Shelley Rigger on China-Taiwan

Shelley Rigger is an expert on East Asian politics, with a special focus on Taiwan. She currently serves as the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College. In addition to teaching, she also trains military officers, participates in conferences, and has testified before Congress a few times. She is the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy (Routledge 1999) and From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (Lynee Rienner Publishers, 2001). 

Reyna Wang CMC'19 interviewed Shelley Rigger on January 31, 2019. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on January 2 reiterated China's determination for reunification with Taiwan and refused to renounce the use of force. Is there anything new and noteworthy in Xi’s speech? What do you think are the motives for Xi to make this high-profile speech?

Not much was new, which is in itself noteworthy. The speech was quite consistent with past statements, and deliberately so. There were some people who found a few things that might look like Xi was taking a harder line on Taiwan. But what we worry about is a timeline or deadline for unification, which was not mentioned in the speech. That was significant. The speech repeated many of the basic themes that have been central to Beijing’s Taiwan policy for decades. Some observers noted that Beijing is still sticking with “one country, two systems,” which Xi should know is a non-starter. I’m pretty sure Xi knows that “one country, two systems” is a non-starter with Taiwan, but maybe he also knows that at this moment, nothing is a starter. Rather than putting something new on the table and having it be rejected, it seems better to continue to roll out the same basic stuff until you are in a position to begin negotiating. Nothing in the speech made me nervous or excited. I suspect that that was intentional.


If Xi’s position was nothing new or unusual, then why did Tsai Ing-wen’s response to it produce such a great impact in Taiwan?

In Taiwan, people don't like the menu of options that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is putting forward. The repetition of those options, while it's certainly better than something more aggressive, is still totally unappealing. What Tsai said was that if that's the best you've got, we are not interested. And the Taiwanese people agreed with her. So ironically, a speech that was mild from the standpoint of the PRC produced a significant upsurge in enthusiasm for Tsai.


Do you think China will be able to pressure Taiwan to concede and accept “one country, two systems?” If not, what are the alternatives for a peaceful reunification?

There are a couple of fundamental problems with “one country, two systems.” One is that it was created for Taiwan, and then applied to Hong Kong, in order to show the Taiwanese people that it was a good system. “One country, two systems” as it has been implemented in Hong Kong is not acceptable for most people in Taiwan for themselves. For the intended audience, the test case of “one country, two systems,” is therefore not a success.  

The other problem with “one country, two systems” is that it is a “take it or leave it” kind of deal. Either you accept it or you don’t. This is a major problem for the PRC in negotiations, because these are negotiations not about pragmatic issues but about deeply symbolic and significant issues. On those kinds of matters, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has traditionally come to a consensus on a program and then put it forward for ratification. If you think about it, for example, this is how the National People's Congress works. Nothing goes to the National People's Congress until it is ready to be passed. There is a tendency to spend a lot of time perfecting a proposal before presenting it. Whereas from the Taiwanese perspective, entering into negotiations about a future relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland means both sides should make concessions and both sides should get some of what they want. To begin that process with a template that Beijing has set out since 1979 means that there will be no negotiation. As long as there is no negotiation, there is very little chance that Taiwan is going to enter into that process voluntarily.  

There are circumstances under which a re-imagining of this relationship could occur, however. There are things that could be acceptable to both the people in Taiwan and the people on the Mainland. Whether or not there will be such circumstances depends on how people in the PRC view the alternatives. One of the virtues of the PRC political system is that leaders can change their mind, change their policy, and be flexible. In 1979, China set aside 30 years of an economic, political, and social system that under Mao Zedong was considered to be absolutely sacrosanct and unchangeable. There are other examples in recent history where the leaders changed their perspectives to solve problems. This could happen with Taiwan. There are enough people now in Taiwan who are looking for a way out of the stalemate. They are expecting the opening of a genuine negotiation, where the possibility exists for both sides to make concessions and to get part of what they are hoping for. It would be hard for a Taiwanese leader to reject a credible offer for that kind of a conversation.


Tsai rejected the One China principle in her speech and equated the so-called “92 consensus” to “one country, two systems.” Do you read this as an important change in her stance on cross-strait relations?

When Tsai gave her inaugural address, she basically said my position is asymptotic to the “92 consensus.” I am going to get as close as I can to the “92 consensus,” but I am not going to use that phrase. She talked about the historical fact of 1992 and all that had emerged as a result of 1992. She said her policy is based on the ROC Constitution and the law for managing relations between the people of the Taiwan area and the people of the Mainland area. She listed all the traditional One China-based documents in the Taiwanese political system.

Beijing’s response to her inaugural address was that we are going to watch what Tsai says and does from now on. She has been absolutely consistent all through her presidency in saying exactly the same thing again and again. And then Xi gave a speech in which he seemed to be suggesting that there is no difference between the “92 consensus,” the One China principle, and the “one country, two systems” approach. Tsai responded by saying that if you are going to turn the “92 consensus” into something that it was not, then I am against it. I am not going to keep the possibility open anymore because you changed the meaning. That was not just Tsai’s response but also Ma Ying-jeou’s response. Ma reacted in the same way to the speech as Tsai did. In order for the “92 consensus” to be useful as a basis for communication between the two sides, it needs to still mean now what it meant at the beginning, which was we both believe in One China, but we are not going to define what “One China” is. The original meaning of the “92 consensus” got shorthanded with the idea of 各表 (gebiao), which means each side has its own interpretation. The PRC has never said 各表 (gebiao).  The PRC neither acknowledged it nor rejected it. When Ma was president, Taiwan understood the “92 consensus” as two sides each with their own interpretation of One China. But no significant political figure in Taiwan could accept an interpretation of the “92 consensus” as equal to Beijing’s One China principle, in particular when Beijing’s One China principle has “one country, two systems” as an active element in it.


How will the changing dynamic between China and Taiwan affect China's relationship with the U.S.? Will the U.S. intervene?  Will the rising hostility between Taiwan and China increase the tension between China and the U.S.?

U.S.-China relations right now focus on other issues, including the economic issues with a security dimension. The Huawei case could be seen as an economic issue, but the U.S. is more worried about Huawei's military connection. Even if Huawei is not connected to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the possibility that a Chinese company could be contributing essential technical components to systems that end up in military equipment is concerning. The real reason for arresting Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou has to do with foreign policy considerations and sanctions as well. In sum, the U.S.-China relationship is not going well, and Taiwan is caught up in that. This is not, in my view, good for Taiwan. The historical experience would suggest that when the U.S. and China are not getting along, Taiwan faces more difficulties rather than fewer difficulties. It is easier for Beijing to punish Taiwan than it is to punish the U.S. for various things.

The other thing is that we have no way of knowing what Donald Trump might be thinking about Taiwan and what he might do about Taiwan. We have a series of data points to suggest that he is willing to radically alter U.S. foreign policy based on his own judgements. After the first summit with Kim Jong-un, he came out of his meeting and said that the U.S. is not going to do military exercises in South Korea anymore. That has not been fully executed, but it has been partially executed. It is not clear to me exactly how much longer the U.S.-South Korean military alliance will have any teeth. As a side note, he also declared the unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

President Trump could go either way with Taiwan. I honestly believe that there is just as good a chance of him saying that if President Xi will back off of certain economic policies, the U.S. will stop selling arms to Taiwan. That to me is just as likely as him saying if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to upgrade the level of relations with Taiwan. From Taiwan’s perspective, this is utterly terrifying. The U.S. administration is completely unpredictable. Unlike past administrations which have tended not to do much about Taiwan, this administration could do something quite extreme. Indeed it could be intended as something good for Taiwan or it could be intended as something bad for Taiwan. Either way, it's going to be something that Taiwan didn't choose or direct, which is bad for Taiwan.


What do you think Taiwan can do in the current situation?

The main thing the Taiwanese can do, which is what they are currently doing, is lie low and express support for the U.S. in whatever way they can. They can avoid becoming a target of the White House’s attention and try to manage their relationship with the U.S. through other actors in the administration. Other actors are more steady, predictable, and more plugged into the long-term policy logic of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Also, they can go to the Congress for some protection.  

Reyna Wang CMC '19Student Journalist
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