Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Nelson Report on the Brookings Conference

Picking tea in Nantou.

Section from Nelson Report on the CSIS/Brookings conference:


CSIS all-day conference "Strait Talk: Taiwan's 2016 Elections and the United States", with the usual all-star cast of foreign experts, and DC stalwarts led by CSIS's Bonnie Glaser, Mike Green and Chris Johnson, with big assists from former St. Dept. gurus Alan Romberg and Dave Brown, with current FSO now on leave Bob Wang.

Shelly Rigger's lunchtime keynote hit most of the main points discussed, and Shelly has kindly shared her talking points, in full, below.

The bulk of the presentations and Q+A's covered the almost dead-certainty that DPP presidential nominee Tsai Ingwen will be elected on Jan. 16, on her own merits, and the utter collapse of both management and candidate competence by the ruling KMT.

Still a toss-up is if the historic residual strength of the KMT will enable its Legislative Yuan candidates to weather the coming storm, or will the DPP will have an outright majority. Some discussants felt the DPP will need to form a coalition with former KMT now independent party leader James Soong, but no one argued the KMT would retain LY control.

So it's going to be a new deal in Taipai by the Spring...and from that, discussion turned to how the US and how China will react, given the policy and conceptual issues in place since US-China "normalization" during the Carter Administration, and the subsequent preservation of the "status quo" of de-facto but not de-jure independence for the government in Taipei.

Your Editor asked whether the coming Xi/Obama summit would feature discussion of the Taiwan issues, and should Obama raise them, asking how Xi planned to respond to the challenge of a DPP return. Mike Green handled similar summits for George Bush, and laughingly explained that Obama wouldn't have to raise Taiwan, because Xi would have a lot he wanted to say.

(Ray Burghardt, the current AIT chief, later told us in his experience of US-China summits, going back to the Carter normalization years, the US side has never taken the first step to discuss Taiwan, that's always been on China.)

As to what Obama and the US team should say after Xi broaches the firm, explicit and detailed on the continued US focus on peaceful maintenance of the status quo, and that the US will react to any attempts to use coercion or outright military force on the people of Taiwan.

Of course nothing new, but important to be very, very clear about, it was agreed, especially given the rising maritime tensions in the region.

A major discussion theme, emphasized in Shelly Rigger's keynote, was how the generational shift on Taiwan, combined with Taiwan's rise as an Asian and now global economic power, has produced a massive public sentiment against unification with the PRC under any current political circumstances.

(The one encouraging aspect for Beijing...almost as large a majority of Taiwanese now grasp that pushing for legal independence would be futile, and so counter-productive to everyone interests.)

So what's the problem? The obvious fact that given the demographic and attitudinal changes, Beijing's treasured sense that "time is on our side" may be going, going...gone...never to return under CCP rule.

That in turn leads to the long-standing key geostrategic question...can and will Xi Jinping or his successors under the CPP continue to accept the status quo, or are there domestic PRC or international circumstances which could lead Xi or a successor to risk using overt military or coercive measures in an attempt to achieve unification?

At risk of oversimplifying discussion more than is our wont, it struck Your Editor that while everyone tried to convince each other and the audience that Xi Jinping will manage to restrain nationalist, or impulses to violence and disruption in the event that the DPP take over the often as not talk came back to why he might not.

Stimson's Romberg noted the controversy he kicked-up with his comments on Pres. Xi's recent remarks to the effect that the future of Taiwan can't be allowed to "drag on" for future generations...saying he was taken to task by a "senior PRC official for over-interpreting that!"

In fact, Alan said, rather than threatening violence, "I think Xi is realizing that unification in any short term time frame [is not happening] so he is focused on getting certain principles understood...and I have not heard him repeating that remark. So the basic thrust is he wants the [X-Strait] political dialogue to be serious, for fear than the absence of such will feed events going in the wrong direction..."

Ummm...given that things are clearly "going in the wrong direction" from Beijing's standpoint, here's Mike Green, former Senior Director for Asia on the NSC during the trouble-plagued Chen Shuibian administration, the last time the DPP was in power, responding to Alan:

"I agree but...Xi has usually resorted to coercion when faced with changes in the status quo! So when faced with a choice, Xi has always chosen power."

Chris Johnson, moderating that panel:

"I agree Xi is talking about political dialogue and not to over-interpret the remarks. But I agree they reflect Xi's true sentiments"....Chris went on to cite the PRC's increasingly aggressive island and military base-building activities in the S. China Sea.


Dr. Shelly Rigger, Brown Prof. of E. Asian Politics and chair of the Political Science Dept., Davidson College
Brooking/CSIS, September 14

I want to use this time not so much to tell you something as to pose a question. For a long time, the mainstream analysis of XS relations has been that the status quo is fairly stable - it could be sustained for a long time - but that there are circumstances under which that equilibrium could be undermined, and the status quo could be disrupted.

I think it's worth asking: is that constellation of factors we believe could precipitate a crisis coming together right now?

My talk has three goals: to spell out the circumstances under which the status quo could be threatened; to point out some evidence that those circumstances are beginning to manifest themselves, and to mention some of the forces and factors
that militate against a crisis at this moment.

Most observers over the past few years have agreed that there is no immediate threat to the status quo, by which I mean Taiwan's de facto independence. There is little urgency for de jure independence on the Taiwan side, or for de jure
unification on the PRC side, so we can keep "kicking the can" a while longer.

Taiwan is kept in check by an awareness of the dangers of defying or challenging the PRC, and by the economic value (indeed, necessity) of peaceful and cooperative cross-Strait relations. And, honestly, by the fact that most Taiwanese
see little practical value in pushing for de jure independence.

So Taiwan's policy is to cultivate good relations with the PRC, but avoid being drawn into political talks that could erode the island's freedom of action.

The PRC is kept in check by at least three factors. First, it recognizes that acting to change the status quo (with or without coercive measures) would be difficult, costly, and risky. Second, Beijing believes time is on its side; its relative power is
growing, as is Taiwan's economic dependence. Third, China's internal challenges are large, but they can be managed, so long as the leadership gives them sufficient attention. Having serious, but manageable, internal problems keeps Beijing preoccupied and risk averse.

The PRC's policy is to insist very strongly that Taiwan make no moves toward de jure independence, but to remain pretty tolerant of the status quo so long as Taiwan complies. At the same time, it is working to promote economic entanglements and on occasion to leverage those for political gain.

With both sides having good reasons not to push too hard for a change to the status quo, the situation is stable. But there are developments could upset that equilibrium.When we talk about what could precipitate a crisis in the Strait, two possibilities
are mentioned most frequently:

· The PRC's calculus could change so that it begins to believe time is against
it, causing leaders to assess that not acting is risker than acting à a change
in strategy aimed at pulling Taiwan closer;

· The PRC's internal and/or external problems could reach a point where the
leadership decides it needs a diversion or a demonstration of its nationalist
bona fides to distract the public and refocus Chinese on the CCP as the
defender of Chinese nationalism.

Right now, evidence is building that both of these developments may be underway, raising the possibility that we could face a crisis sooner than we had hoped. Evidence that time is no longer on Beijing's side:

The argument for patience is that the PRC is becoming increasingly powerful, economically, politically, and militarily - especially relative to Taiwan. If present trends continue, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how Taiwan could resist a determined effort by the PRC to compel Taiwan to comply with its unificationist preferences.

· Taiwan's dependence on China's economy is evident in the sharp decline in
its exports in recent months - the PRC is Taiwan's top export market and its
top investment destination. Every day, more and more Taiwanese find their
livelihoods linked to the China market.

· Despite Ma's efforts to leverage relaxed cross-Strait relations to improve
Taiwan's international political situation, the island's isolation has not eased
significantly, and PRC scholars and officials are already promising to
resume the policy of squeezing Taiwan's political space if the outcome of
the January elections is not to their liking.

· Given another decade of double-digit growth in China's military spending (and military spending in Taiwan below 3% of GDP) Taiwan will be hardpressed to offer anything close to a convincing military deterrent. And the US ability and willingness to intervene is also affected by China's rising capabilities.

The problem is, these favorable trends are unfolding at different speeds. It's not clear how we would know when the tide has turned in Beijing's favor, and in the meantime, other trends are working against the PRC. For the Chinese leadership,
deciding when to change policy is a matter of art, not science.

Beijing's biggest problem is Taiwanese public opinion, which matters because if you're trying to engineer peaceful unification, you need to be able to sell it in Taiwan. Support for de jure independence is still pretty soft, but Hung Hsiu-chu's protestations notwithstanding, unification has no support at all, and other indicators that Beijing looks at are also negative.

On independence-unification there's good news and bad news. The good news is, while support for unification is off the charts - off the bottom of the charts, that is - support for independence is also low, and pretty consistently so.

The bad news is that when you dig a little deeper, support for independence starts to look less weak than those polls suggest, while unification looks even weaker.TNSS, 2011 asked about conditional preferences; about 80% said they would
choose independence if it came at no cost... but even if it did have a military cost, somewhere around 30 to 35% favor independence (33.9 percent is Emerson's paper; 30.5% is TEDS 2012)

Meanwhile, only a quarter to a third (27/35) would favor unification under favorable conditions (convergence of political, economic, and social conditions), and at least half oppose unification under any circumstances (55/51)

The trend in support for unification under ideal circumstances is particularly negative: according to the TNSS, support for UUIC was above 50% until 2005; opposition was in the 30-40% range. In the 2008 survey the two lines crossed and by 2011 support for UUIC was down to the low 30s and opposition was nearing 60%. In less than a decade, we went from 50-30 for UUIC to 60-30 against. That's a strong anti-unification trend.

Another data point we can look at is the percentage of Taiwanese who take a pragmatic view of the situation - they could live with either unification or independence. According to TEDS, that percentage fell slightly from 2008 to 2012, ending up at around 21% -- that's not a horrible number, but it's not what Beijing is hoping for.

On the economic front, the strategy of waiting for economic integration to create support for political integration may be losing momentum. Even four years ago, during the 2012 election campaigns, candidates needed to persuade voters that they would be able to deepen economic ties with the mainland - that's where Taiwan's economic future seemed to lie. This time around, after 4 years of economic disappointment and rising skepticism about the distributional implications of crossStrait economic engagement, voters' requirements have changed. Many voters are looking for a candidate who will talk about how to reduce Taiwan's dependence on the mainland, not one who will can deepen it.

Another big problem for China is the KMT's shocking weakness, both in terms of party identification (after a few bad years in the early 2000s, the KMT enjoyed much higher party ID than the DPP. It peaked in 2011, and since 2013, the DPP has had higher ratings than the KMT) and in terms of the party's internal politics. I'm sure the TAO guys sit around and ask each other, "How did this happen?"

One final indicator to look at is Taiwan people's self-identification as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. There the trend is clearly very negative for Beijing: since 2007 the percentage claiming Taiwanese identity has increased from the low 40s to around 60%.

The presidential and legislative elections will be one, imperfect, manifestation of how these trends translate into politics (the elections will also include many other issues that are not related to cross-Strait relations), so everyone will be watching them.

So that's the evidence that time may no longer be on Beijing's side. Now let me turn briefly to the second source of instability for the status quo, instability in the PRC.

There are people in this room who understand China's problems much better than I do, but it is clear that the PRC is facing economic and political headwinds. So far, the government is managing those problems, but there may be an event (or sequence of events) that could catalyze a major challenge to Xi and his team - one that a leader desperate to hang onto power might decide could be best addressed through an outward-directed show of strength. I would be interested whether anyone here thinks such an event is imminent, in the timeframe of the Taiwan elections, through the early months of the next presidential term (so, within the next year).

So far, the perpetual optimist is delivering some pretty sobering news. However, I think there are still a number of forces that militate against a serious disruption of the status quo, and I'd also be interested in what you think on this front:

1) the DPP is probably going to win the election, but it is a less odious DPP, and there are ways to spin the election that make it seem less like a disaster for China - including pointing to the chaos in the KMT, which is not insurmountable (although repairing the party will probably require moving farther from the CCP's preferred positions)

2) China's problems are not that bad - still manageable with focused attention

3) the military risk is still very high - this is not a good time for military conflict, not least because ...

4) China can't afford to worsen relations with its neighbors

5) Finally, and here I am on shaky ground as a Taiwan specialist commenting on CCP internal politics, but it seems to me that strong action and risktaking could activate or intensify splits in the PRC leadership, and knowledge of that dynamic is a deterrent to strong action. Xi would need to build a strong consensus for action, and given the risks involved, that might be very difficult.

Unfortunately, planning for worst-case scenarios is not at all a natural fit on an island where a willful denial of the obvious has long been accepted practice. For all too long now the Taiwanese media has dished out a daily ration of celebrity gossip, political innuendo and sensationalist rumor mongering, instead of dealing with the fundamental truth that Taiwan lies only 160 kilometers offshore from a well -armed super-power which has long threatened to attack it. Making matters worse, the island's soon-to-be discarded Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) management has consistently downplayed the notion of a Chinese threat to Taiwanese sovereignty, largely amid a helter-skelter attempt to tie the Taiwanese economy ever closer to that of China, and to initiate a dialogue aimed at bringing about political union between the sides.

- See more at:

The result has been the institutionalization of a soporific Hello Kitty culture that glorifies the comfortable and frowns on discussing any reality that might be emotionally upsetting.

- See more at:

If and when Tsai Ing-wen takes office in May 2016, her first priority should be to build on this emerging Taiwanese consciousness and take concrete steps aimed at aimed at strengthening Taiwan's ability to deal with the possibility of a Chinese attack in the post-2020 period - not only military measures, but political ones as well. Insofar as possible, these measures should not be overtly provocative - lest the Chinese use them for political advantage - but at the same time they should still be sufficiently robust to serve notice on Beijing that any assault upon Taiwan will exact an extremely heavy cost - heavy enough at any rate to deter the Chinese leadership from undertaking the assault in the first place.

The measures should be aimed first and foremost at enlisting elite and popular opinion in the U.S.,

- See more at:

--- one of his concerns is Taiwan's failure to take its predicament seriously; another is its failure to do anything about it, in terms of military spending and improving relations with the US

... but it seems to me that the US has never been enthusiastic about Taiwan provoking/ alienating the PRC - Washington wants TW to be vigilant and prepared, but also to cultivate good relations with China. Blaming Ma for stressing the good relations piece might work for internal TW issues, but it doesn't capture the dynamics of US-TW relations accurately/fully

Enav: The Collapse of China's Taiwan Strategy (Thinking TW)

The problem for China now is that in stark contrast to the situation in 2008 this kind of approach has only the remotest chance of success. Not only is Tsai far from being the alluring target that Chen was during most of his presidency - after all, her very fiber emits nuance and well-modulated statecraft - but even more importantly, the majority of Taiwanese are no longer willing to accept that closer ties with China will work to Taiwan's advantage. Today China-skepticism in Taiwan is strong and getting strong, reflecting not only the crudeness of Chinese behavior in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, but also, China's self-defeating shortsightedness in failing to give Ma very much to work with when most he needed their help.

- See more at:

D D Wu in the Diplomat

Taken together, on the Taiwan issue, Beijing's policy is reactive rather than proactive, reserved rather than assertive, and offers carrots rather than sticks. It is fair to say that now is the best time for Taiwan Strait relations since 1949. The Taiwan Strait is far from a crisis, and will very likely remain so, even if Tsai Ing-wen were elected.

(Yuan-kang's paper)

· there is a strong correlation among three things: partisanship (support for
DPP), willingness to support independence even if it 's risky, and confidence
in US intervention. We don't know how they are related, causally, but we
can expect that if one of them goes up, the others may go up as well. And
two of them, at least, is going up

2012 TEDS data (including non answers):

Agree with unification/independence under ideal circumstances:
Agree with both: 21%
Agree with unification, disagree with
independence: 13%
Agree with independence, disagree with
unification: 31%
Reject both options: 18%
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