Past and present Taiwan Strait crises|Lin Chia-lung

Published (HKT): 2020.11.23 10:25

The year 2020 has seen an ongoing US-China war on technology and trade. While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, fundamental change has happened in the global arena, as a cold war-style confrontation is gradually taking shape against the backdrop of US-China rivalry, and the role and status of Taiwan have become more visible and elevated. But at the same time, Communist warplanes are crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait with high frequency. The PLA has staged war games concurrently in the four major seas, making the Taiwan Strait a tinderbox. However, the Taiwan Strait crisis cannot be looked at from a merely cross-strait relations viewpoint. It is even more suitable to interpret it from an international perspective and analyze it in terms of three stages.

In the first stage, China and Taiwan were on two parallel lines and pursued their own diplomatic relations independently of each other. In the late 1980s, as many communist regimes began to crumble, The June 4th incident happened 10 years after the beginning of China’s Reform and Open Up policy, resulting in a bloody crackdown and China’s isolation from the rest of the world. At the same time, Taiwan became part of the third wave of democratization and was on the road to becoming a fledgling democracy. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, China, “hiding its light under a bushel,” began to interact with the rest of the world through trade, packaging its rise as peaceful.

It was against that backdrop that Taiwan, under President Lee Teng-hui’s leadership, embarked on the road to democracy, nativism and Taiwanization. The party-state authoritarian system was reformed, and at the same time Lee sought a breakthrough in diplomacy. By shifting from the “Three-No’s Policy” (no contact, no negotiation and no compromise) to pragmatic diplomacy and diplomacy between heads of states, and from the Guidelines for National Unification to the Two-State argument, Lee made sustained efforts to internationalize cross-strait relations. China responded by firing missiles, which led to the third Taiwan Strait crisis, in an attempt to stop or influence the Taiwanese presidential election.

In the second stage, Taiwan’s foreign relations were deemed subordinate to US-China relations. From 2000 to 2016, Taiwan experienced three peaceful transitions of power, which consolidated its foundations for democracy. As for China, it freed itself from the state of isolation after the Tiananmen incident. Riding on the tide of globalization, it reshaped the global order. Despite Taiwan’s success in democratization, China gradually built its international influence and engaged in diplomacy as a major power, and nations began to interact with China one after another. At the same time, Hong Kong’s return to China caused the Chen Shui-bian administration, a small government facing a big opposition, to be labelled a “troublemaker” by the international community when it pursued the “One Country on Each Side” policy.

After the second peaceful transition of power, Ma Ying-jeou became President, and Taiwanese public opinion swung to another extreme. China also spared no effort to domesticize cross-strait relations. However, the Ma administration was so eager to sign the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement that it triggered the Sunflower Student Movement. Even though he succeeded in forging a meeting with Xi Jinping, his pro-China policies were unable to maintain the Kuomintang’s grip on power.

Who is the troublemaker now?

In the third stage, Taiwan’s foreign relations transcended US-China relations. After the Tsai Ing-wen administration took office, she was facing a Xi Jinping who was holding aloft the banner of the “Chinese Dream”. China began to pursue the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the global project of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Internally it has suppressed ethnic minorities and destroyed Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom. Externally it has continued to seek to control or influence the global order through its predatory economics. As a result, there is a rethink among democratic countries about their policies towards China, and a new free world has formed to counter the spread of this new form of authoritarianism. They have also begun to attach great importance to Taiwan, which has done a stellar job in promoting economic growth and combatting the pandemic. They have started to interact with Taiwan and decouple with China. An example is the US, which no longer prioritizes its relations with China over its relations with Taiwan. It has taken the initiative to strengthen its partnership with Taiwan.

The Taiwan Strait crisis 25 years ago was intertwined with different threads of change in the international arena. Despite the many similarities between that incident and the recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait, such as a Taiwan Strait overshadowed by the specter of war, complete control of the executive and legislative branches of government by a nativist party in Taiwan and a rising sense of national identity on our island, there are many differences in terms of dynamics.

25 years ago, China hid its light under a bushel after the Tiananmen Square incident and actively sought to cooperate with the US. As for Taiwan, it was seeking a breakthrough amid diminishing international support. With Taiwan having gone through democratization and the amendment of the constitution, Lee Teng-hui, the then President, saw the legitimacy of his power expanded. Lee engaged in diplomacy as head of state and made a foray into the international community, which culminated in his famous speech at Cornell University, his alma mater, namely the “Whatever the people desire is always in my heart” speech.

Taiwan’s strategy to go international caused Jiang Zemin, the CCP leader, to respond with blank cartridges. That, however, lent credence to the “Chinese threat” argument, causing the US armed forces to deploy its aircraft carriers, invoke the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan, and intervene in the Taiwan Strait crisis. President Lee made use of domestic political changes to influence foreign relations and created room for maneuver, changing cross-strait relations into a complicated “nested game”. Interestingly, although it was China who took preemptive action, Taiwan began to be viewed as a troublemaker that threatened regional stability.

25 years on and after three peaceful transitions of power, a consistent majority of people on the island have a sense of Taiwanese identity, while skepticism about and resistance against China have become the mainstream sentiments. President Tsai has enjoyed a majority in the Legislative Yuan in both of her presidential terms, meaning that she has ruled with both executive and legislative powers. That has enabled her to focus her effort on sorting out the problems created by a democracy underpinned by compromises in the past. But China under Xi’s leadership has developed an expansionist and ambitious foreign strategy. To achieve the “Chinese Dream” and the goals of the “Two Centenaries”, China has launched the “Belt and Road Initiative” and come up with plans such as “Made in China 2025” and “China Standards 2035” in an attempt to redefine the global order.

China’s rush to lay down the rules on information, technology and copyright, in particular, has caused irreconcilable differences with the US in the domain of 5G. Its sharp power has also made democratic countries aware of the infiltration of external forces into areas such as information security, public lives and national security. As a result, there is a consensus on skepticism about and resistance against China. Through a kind of technological authoritarianism and even digital totalitarianism, China expanded its “stability-maintaining” drive and stepped up its propaganda. Not only did it promote a “One Country Two Systems plan for Taiwan”, but it even adopted the “National Security Law for Hong Kong” to suppress the anti-extradition movement, causing “One Country Two Systems” in Hong Kong to exist in name only. The spread of COVID-19 from China has wrought havoc on the world. In the eyes of the international community, the troublemaker is no longer Taiwan but China.

Between July to August 1995 and the 1996 election, two US aircraft carriers cruised the Taiwan Strait. Back then William Perry, the then US secretary of defense, said that the US had its own version of the “One China” policy. That means the US’s “One China” policy is not the same as that of China. President Lee took advantage of this room for flexibility and a Taiwan-centric mindset to consolidate Taiwan’s domestic and diplomatic policies with each other, safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty appropriately.

Shift of US’s policies towards Taiwan

Now Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has said that “Taiwan has not been a part of China”. Though this statement has not crossed the boundaries of the US’s policy framework over the past 40 years, it is obviously different from what the US’s political elites said in 2000. Apparently, Taiwan’s democratic government, its strategic geographic location, its stellar performance in combatting the pandemic, the key role it has played in the supply chain of the high technology industry and clean network, and the global trend towards skepticism about China have brought about a qualitative change in the US’s strategy towards Taiwan.

While China is hoping to turn the Taiwan Strait into its own inland sea and the cross-strait relations into its domestic affair, the US has chosen to propose its own version of policies towards China and make a distinction between its China and Taiwan policies. Now, facing such changes in the internal situation, what choice should Taiwan make? Which path should it go down? While Taiwan never ceases to deepen its democracy by practicing democracy, how it should set its diplomatic goals and choose its diplomatic paths that the times call for is a question that our generation should face and think about together.

(Lin Chia-lung is the Minister of Transportation and Communications in Taiwan. He graduated from Yale University in the US with a PhD. in political science.)

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