3.2.
 Ibid, 93 Figure 4.2.
 Ibid, 56 and 92-93.
 Ibid, 91, 160.
 Ibid, 162.
 Bush, 21.
 Lin, 162-163.
 Bush, 21.
 Bush and Rigger, 16.
 Bush, 21-22.
 Ibid, 22.
 Tanner, 141.
 Ibid, 40.
 Bush, 41.
 Ibid, 36.
 Lin, 172-173.
 Ibid, 173.
 Bush, 69.
 Lin, 205.
 Ibid, 168.
 Ibid, 163.
 Eleanor Albert, “China-Taiwan Relations,” June 15, 2018, Council of Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations.
 Lin, 163.
 Ibid, 168.
 Lin, 175.
 Ibid, 175-176.
 Ibid, 163.
 Bush, 54.
 Bush, 54.
 Ibid, 51.
 Ibid, 50.
 Lin, 176.
 Bush, 52-53.
 Lin, 181.
 Bush, 70-71.
 Ibid, 70.
 Lin, 166, Figure 6.2.
 Lin, 165, Figure 6.1.
 Bush, 66
 Lin, 1.
 Abraham Denmark, “China’s Increasing Pressure on Taiwan,” January 30, 2018, Wilson Center, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/chinas-increasing-pressureTaiwan.
 Bonnie S. Glaser, “Managing Cross-Strait Ties in 2017: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” January 2017, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170202_Glaser_ManagingCrossStraitTies2017_Web_2.pdf, accessed October 15, 2020.
 David An, et al. “Swinging the Vote: How the CCP influences the Media and Elections in Taiwan and Beyond” (speech, Global Taiwan Institute, Washington DC, June 13, 2019).
 Emily Feng, “Rebuking China, Taiwan Votes To Reelect President Tsai Ing-wen,” January 11, 2020, NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/11/795573457/rebuking-chinataiwan-votes-to-reelect-president-tsai-ing-wen.