The Risky Game of Jenga Being Playing in the Taiwan Strait
With no more positive relational blocks to build upon, instability is increasing.
When playing Jenga, the fear is always when you encounter a wild game participant who always confidently pokes at wooden blocks that, certain to others, once displaced would initiate the collapse of the entire Jenga tower. While the person causing the downfall loses, ending each Jenga game way earlier than its potential length and having to rebuild its foundation again and again is no fun for anyone. It would also certainly leave other game participants wondering later on, “how tall could we have built the tower if it wasn’t for that one person’s reckless behavior?”
Limited Blocks, Limited Consensus
The above Jenga scenario pretty much sums up the current predicament across the Taiwan Strait. The wooden blocks in place are all the “consensuses” that exists between Taiwan and China, and may not increase anytime near in the future. In contrast, if recent trends are any indicator the block numbers might even be reduced.
The existing blocks connote mostly a vague mutual acknowledgment of the importance to peaceful relations across the Taiwan Strait, which forms the basis for continued economic prosperity on both sides and also the entire Indo-Pacific. Different political camps had different interpretations of what started instability across the Strait. While Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) labeled the wooden blocks as “ 1992 Consensus ” and “ One China Consensus, With Different Interpretation ,” the mainland Chinese government strongly insisted on calling it the “ One China Principle .”
Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party-led administration, on the other hand, only vaguely conceived these of blocks as “ the historical fact of the 1992 cross-strait talks ” and the past two decades of continued negotiation.Moving away from the discrepancies, however, what matters is that both Taiwan and China could only build a “relational” Jenga tower from limited blocks. One false assumption in the past three decades was that, through increased interaction, Taiwan and China had embarked on a never-ending, long-term process of relation-building, despite sometimes only slowly improving. In terms of the “relational” tower that both sides were seemingly constructing, few experts worried what if one day both sides ran out of blocks to continue the upward process.
However, relational trends in the past ten years have been increasingly challenging this naïve assumption.
“One China” and its Illusive Peace
As China sees all of Taiwan off its southeastern coast as an “ inseparable territory .” It has long been Beijing’s policy to box Taiwan within the “ One China ” framework. In Beijing’s perception, Taiwan, rather than being a sovereign country, is merely the geographical name of an island which belongs to China. Moreover, Beijing has forced nearly half a hundred international airlines to amend their references to Taiwan last year alone, which prompted the White House to slam Beijing as performing “ Orwellian nonsense ” in May 2018.
But the “One China” framework has also been as economical as it has been political. While previous Taiwanese administrations showed hesitance towards economic integration with China, President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) executed a commerce-led rapprochement with Beijing, signing over twenty bilateral agreements, including the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010. Ma basically saw himself as having an infinite number of blocks to build the relational tower. By further embedding Taiwan within “One China,” he envisioned a future in which Taiwan could fully-access an increasingly integrated world market full with trade agreements “through” China. With Ma’s policies, China now sits comfortably as Taiwan’s l argest trading partner , taking in 41% of the island’s exports.
But while Ma’s “ diplomatic truce ” with Beijing and economics-first approach produced temporary successes, it did not fundamentally resolve the Taiwan Strait deadlock. Furthermore, ties across the Strait became relatively strained after the Sunflower Movement in 2014. Additionally, Beijing has ramped up its efforts to bully the island and buy in Taiwan’s allies since President Tsai-Ing wen’s inauguration in 2016. Taipei has already lost five allies to Beijing since then. Ma’s accomplishments resulted from the “ high correlation between Chinese acquiescence and Taiwan’s international space” which only functions positively when Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT)-led governments are in power. China has proved that it has no intention to deal with any of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led administrations, including the incumbent President Tsai.
And while China has no intention to soften its tone towards the DPP, it is now even employing “ Sharp Power ” to intimidate resistant politicians and shape local opinion in Taiwan. A recent investigative report by Al Jazeera, Taiwan: Spies, Lies and Cross-straits Ties , revealed how some pro-China organizations and parties in Taiwan have been sponsored financially by the Chinese government. Electoral meddling by China in the November 2018 local elections, on the other hand, also saw content farm websites deliberately spreading pro-China fake news. Beijing’s efforts are twofold: it seeks to erase the island’s governance stability from within, and Taiwan’s international viability from the outside.
With China’s snowballing belligerence towards Taiwan, the prospects of reconciling bilateral misunderstandings through existent channels are looking increasingly dim. The common-place meetings between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office during President Ma’s era are now but a distant sight, which casts question on how can regional stability be maintained when Beijing has shut down all formal communication channels with Taiwan.
In light of the abovementioned trajectory, many policy-makers and spectators have now found out that this Taiwan Strait “relational” tower is actually a Jenga game. They have realized that instead of being a steady one-direction construction job, both sides had always been poking wooden blocks from the existent tower to build up the tower. “One China” created a façade that relational improvement showed no limits, whereas reality proved that with limited consensus, especially regarding the status of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and its electoral decisions, the Jenga tower with its inadequate relational foundations would always be doomed to get wobblier as it gets higher, and destined to fall quickly if participants hastened risky moves.
Importantly, this Jenga metaphor connotes two things. First, the successes of relations across the Taiwan Strait have always been based on a limited, not ever-increasing number of consensuses. Second, relations will undergo a dramatic fall if both sides continue to overstretch existent consensuses to fulfill overly-ambitious policy aims. In addition, the tower is doomed to fall even faster when hurried risky moves are made. The best-case scenario would be both sides move slowly and carefully, building the relational tower to its highest potential then stop.
It is time for us to recognize now that Cross-Relations under its current form has its height limits, and Taiwan’s autonomy and democratic way of life will never be compatible with China’s authoritarian structure and revisionist ambitions. To ignore this and move forward means that relations will ultimately backfire, demolishing all existing achievements along the way. The Sunflower Movement has already shown us a glimpse of that path’s future.
An Anxious China and Taiwan’s Frustration
Xi Jinping’s nationalistic fervor and “Chinese Dream” guidelines have been aggressively pushing towards resolving its separation with Taiwan since Tsai’s inauguration. For instance, Beijing offered residence permits to Taiwanese in September 2018 and held numerous military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Also, China has been blocking Taiwan’s access to international organizations such as the World Health Organization.
While ramped up pressure is increasingly dividing Taiwan’s public opinion towards China, it should also be seen as a dangerous unilateral overstretch of consensuses, especially Xi’s recent talk commemorating the fortieth anniversary of China’s standing committee’s landmark 1979 speech “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.” Xi claimedthat “deviating from the One China principle will result in tension and turbulence in cross-strait relations, harming the interests of the Taiwanese compatriots,” while proposing the “One Country, Two Systems” framework as a model to unify Taiwan. This was swiftly responded to by President Tsai Ing-wen who said that Taiwan and its twenty-three million people would never accept the “One Country, Two Systems” approach proposed by Beijing. She also publicly denounced the “1992 Consensus” long-advocated by China and KMT as equal to “One Country, Two Systems.”
Through this firm and immediate rebuttal, Tsai reemerged from the ashes of the November 2018 local election defeat and gained public support. Also, these events cast the KMT into chaos on how to respond to Xi’s strong-armed interpretation of “One China” that left no room for the later part of KMT’s long pursued “One China Consensus, With Different Interpretation.” Due to China’s unilateral push, some are now even calling for KMT to discard the tarnished “1992 Consensus” and replace it with a new principle. China’s hasty moves not only did not push Cross-Strait relations forward; they also trapped Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition into a difficult position and helped Tsai reconsolidate her position within her party. China is like an anxious and irritated player, who by hurryingly poking and putting blocks on the Jenga tower, will only accentuate the tower’s fragility and accelerate its downfall process. Break down that Jenga tower, or even refuse to play the game, then heated bilateral tensions might be even harder to mitigate, causing further instability throughout the region and the world.
And as China expert Minxin Pei has argued, “the most dangerous consequence of China’s Taiwan policy is that it raises further tensions with the United States.” He has cautioned “unless China’s leaders break the cycle, an escalating battle of wills with the U.S. could erupt into direct conflict.”
Some may ask, what can Taiwan do to ease the tension? While Taiwan has been abiding by the rules, and Tsai’s administration acting with caution and restraint, this Jenga game is still a game played by two. Bilateral peace cannot be achieved when one side is constantly unilateral changing the status quo and shooting for farfetched dreams. Another worry, however, is that once Taiwan decides that China has no intention to play accordingly and reasonably, it might also withdraw from the Jenga game. Call that frustration, if you would. Building a Jenga tower is a time-consuming labor, and no one would like another wild participant that constantly ruins the game by quickly toppling the tower. This would be the worst-case scenario for regional stability, and it might be one that China is causing through its own reckless aggressiveness.
Dr. Alan Hao Yang is Executive Director of Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF), a policy-oriented think tank in Taiwan founded in 2018 with a focus on Southeast Asian and South Asian affairs. He also serves as Deputy Director of the Institute of International Relations (IIR) and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang serves as managing editor of the TAEF Brief in the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF). His has written for The Diplomat, East Asia Forum, The Interpreter among other publications.
This article is published on The National Interest.