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Taiwan and the challenges of peaceful change

Nadine Godehardt and Gudrun Wacker shed light on political shifts in Asia for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
By Nadine Godehardt and Gudrun Wacker, SWP

Recent developments in the Taiwan Strait have once again demonstrated that the world no longer functions the same way it did before the Covid pandemic, before Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, or before this Taiwan crisis. The People’s Republic of China has responded to the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the trip of another US congressional delegation, and the announcement of the opening of formal negotiations on a US-Taiwan trade and investment agreement not only with sharp verbal criticism, but also with massive military drills and the publication of a white paper on Taiwan.

Three aspects are important here. First, unlike the increasingly authoritarian regime on the Mainland, Taiwan has developed a flourishing democracy that thrives on the political participation of its young population. At the same time, despite the government’s efforts toward diversification, no other place in the world is as economically linked to the People’s Republic of China as today’s Taiwan. However, the economic interdependence between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait does not provide more stability; on the contrary, it enhances insecurity and promotes a scenario in which the PRC does not necessarily have to conquer Taiwan at all: A blockade or permanent disruption of the sea lanes through military maneuvers is enough to put Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty at serious risk.

The abyss grows inexorably

Second, the Chinese leadership’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit has left no doubt about its claim to supremacy in the region and vis-à-vis the United States. The Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping is primarily concerned with using all means at its disposal to achieve greater compatibility between the regional and global order, which Beijing is actively helping to transform, and the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Incidents like the current one in Taiwan are consequently used to establish and consolidate Chinese positions, for example, the “one China principle” (i.e. the principle that there is only one China, solely represented by the People’s Republic of China, and that Taiwan is an inseparable part of this one China) as an international norm.

Third, the Taiwan crisis unfolds against a backdrop of almost entirely shattered Sino-American relations and further exacerbates differences. There are hardly any open bilateral channels of communication left – the few that existed in the first place have been terminated or suspended indefinitely by the Chinese leadership in response to Pelosi’s visit. Given the breakdown of established dialogue formats, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how the growing divide between the two sides can ever be bridged.

Dangerous radio silence between the powers

Thus, the Taiwan crisis is another example of how today’s world seems to be somehow out of joint. What used to be true no longer applies. Backward-looking comparisons such as discussions about a new Cold War or the idea that we are in a competition between autocracies vs. democracies appear partially apt, at best. They fall short because we are experiencing a historical turning point; a turning point in time that cannot be pinned down to just one political event, but is based on an interplay of interlocking crises, changes and shocks.

This marks the beginning of a new, different era, in which the political, economic and planetary contours are still uncertain and which, for this very reason, harbors enormous risks. As a result, governments must work together, even if they have fundamentally different views, for example, on values. This is demanding, full of uncertainties, and sometimes a high price has to be paid. And yet, it can only be done together, lest the increasing diplomatic radio silence between the US and China prove to be the calm before the storm. A bilateral face-to-face meeting between the two heads of state on the fringes of the G20 or the APEC summit in November of this year would certainly be a welcome first step, even if it is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough.

Dr. Nadine Godehardt is a researcher in the Asia Research Group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. She focuses on China’s political system, but also cooperation and alliances in the region.

Dr. Gudrun Wacker is a senior fellow at the Asia Research Group of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Her research focuses on China and the Indo-Pacific region. She is an expert on Taiwan-China relations.

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