April 19, 2022

Global Island: Sustaining Taiwan’s International Participation Amid Mounting Pressure from China

By Jacob Stokes, Alexander Sullivan and Zachary Durkee


Executive Summary

China under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has ramped up political, economic, and military pressure on Taiwan. The roots of Beijing’s pressure campaign, including Xi’s personal interactions with Taiwan policy, go back decades. But recent events have deepened and intensified China’s efforts, which include seeking to block Taiwan from engaging the rest of the world as part of a comprehensive strategy to force Taipei to move toward unification with the mainland on Beijing’s terms.

China’s comprehensive isolation campaign against Taiwan has three main lines of effort. First, since the election of the Tsai Ing-wen government in 2016, Beijing has revived a campaign to break the few official diplomatic relationships Taiwan enjoys by inducing or coercing the states that recognize Taiwan to shift their recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Second, China seeks to cajole and bully states that have unofficial relations with Taiwan—including advanced liberal democracies—into curtailing those ties. Third, China uses its growing heft in international institutions to prevent Taiwan from playing any role whatsoever in global governance of transnational issues. Taken together, these prongs make up a multi-layered strategy to sever Taiwan’s links with global society.

The roots of Beijing’s pressure campaign, including Xi’s personal interactions with Taiwan policy, go back decades. But recent events have deepened and intensified China’s efforts.

Washington, Taipei, and like-minded partners will have to develop sophisticated strategies to counter China’s moves in order to effectively maintain and advance Taiwan’s international participation while also aligning with the larger objective of sustaining cross-Strait peace and stability. Resources and political will are limited, so choices to focus on particular initiatives should be based on the substantive value they provide more than the symbolism they might hold. In general, Washington and Taipei should roughly prioritize deepening unofficial relations with major and like-minded countries first, expanding multilateral participation second, and protecting Taiwan’s group of official diplomatic relations last.

Finally, the authors make three general recommendations for policymakers from the United States, Taiwan, and like-minded partners for sustaining Taiwan’s international participation and detail specific steps to advance them: First, keep U.S. and Taiwan policies aligned on common strategies that maximize substance over symbolism and foster deep, politically sustainable ties across their governments, legislatures, and societies. Second, facilitate the expansion of unofficial links between Taiwan and like-minded allies and partners that can help sustain the political status quo and blunt China’s isolation campaign. Third, defend and advance Taiwan’s ability to contribute to multilateral international organizations in ways that are consistent with long-standing U.S. policy.

Introduction

Recent years have witnessed growing tensions over Taiwan’s (officially the Republic of China or ROC) role in East Asian and global affairs, a trend which threatens to destabilize the world’s most dynamic region or even lead to conflict. The government of China (officially the People’s Republic of China or PRC) in Beijing has sought to pressure Taiwan—a prosperous, self-governing island home to more than 23 million people—into closer economic and political integration and, eventually, unification. That campaign has intensified as relations have been rapidly deteriorating between China and the United States, Taiwan’s closest partner, as nearly a half-century of U.S. policy toward China generally known as “engagement” completely gives way to an era of strategic competition between the two superpowers.

What happens with Taiwan and its ties to the outside world will have important governance implications, too, namely whether democratic countries will allow a fellow democracy to become more isolated as it faces down an emboldened authoritarian major power.

The outcome of China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan will affect several major political and security questions in East Asia and beyond. Most directly, it will be one factor in determining whether China can gain a decisive advantage in cross-Strait disputes or be able to compel Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. Another issue is whether China, the United States, and Taiwan can ever find a new equilibrium in relations that can be a foundation for long-term stability. What happens with Taiwan and its ties to the outside world will have important governance implications, too, namely whether democratic countries will allow a fellow democracy to become more isolated as it faces down an emboldened authoritarian major power. And finally, there is the question of whether and how Taiwan will be able to share its experiences and capabilities—ranging from health security to high technologies to robust democratic governance—with the rest of the world, thereby contributing to global public goods provision.

This report explores trends related to Taiwan’s international participation and offers a framework for how Washington, Taipei, and interested allies and partners can respond to growing pressure from Beijing. It proceeds in four parts. First, it examines the origins of China’s recent pressure campaign. Second, it details the methods Beijing uses to constrain Taiwan’s international participation. Third, it considers responses from Taipei and Washington and identifies principles to guide future strategies for ensuring Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international arena, given limited resources. And fourth, the paper offers specific recommendations for U.S. policymakers in the executive and legislative branches, as well as like-minded allied and partner governments.

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  1. Commentators and media reports often incorrectly use the term “reunify.” The word’s denotation, “to unify again,” implies a historical inaccuracy. In fact, the PRC has never controlled the island of Taiwan, although China’s Qing Empire ruled Taiwan prior to the island becoming a Japanese colony following the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.
  2. Kurt Campbell, “Kurt M. Campbell and Laura Rosenberger on U.S.-China Relations: 2021 Oksenberg Conference,” May 26, 2021, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/white-house-top-asia-policy-officials-discuss-us-china-strategy-aparc%E2%80%99s-oksenberg-conference.
  3. Analyses also use the term “international space” to refer to Taiwan’s efforts to participate in global society and develop ties with various states, organizations, and other entities in the international system. This report uses a similar term, “international participation,” because the authors believe it is more easily understood by non-specialists. The two terms are essentially interchangeable, though.

Authors

  • Jacob Stokes

    Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Jacob Stokes is a Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, East Asian security affairs, an...

  • Alexander Sullivan

    Adjunct Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Alexander Sullivan is an Adjunct Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program, where he focuses on US-China relations, maritime security, regional military modernization and U....

  • Zachary Durkee

    Former Intern, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Zachary Durkee is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to CNAS, Durkee interned at ...

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