Alan Romberg is a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson. Before joining Stimson in September 2000, he enjoyed a distinguished career working on Asian issues including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Additionally, Romberg spent almost 10 years as the CV Starr Senior Fellow for Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was special assistant to the secretary of the navy. Mr. Romberg was interviewed by Michael Grouskay '17 on September 22, 2016.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Romberg.
Almost four months into her presidency of Taiwan, how would you describe President Tsai’s overall policy toward the Chinese mainland?
The first word I would use is consistent. President Tsai has tried very hard to indicate that she is not going to go off on a radical tangent, but instead follow the basic guidelines that have been adopted over the past several years. However, she is not extremely likely to change her position regarding 1992 Consensus. She hasn’t adopted or endorsed it, and it would be inconsistent with her basic political principles as well as those of her party to do so. Nonetheless, she has changed a lot in terms of her approach to Cross-Strait policies since starting down the path towards her nomination and election.
What prompted China to cut off official exchange with Taipei? How is Beijing’s action perceived by ordinary people in Taiwan?
Beijing does not want to see what it calls “back-sliding” from the important principles that it established over the past eight years under former President Ma Ying-Jeou. Of course, the PRC’s long-term goal is unification, but its primary focus right now is the common acceptance of a “one China” to which both Taiwan and the mainland belong. Ma Ying-Jeou adopted the formula of “one China, respective interpretations” as his definition of the 1992 Consensus (of course, his “China” was the Republic of China), which, while not identical to the PRC position, met the mainland’s basic requirement for “official” relations.
The PRC believes that President Tsai wants to maintain the status quo defined as peace and stability, but their concern is that Tsai has not accepted a commitment to the common political foundation of “one China” to which both Taiwan and the mainland belong. Consequently, Beijing has determined that it is unable to have the same kind of relationship with Taiwan as in the past eight years.
So far, Beijing has cut off senior-level official exchanges, but it hasn’t done a lot of other things that it could do if this doesn’t get resolved. For example, the PRC could steal some of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. We know that a number of Taiwan’s partners have indicated in the past that they would like to switch and Beijing has held them off. But at some point China will no longer do that. Already, however, the mainland is making life difficult for Taiwan in international organizations. For example, while the mainland let the World Health Organization (WHO) invite a Taiwan observer to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) this year, they insisted that the letter of invitation refer to the organization’s adherence to a “one China” approach. But that line has tightened up. Now Taiwan is pursuing attendance at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s triennial assembly in late September, and it appears that Beijing will not allow Taiwan representation [Taiwan was not invited]. More broadly, all indications are that Beijing will not be supportive of Taiwan’s participation in any of these kinds of international organizations until Taipei accepts some form of “one China”.
We are seeing just the beginning. Beijing is putting pressure on Taiwan society in order to influence the Tsai Administration to accept the 1992 Consensus or some other form of “one China.” But I’m doubtful that this is going to work. There might be more steps that President Tsai can take in Beijing’s direction, but she won’t go so far as to embrace “one China” or the 1992 Consensus.
In Taiwan, Beijing’s actions are perceived as unfriendly, somewhat churlish, and as proof that Beijing is really trying to leverage its superior standing and power. (I don’t think military power will enter into this, except as a background element. In other words, I don’t anticipate a security crisis.) There are some people in Taiwan who do not agree with Tsai’s refusal to accept “one China.” They didn’t necessarily think that President Ma’s approach was ideal, but they were willing to accept it in order to maintain the status quo, and they still believe in that. Additionally, some people have been hurt by worsening relations in recent months and are unhappy with the current situation. For example, the tourism industry has suffered. Although Beijing insists it has issued no instructions about travel to Taiwan, I do not believe it is simply a coincidence that the number of visitors from the mainland has sharply decreased since Tsai’s inauguration in May. Ultimately, Beijing’s approach is viewed as a strong-arm tactic. In some cases, the reaction on the island has been that Taiwan will not succeed in opposing this pressure, so it should adapt. For the most part, however, so far the reaction has been that China is being mean spirited, and President Tsai is right to continue her position.
How would you evaluate Beijing’s recent actions, including the cut-off of official exchange with Taipei, in terms of Beijing achieving its desired objectives?
If you look in terms of Beijing’s short-term objectives, it isn’t clear what the result is going to be. It may be that President Tsai will say something further in her National Day address, although I don’t expect it will be an outright embrace of “one China.”* China’s long-term objective remains unification. However, China might be undermining its objective if it creates animosity within the large segment of the population that already doesn’t support unification. Beijing indicates that it has no flexibility on the demands regarding endorsement of “one China,” but it is also making it clear that it is not pushing for other things beyond these demands at this point. It’s difficult to understand where flexibility in their position might lie. If Tsai met them halfway, even though it would not be exactly what they want with respect to the 1992 Consensus, would they reverse the termination of official exchanges? Maybe. But if Beijing is thinking in terms of longer-term goals, it seems to me that it would be better off trying to win hearts and minds — not necessarily acquiescing to Taiwan’s positions, but also not appearing as belligerent or mean-spirited as it currently does to many people in Taiwan.
Does the Chinese leadership have other policy tools to pressure President Tsai? Are they likely to be effective?
The Chinese leaders do have other tools, for example on the economic front. But they have a tricky task. On the one hand they don’t want to deal with the Tsai administration, but on the other hand they say they will provide opportunities for the private sector in Taiwan to continue to benefit from mainland prosperity. However, there are some things that will require the Taiwan government’s participation if private deals are to work. Internationally, Beijing has blocked some of Taiwan’s efforts to negotiate trade and investment deals with other countries. The issue of TPP has not yet arisen in Cross-Strait relations because the TPP doesn’t yet formally exist and because Taiwan doesn’t yet qualify economically for membership. But if TPP is brought into being, and if Taiwan does what is necessary to qualify, although Beijing likely wouldn’t be able to get support from the U.S. or Japan to block Taiwan’s application, there are clearly some in the group of 12 who would be susceptible to the mainland’s pressure to do so. Moreover, it is possible for Beijing to make things difficult for any country that receives a senior-level Taiwan official.
Would any of these tools be effective in changing Tsai’s position on “one China?” They obviously could be effective in hurting Taiwan, but would they be effective in getting Tsai to comply with Beijing’s demands? That would take a lot, and at this point I don’t see it happening. Her goal here is not only to respect democracy and the will of the people, but within that framework also to maintain the ultimate choice for the people of Taiwan about the nature of relations with the mainland. In contrast to Ma Ying-Jeou, Tsai feels that if she accepted “one China,” even if that meant the Republic of China, that would interfere with, if not deny, the ultimate choice about whether there should be unification of some sort. She has made it clear that allowing the Taiwan people self-determination is a major principle for her. One might say that it doesn’t seem realistic to assume that they would pick independence, but if the mainland used force, then all bets are off. In general, an independence path won’t benefit Taiwan in an obvious way. While a move to formal independence might make people feel good about living up to their values and principles — for a while, ultimately it would threaten their survival. And people in Taiwan are keenly aware of that, which is why polls show strong support for maintaining the status quo.
How has the United States responded to Beijing’s decision to cut off official exchanges with the Tsai government? Can the U.S. do anything to facilitate the resumption of the cross-strait official exchange?
It is very hard for the U.S. to be centrally involved. In my view, the U.S. won’t tell Tsai to accept “one China,” and it won’t tell the PRC that it shouldn’t be pursuing “one China.” What the U.S. has urged is that the two sides create a “firm basis” to maintain peace and stability, and to pursue relationships that benefit both sides. If Beijing does something untoward, then the U.S. might speak out, but the same is true for Taipei. If you go back to Chen Shui-bian's administration, the U.S. criticized him and his proposals to join the U.N. “in the name of Taiwan” and to have a second constitution. I don’t see Tsai moving in those directions, but the Taiwan leadership has done it in the past and so people are always on guard against a repeat. In the case of the mainland, we’ve seen U.S. intervention in the past. In 1996 for example, the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region when the PRC launched missiles near the northern and southern tips of Taiwan. The deployment wasn’t in anticipation of conflict, but to send a signal that when the U.S. says that it has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, that “interest” is not simply curiosity, it’s a national security interest. A PRC professor recently wrote an article saying that the PRC would use military force early in Tsai’s second term of office. I would argue that that’s extremely unlikely unless she takes positions aggressively challenging the PRC and moving towards independence. As I have said, however, I do not believe she’ll do that. In any case, while there is not a treaty commitment to defend Taiwan, the U.S. has left open that possibility.
If China continues to pressure Taiwan, how can the U.S. express its support for Taiwan? Could such support contribute to further deterioration of U.S.-China ties?
It all depends on the kind of pressure and the kind of deterioration. The U.S. has supported Taiwan’s participation in the international community for decades, both as a member of organizations or, where that is not possible, in other capacities. In the case of ICAO, the U.S. has made clear that it would like to see Taiwan there. At the World Health Assembly, the U.S. was pleased that Beijing has accepted Taiwan’s status as an observer. That being said, there’s a very big question as to whether Beijing will continue to accept Taiwan’s relationship with the WHA next year, and if it doesn’t, what the U.S. can do about it.
I believe, there’s a strong case for why it is in the PRC’s interest that Taiwan be represented in an appropriate capacity in these organizations. That’s not to challenge the PRC on its “one China” principle or on the broader issue of diplomatic relations, but there are substantive reasons. Part of Beijing’s position on Taiwan’s participation in international organizations is that there has to be consultation. Beijing does not want the appearance of “one China, one Taiwan” or even “two Chinas.” However, Beijing observes that, since there are no official exchanges (because Tsai hasn’t embraced “one China” and Beijing cut off the channels of communication), and since it is therefore not possible to consult about Taiwan participation, Taiwan simply can’t participate. The U.S. is frustrated with this and will continue to support Taiwan’s efforts to participate in a broad spectrum of international organizations. But there is very little that the U.S. can do to overcome PRC objections if Beijing has the leverage to block it, either by virtue of some sort of veto power in an organization or simply the political clout to persuade other members of these groups to reject Taiwan’s application.
Did Senator John McCain’s visit to Taiwan in June of this year play a role in persuading President Tsai to distance herself from the 1992 Consensus? How was Senator McCain’s visit to Taiwan perceived in China?
I’m sure it wasn't perceived by Beijing as helpful, but I don’t think the visit had any role in persuading Tsai to distance herself from the 1992 Consensus. Tsai appreciates the support from John McCain, but she doesn’t need him or anyone else to persuade her.
How might the current impasse between Beijing and Taipei be resolved?
There are two conceivable ways. The first is that Taipei concedes on major points. Under the current circumstances, I don’t see it happening, but I wouldn’t rule out completely some further steps short of embracing “one China” if the PRC were to reciprocate in some way. Theoretically, if Beijing’s pressure is sufficiently intense, then there could be a change in popular opinion, which would give President Tsai grounds to change her policy based on the argument that democracy must be served. As I say, however, I find that very unlikely.
The second possibility is that Beijing comes to the conclusion that President Tsai doesn’t need to say the magic words “one China,” but that it could accept that, through her actions, Tsai has convincingly demonstrated that her policies are not inconsistent with the past. In this connection, Beijing already says it will judge Tsai by her words and deeds. When it says her words, it means that she has to accept “one China” in some form and it still insists that she abandon “Taiwan independence.” By deeds, Beijing means that actions not only can’t be supportive of independence, but that they must be supportive of “one China” and ultimate unification.
Ironically, Tsai also says she wants them to pay attention to her words and her actions. Her words are quite different from what they used to be. She no longer denies the existence of the 1992 Consensus, and now she’s much more careful talking about Cross-Strait relations than she used to be. For example, she used to talk about “Taiwan” and “China” as though they were two separate countries; now she generally doesn’t do that, generally (though not always) referring to “Cross-Strait relations” and “mainland China.” In terms of action, she points to a number of actions that she’s taken which should have pleased Beijing. For example, there was a movement within the DPP to take down pictures of Sun Yat-Sen in government buildings and schools, which she blocked. The Democratic Party (DPP) has a bill pending in the legislature to supervise negotiations with Beijing. The DPP used to talk about the bill in terms of “Taiwan” and “China,” now they’re talking about “Cross-Strait” relations. At the same time, Beijing points to actions such as the Tsai administration stopping a Ma-proposed revision of textbooks that would have focused more on “Chinese” history and less on “Taiwan” history. So, the problem is that, while both sides say that words and actions matter, they’re pointing to different words and different actions. Will they find a way to come together on a set of words and actions that will allow each of them to feel comfortable with the relationship and to put things back on track? I don’t know.
* In the event, Tsai generally repeated what she had said in her inaugural address, adding a note about not yielding to Mainland pressure in the wake of the ICAO experience. She summed up her cross-Strait approach in four points: her promises will not change, her goodwill will not change, and while Taiwan will not bow to pressure, it will not revert to the old path of confrontation
Below: Satellite image of Taiwan