Taiwan in the firing line
China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping, whose near-absolute power was confirmed at the recent Communist Party congress, is ramping up the rhetoric about Taiwan. He has made clear that force may be used to achieve his aim of making the country part of China, something he has made a core component of his political project. Taiwan is a flourishing democracy and economic success story, and most of its people have no desire to change their current status as an independent nation, albeit one unable to enjoy normal diplomatic relations. They don’t want to lose their hard-won freedoms. It’s essential that their voices be heard and their wishes respected.
The message was loud and clear. Speaking at the opening of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress this October, China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping vowed never to give up on the option of using force against Taiwan. He said ‘the wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.
The same meeting amended the CCP’s constitution, committing the party to ‘resolutely oppose and contain Taiwanese independence’ and strengthen the military towards ‘unification of the motherland’. This was first time the party’s constitution has explicitly rejected Taiwan’s independence, and follow-up can be expected. Indeed, the following month, Xi told the army to ‘comprehensively strengthen military training in preparation for war’.
Before this, in August, China published a white paper saying that the ‘problem’ of Taiwan can’t ‘be passed down from one generation to the next’, and only unification could stop Taiwan being invaded by another country.
China’s rhetoric is escalating. The future of Taiwan – an island group with a population of almost 24 million people – has never seemed so uncertain. After a year in which Russia tore up the rule book to invade a country it couldn’t control, could something similar be on the cards in East Asia?
An ambiguous status quo
Despite Xi’s talk of reunification, Taiwan has never been part of Communist China. When the CCP took control of the mainland at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated government fled to Taiwan. Both governments insisted they were the legitimate rulers of the entire Chinese territory.
The government that established itself in Taiwan was a founding member of the United Nations (UN) and until 1971 held China’s seat. Most states initially recognised Taiwan rather than China but subsequently almost all of them switched, most of them in the 1970s after the USA established diplomatic relations with China. Only 13 UN member states currently recognise Taiwan, and there have been several recent changes of allegiance, including by Kiribati, Nicaragua and Solomon Islands, as China keeps up its campaign of encouraging states to switch their recognition.
Taiwan was long an autocracy under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, who led the country with an iron fist until his death in 1975, and martial law remained in place until 1987. Since then, Taiwan has made a dramatic transformation into a flourishing democracy. It held its first direct presidential election in 1996 and since then elections have been held routinely every four years, with high turnout and routine peaceful changes of government, with both major parties having held power. It also now has a highly developed economy, assessed to be Asia’s eighth-largest, specialising in microchip manufacturing.
While Taiwan no longer claims to be the government of the whole of China, the CCP continues to maintain that Taiwan is part of China and must therefore come under its control. It has suggested that Taiwan could be incorporated under the ‘one country, two systems’ approach that supposedly applied to Hong Kong.
The possibility of such an arrangement derives from the so-called 1992 Consensus. While the precise outcome of this meeting between officials of both countries is disputed and it was only put forward some years after the meeting took place, its essence is the idea of ‘one China with different interpretations’, a formula that conveniently enables different emphases: China tends to stress the first part and Taiwan the second.
Over the years the relationship between China and Taiwan has ebbed and flowed, depending on the stance of the people in power. While CCP rule in China is a constant, much can depend on the personalities of its leaders. In Taiwan, relations have partly been influenced by which of the two main political parties is in power: the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The KMT, for many years the ruling party, has historically sought warmer relations with the mainland and opposed any move towards Taiwan formally declaring independence. But as its support has declined, it has moved away from talk of unification and recently distanced itself from the 1992 Consensus.
The DPP, the current ruling party, favours the promotion of a distinctly Taiwanese national identity. It holds that Taiwan is already an independent nation, which makes a declaration of independence unnecessary. President Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected by a landslide in 2020, opposes the 1992 Consensus.
While the debate in Taiwan is complex and nuanced, around 85 per cent of people want to maintain the country’s current status, as shown by a 2021 poll by the Mainland Affairs Council, the government agency responsible for relations with China. There is an independence movement and several political parties call for a referendum on the issue – a mechanism that since 2003 can be triggered by a citizens’ initiative – but they attracted little support in the 2020 parliamentary election.
One reason for this is that the cost of a formal declaration of independence would be unacceptably high: it would bring the wrath of China, almost certainly triggering military action.
As a result of the current situation, Taiwan remains locked out of the normal world of international relations: it can’t maintain conventional bilateral relations with most states, forcing it to adopt less formal forms of exchange and representation. It’s also denied membership of global bodies. This has been a source of particular frustration during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Taiwan denied even observer status at the World Health Organization at China’s insistence.
It’s clearly unfair that a democratic country is denied self-determination out of fear of the reaction of a powerful authoritarian state. China reacts to the slightest political shift in Taiwan with a hostility that inhibits full discussion of the country’s future. But despite the challenges, for many Taiwanese people, the status quo represents the best available option.
Taiwan’s allies want to uphold the status quo too. The USA has increasingly moved towards high-level relations with Taiwan and supplies most of its arms under a law that obliges it to ensure Taiwan has the means to defend itself. In September US President Joe Biden repeated his statement that the USA would defend Taiwan if China invaded it. But clearly the USA has no wish to get into a destructive war with China. Its policy is deliberately ambiguous, recognising the Chinese government as the sole government of China while also seeking to engage constructively with Taiwan.
The problem is that one powerful force is profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo and is pushing to change it: the government of China.
What’s in it for China?
China has never given up its claim to Taiwan, but under Xi the issue has grown in priority, and the possibility of a forced annexation can’t be ruled out. China has several self-interested objectives to weigh against the global outrage this would trigger. For a start, it would absorb a smaller but particularly high-performing and technologically advanced economy.
Control of Taiwan’s islands would also have important strategic advantages. It would give China a new base at a crucial gateway between the East China and South China seas, and a spearhead into the Philippine Sea. China is involved in a series of territorial disputes with other Asian states, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Control of Taiwan and its surrounding waters could give China power over key shipping routes through which around a third of the world’s trade passes. It would disrupt a key concept in the USA’s regional security policy, the ‘island chain strategy’, in which a series of islands act as a barrier between China and the Pacific.
China’s sense of itself as a superpower is also undermined by its inability to control all of the territory that it asserts to be China. The continued existence of an independent Taiwan represents an embarrassing rebuke to the Chinese model. On its doorstep, it suggests another China is possible: one with both a thriving democracy and economy, where people are free to change the president and ruling party. Across the strait from an authoritarian state that is currently cracking down on human rights is one that is extending them: one that in 2019 became the first Asian country to recognise same-sex marriage.
Of course, life in Taiwan isn’t perfect. Underneath its ‘economic miracle’ lie serious challenges of poverty, economic inequality and the denial of labour rights, particularly for migrant workers. Its Indigenous population has long been subject to discrimination. But people are free to take action to demand these issues be addressed. Recent years have seen multiple protests, including by labour groups, which along with strikes have succeeded in winning concessions from employers. This kind of concerted public action is unimaginable in China.
Under Xi’s control, China has become even more authoritarian. Xi has recently taken total control of all levers of power and filled key agencies – including the military – with loyalists. He has moved to eradicate not only political dissent but also any potential rival form of identity other than loyalty to the CCP and its leader.
Evidence of this is the brutal treatment of China’s Xinjiang region, where a largely Muslim majority once enjoyed a distinct way of life. Xi has acted to brutally suppress it through an industrial-level programme of mass incarceration and re-education in labour camps. Expressions of Islamic identity have been banned and CCP supporters imported into the region. This is the further application of an approach tested in Tibet.
Xi’s plan can be further seen in the repression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Hong Kong’s distinct way of life – once much more open than on the mainland, with people far more able to speak freely, express dissent and protest – has been brought to a brutal end. Democracy campaigners have been handed long jail sentences or forced to flee. Laws have been changed to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. The education system now only offers China’s version of history and imposes the mainland’s Mandarin language over local Cantonese. As a result, Hong Kong is increasingly indistinguishable from China.
When the UK handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, it was under an agreement that the country would progress towards universal suffrage. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ slogan China now offers Taiwan, its special status was supposedly guaranteed for 50 years. But China unilaterally swept it away.
Taiwan represents Xi’s big piece of unfinished business. His great project of ‘rejuvenation’ is incomplete without it becoming part of China. It was described as a requirement in Xi’s report to the CCP congress.
The latest event that raised the stakes was the visit in August by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Pelosi paid Taiwan a brief, largely symbolic visit as part of a tour of several Asian countries. China’s response was a show of military force. It held military exercises involving live fire in the seas around Taiwan, along with a simulated blockade. Incursions across the median line – an unofficial boundary between the two countries – used to be rare, but during the week of the visit Chinese planes crossed it more than 100 times.
China’s tactics may be backfiring: as China escalates militarily against us, the Chinese narrative is becoming less and less popular in Taiwan.
China saw Pelosi’s visit as a provocation. But there’s little it doesn’t see that way. These were far from its first military exercises. Last August it did similar, following what it referred to as provocations – including the establishment of an office representing Taiwan in Lithuania. Further multiple incursions into the buffer zone came around 1 October 2021, China’s national day, following the launch of a joint defence partnership between Australia, the UK and the USA.
The relationship has been further strained over the question of membership of the regional trade deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which last year both China and Taiwan applied to join, and by Taiwan’s inclusion in the USA’s Summit for Democracy in December 2021. Any time Taiwan acts as an independent nation it brings a frosty response from China.
Military exercises and incursions are in danger of becoming routine, presumably aimed at eroding Taiwanese morale and grinding people into seeing submission as inevitable. The hope may even be to create a crisis that enables military escalation.
Lithuania pays a heavy price
China’s sensitivity over Taiwan is also on show in its ongoing dispute with Lithuania. In August 2021, Taiwan opened a representative office in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, under the name of Taiwan rather than the more usual form of Chinese Taipei. This is a red line issue for China, which actively discourages any use of the name Taiwan, since it can be interpreted as referring to a geographical entity equivalent to a state. This was the first time Taiwan had been recognised as such in a European country.
China’s response was swift. It recalled its ambassador to Vilnius and in November 2021 downgraded its diplomatic relations with Lithuania. Lithuania evacuated its embassy in Beijing after staff were told to hand over their diplomatic IDs.
China deployed economic as well as political muscle. It blocked Chinese imports of Lithuanian goods. In December 2021, it told multinational companies that if they used any supplies from Lithuania they wouldn’t be able to sell in China. In January 2022, the European Union launched a case against China at the World Trade Organization over its de facto Lithuania trade ban.
Taiwan also got involved. When rum produced in Lithuania was turned away by Chinese customs, Taiwan bought it. In January the Taiwanese government launched a credit programme to support joint projects between Lithuanian and Taiwanese companies.
When Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, said it had been a mistake to allow Taiwan to open a representative office under that name, Chinese media seized on his remark. Lithuania’s opposition has also pressured the government to back down. All this for calling a country by its commonly used name.
The Taiwanese government has accused China of using ‘grey zone’ tactics, including drone incursions, in an attempt at intimidation. In September, for the first time Taiwan shot down a Chinese drone, which had entered the airspace over a Taiwanese islet close to China’s coast.
China also targets a vast array of disinformation and propaganda at Taiwanese people. Taiwan tops the Digital Society Project’s global ranking of countries that receive online false news. Messaging apps are on the frontline of the disinformation war, spreading misleading claims about the current government and president, particularly around elections, where there is also evidence of intensive efforts to put pro-China candidates into office. During the pandemic, Chinese efforts have also sought to foster mistrust about the Taiwanese government’s COVID-19 response.
Taiwan’s civil society has become skilled at exposing Chinese propaganda efforts and mounting responses to disinformation, including by offering fact-checking services and efforts to develop media literacy.
At the same time, all the disinformation in the world hasn’t been able to disguise China’s repression of Hong Kong. This more than any other development has helped push people, including politicians and other public figures, away from China.
This March, Taiwan’s box office records were broken not by the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but by a documentary on Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Previously a supporter of unification, business leader Robert Tsao is now spending millions training people in civil defence, the fate of Hong Kong having changed his mind. Support for unification has fallen, not least because people broadly express support for Taiwan’s democratic system and see that it wouldn’t last long under China’s rule.
Voices from the frontline
Min-Hsuan Wu, known as ttcat, is co-founder and CEO of a Doublethink Lab, a civil society organisation focused on researching malign Chinese influence operations and disinformation campaigns and their impacts.
Four years ago, we experienced a tremendous amount of disinformation influencing our 2018 local elections. After these elections, there were lots of signals and leads of information-related, mostly disinformation campaigns – all affiliated with or supported by China.
China is increasingly using ‘grey zone’ tactics to push boundaries, increasing pressure and influencing people. Through various means, China is threatening Taiwanese people. This clearly increases the chance of the whole situation leading to China invading Taiwan.
Some say an invasion could occur in 2025 or 2027, but I think it will depend on how strongly the Taiwanese people can defend themselves from now on: if our resistance increases, the costs of an invasion for China increase accordingly. Our resistance might therefore postpone the crystallisation of China’s wishes for a bit longer.
On the other hand, China’s tactics may be backfiring: as China escalates militarily against us, the Chinese narrative is becoming less and less popular in Taiwan. More and more people have realised China is not a good neighbour. It is no longer thought of as a business opportunity for us but as a potent threat to our ways of life, our livelihoods and our lives. China’s aggressive attitude is pushing Taiwanese people towards embracing defence tactics to protect our country, which is a positive thing for us. We are much more aware of the need to build strong national and civil defence now.
Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation, but whether we see it as helpful or not depends on the perspective we look at it from. Her visit in August 2022 was meant as a show of support to Taiwan, and happened despite China’s threats of retaliation. It was the first visit by a US House Speaker in a quarter of a century. From a democracy or human rights perspective, it was quite beneficial. Pelosi spoke up against China’s human rights violations and the challenges posed by totalitarian regimes. Her presence brought visibility to our country’s situation regarding China. It put a spotlight on it, and now people see how China treats us and what a destabilising factor it is for the region. It clearly bothered China, judging by the way it reacted to it on the international stage.
From a geopolitical and military perspective, Pelosi’s visit didn’t produce any benefit. It didn’t – couldn’t – bring any kind of peaceful dialogue. China’s vision and military exercises won’t change. But Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation; it just brought it under the spotlight so more Western media are paying attention to Taiwan. This kind of attention is somehow opening up many windows of opportunity for Taiwan to collaborate with other countries and agencies. No one knows what will come out of this, but from what I’ve seen so far, increased opportunities of international collaboration may improve our chances of safety.
Right now, Doublethink Lab is doing an investigation on China’s information operations. We do election monitoring and try to disclose disinformation campaigns or far-fetched narratives flooding into Taiwanese media. We are building a global network to bridge the gap between academia and civil society on a global scale. We want people to know what Chinese influence looks like in different countries, the channels it travels through, its tactics and its final goals.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Ttcat. Read the full interview here.
The will of the people
The question of Taiwan’s future is often seen through the lens of the global struggle for influence between China and the USA. China suspended some cooperation following Pelosi’s visit, including on climate change. Much attention focused on the recent meeting between Xi and Biden ahead of the G20 summit, where both leaders continued to disagree on Taiwan. But there’s a danger of losing sight of Taiwan’s people and their hopes and wishes for the future.
Since Pelosi’s visit a steady stream of politicians have made their way from the USA to Taiwan, raising the suspicion that they see it as little other than a photo opportunity useful in their election campaigns. Meanwhile Xi has insisted this is a purely domestic matter, blaming ‘foreign interference’ for rising tensions around Taiwan and warning the USA about the potential for military conflict. Countering US interference may become an eventual pretext for invasion. Xi has also appealed to the ‘majority of Taiwanese compatriots’ to get behind his plan – even though it’s clear no such majority exists.
In Taiwan’s upcoming midterm elections, later this month, people will elect a variety of city mayors, municipal politicians and other local officials. It offers a further reminder of what would be impossible under unification. Most of these posts are currently held by KMT politicians, so any switching of support towards the KPP may indicate approval for the government’s China policy.
A simultaneous referendum, if carried, will lower the voting age to 18 from 20, potentially further empowering a generation that is particularly sceptical about the prospect of closer links with China. A generational shift seems to be underway as more young people compared to older people identify themselves as exclusively and distinctly Taiwanese and reject the idea of unification. Young people also tend to have a more negative view of the Chinese government.
Whatever the outcomes of the voting in November, what is crystal clear is that people don’t want to be on the receiving end of a military invasion. This may still seem unlikely, at least in the short term – but this time last year, few were convinced that Vladimir Putin would really launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The fierce resistance the Ukraine war has encountered and the difficulties Putin has experienced since should offer a warning. But would Xi be able to hear it? Having surrounded himself with an echo chamber of loyalists in party and military structures, there may be no one left who can argue him out of a bad idea, should he decide that force is the only way to complete his project of ‘rejuvenation’.
The possibility of this scenario is another argument for precisely what Xi opposes, and what Taiwan has and should be allowed to keep – checks and balances on power, the chance to debate and express dissent, and the right to protest when bad decisions are made.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of China must commit to ruling out any use of force against Taiwan and cease its repeated incursions over the median line.
All foreign governments should commit to respecting the wishes of Taiwan’s people on the status of their country.
Donors should support the strengthening of Taiwan’s civil society as a key means of defending and deepening respect for human rights and democratic freedoms.
Cover photo by Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins via Gallo Images