Taiwan’s Stability and Predictability in Cross-Strait Relations

J. Michael Cole’s comprehensive new book describes the numerous and complex challenges facing Taiwan, as well as the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s measured, pragmatic approach to handling them.

In Cross-Strait Relations Since 2016: The End of the Illusion, Taipei-based policy analyst J. Michael Cole provides readers with a nuanced account of President Tsai’s strategic approach to relations with China and Taiwan’s international partners – most notably the U.S. – as well as an analysis of Taiwan’s democracy and its viability.

Whether you are a longtime “Taiwanophile” or brand new to Taiwan Studies, there are few scholars that can break down the facts about Taiwan in an engaging yet informed way like Cole does. A former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Cole moved to Taiwan in 2005. Since then, he has worked as a government and private sector consultant, prolific author and media commentator, and fellow at multiple institutes worldwide. There are few major international media outlets that have not yet featured or quoted him on topics spanning the Taiwanese military, political warfare, and the People’s Liberation Army, as well as cross-Strait relations, politics, and democracy.

An underlying theme of Cole’s book is President Tsai’s commitment to a stable, predictable governing model. He begins by tracing Tsai’s 2016 presidential campaign, during which she pledged to build a “consistent, predictable, and sustainable cross-Strait relationship.” Cole returns to this promise repeatedly, highlighting how adhering to it has enabled Tsai to strengthen Taiwan’s position both internationally – with partners like the U.S. – and domestically. Her balancing act of upholding Taiwan’s democracy and promoting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is admirable, Cole asserts, and as is detailed throughout the book, has reaped benefits internationally and domestically.

Cole’s book highlights President Tsai’s influence on Taiwan’s international relationships and engagement. Photo: Office of the President

In addition, Cole emphasizes Taiwan’s growing appeal under Tsai’s leadership as a “stable, responsible, and democratic partner” to other nations. The second part of the book provides a fresh perspective on Taiwan’s efforts to engage with “large and democratic economies” to strengthen and diversify the scope of its international engagement. Many contemporary Taiwan analysts focus on its limited number of diplomatic allies and narrow international influence; Cole instead provides insight into Taiwan’s flexible and creative engagement with the international community.

A prime example of this engagement is the work of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), a nonprofit trade promotion organization co-sponsored by the Taiwan government. Cole notes the presence of 61 TAITRA offices worldwide and praises the council’s work expanding the market exposure of Taiwanese businesses, as well as efforts to increase cooperation between Taiwan and countries ranging from India to Israel in terms of trade and economic development.

Cole gives readers a comprehensive rundown on the development of Taiwan’s ties with its neighbors, most recently characterized by the Tsai administration’s landmark foreign policy initiative, the New Southbound Policy (NSP). He details the differences between Tsai’s policy and the “Go South” strategies of former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, highlighting the NSP’s focus on “mutual cooperation” and incentives for NSP countries to invest in Taiwan. The policy’s emphasis on people-to-people connections draws on Taiwan’s strengths in education, healthcare, green energy, and technology, Cole says.

Since its introduction in 2016, the NSP has seen great success, with 12% growth in exports to NSP countries in the policy’s first year alone. Unique projects under the NSP umbrella include a 2017 initiative called the New Southbound Talent Development Program, investing USD$3.3 million in projects promoting education cooperation with NSP countries.

Readers seeking to understand the unique U.S.-Taiwan relationship can indulge their curiosities in Chapter 5, which provides a detailed historical overview of U.S.-Taiwan bilateral ties and chronicles the relationship’s entrance into a new “rapprochement” stage. Cole attributes improved U.S.-Taiwan relations largely to the Tsai administration’s policies, again commending Tsai’s consistent, stable governing model and commitment to maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. In both cross-Strait relations and domestic politics, Tsai’s emphasis, Cole argues, has been on ensuring continuity and stability, contributing dividends to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. She has convinced and reassured Washington that her government will not engage in adventurism that could spark conflict with Beijing.

As a case in point, Cole cites the greater interest being paid to Taiwan in the U.S. as one of the benefits reaped by Tsai’s commitment to stability and predictability. He points to a deepening understanding of Taiwan that has better informed the U.S.’ policy toward Taiwan and cross-Strait relations: “more and more U.S. policymakers and academics have begun looking at Taiwan…as a partner in its own right.” This focus on Taiwan is now even clearer under the Biden administration, which has emphasized a renewed multilateral approach in the Indo-Pacific and is working to strengthen its partnerships with like-minded democracies in the region.

Cole highlights recent U.S.-Taiwan engagement projects, including the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), launched in 2015. The initiative has sponsored workshops on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, e-commerce, and science and technology that draw experts from the U.S. and elsewhere to Taiwan to share their skills and connect with their equally impressive Taiwanese counterparts. The book also cites the increasing number of visits to Taiwan by U.S. officials, academics, think tank analysts, journalists, and businesspeople as illustrative of the expanded awareness of Taiwan among Americans.

The U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy in recent years also indicates a better grasp by Washington of the region and Taiwan’s role in it. Cole pinpoints the areas where this strategy and Tsai’s NSP overlap, which he says suggest a growing recognition in Washington of the important role Taiwan can and should play in trade, tourism, education, and healthcare in the region. This renewed admiration for Taiwan is further demonstrated by Congressional bills in support of strengthening ties, including the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. Cole concludes this line of thought by encouraging the U.S. Trade Representative to consider negotiating a free trade agreement with Taiwan.

Beyond the U.S., Cole briefs readers on Taiwan’s other important partners, including Japan. He explores the future of the Japan-Taiwan relationship, first tracing its history and the effect that China’s rise has had on the two. He also provides an explanation of economic relations between Taiwan and Japan, as well as opportunities for joint engagement with markets in South and Southeast Asia. Cole argues for a greater role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific, including its participation in an effort by Japan and the U.S. to bring development assistance to small island states in the Pacific and deepen their promotion of democracy.

Democracy and Domestic Politics

The theme of democracy is woven throughout the book as another inalienable facet of Taiwan’s rise, Tsai’s leadership, and the island’s domestic politics. When discussing democracy, Cole praises Taiwan as an Asian society that can “reconcile its Confucian roots with democratic practice.” He labels Taiwan’s democracy the most successful and vibrant in East Asia, praising its highly active civil society and leadership in human rights and LGBTQI+ rights. Cole attributes Taiwan’s growing ties with Southeast Asia and ASEAN countries in part to its commitment to serving as a model democracy in the region; he calls Taiwan an inspiration for countries across Asia and details the Tsai administration’s assistance to civil society, NGOs, and political parties in promoting human rights and democracy in the Asia-Pacific.

In the final chapters of the book, Cole gives his reader a succinct yet revealing overview of Taiwan’s domestic political issues since 2016. Among these, pension reform has been one of the most contentious. The book includes a detailed and insightful study of the history and significance of Taiwan’s pension system, as well as Tsai’s recent efforts to remedy problems with this system and with income redistribution more broadly. Cole also offers a brief accounting of Tsai’s efforts to support Taiwan’s indigenous communities, such as establishing a special committee for transitional justice for indigenous peoples.

For readers looking to better understand Taiwan’s hottest political issues, the book chronicles developments on the death penalty, marriage equality, and direct democracy. Cole also breaks down the success of the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the November 2018 election and the implications of the “blue wave” support for 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-Yu on Taiwan’s partisan divide over recall elections and referendums.

Yet despite Cole’s praise for the Tsai administration, Cross-Strait Relations Since 2016 is not without its criticisms of the Democratic Progressive Party government, and the book concludes with suggestions for President Tsai moving forward. He underscores the need for improvements in labor reform and human rights for migrant workers in Taiwan’s fishing industry. He also encourages Taiwan to reform some of its legislative and legal systems to provide for more democratic oversight and create review committees, particularly in areas like national security.

Importantly, Cole calls on Taiwan to reform its regulations on the employment of foreign nationals in order to increase opportunities for outside perspectives and input. He emphasizes that Taiwan “is in the process of becoming a multicultural nation” and thus should take steps to open its doors to more immigration. This, he says, could also help solve Taiwan’s demographic dilemma.

Overall, when it comes to Tsai’s governing model and approach to foreign policy, the complex dynamics of Taiwan’s international relationships, and the challenges Taiwan faces domestically, Cole’s latest book contributes a fresh and engaging perspective on many of today’s most talked-about issues.