Treading water in the Taiwan Strait: China-Taiwan relations

22 May 2023


Treading water in the Taiwan Strait: China-Taiwan relations

Reported by Patrick McAlary, CSaP Policy Research Assistant

Professor William Hurst, Chong Hua Professor of Chinese Development at the Department of Politics and International Studies and Deputy Director for the Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge, delivered the second of CSaP’s online seminars for Policy Fellows on the theme of Geopolitics: Nationhood, Conflict, and Identity.

Routinisation of Tension

The seminar chair, Suzanne Raine, Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge, opened the session by inviting Professor Hurst to address fears that China will invade Taiwan, and to outline why he thought the situation was more complicated than this.

Professor Hurst explained that when it comes to the China-Taiwan relationship, there is always a high level of tension, which has created a "routinisation of tension". The major change that has occurred in this relationship is that the balance of threat has shifted to Taiwan’s disadvantage over the years. Despite the shift and its advantageous position, China will maintain the status quo unless there are clear steps towards independence.

China has levers such as pursuing economic sanctions in the form of a blockade when more controversial events occur. According to Professor Hurst, China has no real intention of going to war, which creates difficulties for Taiwan’s allies in being able to react. Professor Hurst explored how the status quo in fact also suited contemporary Taiwan; leading political parties had pivoted away from formal independence and instead were focused in the run-up to the January 2024 presidential elections on what form the ‘status quo’ should take: should further links be forged with China or should there be a push for de facto independence?

Performance of Threat

The focus of discussion then shifted from the China-Taiwan relationship to how outside actors frame the issue: do endless conversations about how China is going to invade Taiwan make an escalation more likely? Professor Hurst argued that this was unlikely as neither China nor Taiwan takes such pronouncements very seriously; instead, both exploit such rhetoric for their own gain.

In this context, Professor Hurst explained that while Taiwan uses such rhetoric to open up more links with Western countries, China, on the other hand, exploits such pronouncements to justify its own arguments about Western attempts to contain Chinese power. Nonetheless, it can be argued that threats against Taiwan helped to align Australia, the UK and the US through the establishment of their trilateral security pact, AUKUS.

An Uneasy Status Quo

Our Policy Fellow audience asked how far China’s strategy towards Taiwan formed part of a long-term plan. Pointing out that the long-term plan is very simple; that is, blocking any moves towards greater independence, Professor Hurst argued that although China has preferred to ignore the issue and maintained an uneasy but tolerable status quo, ultimately China seeks greater integration and even unification.

Our chair brought the seminar to a close by questioning whether China’s approach was simply "strategic patience" or whether China could seek to destabilise Taiwan and lead it into the embrace of the mainland.

Professor Hurst acknowledged there was constant low-level Chinese interference in Taiwan; however, he argued that this approach has backfired as it has led to sub-optimal policy responses by Taiwan, suspicious of Chinese interference and meddling. Engaging in soft power requires greater subtlety and finesse than China has so far displayed in the region.

Image by Sam Chang - Unsplash

Patrick McAlary

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge