TAIWAN A TIME FOR CLARITY
Dr. Ilias Iliopoulos
On Wednesday, May 20, Ms. Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in for a second term as the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
President Tsai Ing-wen triumphed in the national presidential election of 11 January 2020 and secured a second term in office by taking an overwhelming 57.1% of the vote. The stupendous victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been a heavy blow to Beijing’s prestige and policy.
The efforts made by Mainland China’s (The People’s Republic of China), its Communist Party’s ruling bureaucratic elite and its President Mr. Xi Jinping to politically isolate the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, to punish Taiwan economically, and to terrorize its citizens failed to deliver the desired outcome. On the contrary, Beijing’s pressure and bullying campaign targeting Taiwan had backfired.
Taiwan’s citizens delivered a resounding slap in the face of Mainland China’s state and party ruling bureaucratic elite by re-electing Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, who vowed to preserve her country’s freedom and sovereignty despite Beijing’s threats and its attempts to bring the island republic under its control.
The tremendous victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP underscored support for a distinct (quasi ethno-political) Taiwanese identity, particularly among the younger generations of voters, and the extent to which public sentiment had drifted further from the idea of a single, unified China. The PRC’s attempts to strangulate Taiwan economically and punish President Tsai, PRC Intelligence Services’ attempts to manipulate the outcome of the election, Mr. Xi Jinping and other senior state and party authorities’ threats that Taiwan “must and will be unified with the P.R. of China” and, last but not least, the whole campaign aiming at isolating, delegitimizing and undermining Ms. Tsai Ing-wen had eventually backfired.
As a matter of facts, her campaign also found momentum from months of student and other citizen protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms (this former British Crown colony had been ceded to the P.R. of China under the condition of enjoying a semiautonomous status according to the relevant U.K.-P.R.C. treaty). Indeed, Mainland China’s leader Mr. Xi Jinping had declared that the “One Country, Two Systems”-doctrine must be applied in the case of Taiwan, as it had been the case with Hong Kong and (former Portuguese colony) Macau. Ms. Tsai has categorically rejected the proposal. In fact, thousands of young people had come out to vote many of whom flew home from abroad, making crystal clear that “Taiwan must remain Taiwan!”
In the meantime, Beijing’s frustrations are compounded by the entirely deserved and expanding respect that Taiwan has received for how President Tsai’s administration has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of silently accepting that fact, and allowing time to move the diplomatic needle back to normal, Beijing has made clear its intention to continue to isolate Taipei internationally, most recently by blocking Taiwan’s minimal participation as an “observer” at the World Health Assembly organized by the World ealth Organization on May 18 and 19.
Worse, Mainland China continues to pressure Taiwan militarily. The pressure could well escalate, and dangerously so. President Xi Jinping and the Communist party and state ruling elite may go on to play the “Taiwan card” to cement their quasi normative legitimacy at home. Indeed, in late March, the head of Taiwan’s intelligence agency testified in an open legislative hearing that he pegged the likelihood of Mainland China using force against Taiwan “tomorrow” at a 6 or 7 out of 10, with 10 being very likely. In which case the crucial question would be, which would/should be the response of the United States, Taiwan’s primary ally? Indeed, the Taiwan Strait is arguably the most likely place for a dangerous, large-scale conflict between the U.S. and the P.R.C. to start. This prospect is due not only to developments in China, but to policy choices that have been made in Washington throughout the last decades. The policy of “strategic ambiguity”—in which neither China nor Taiwan can be sure whether the United States will intervene in a conflict—has not only outlived its usefulness, but regrettably contributed to instability in the Strait.
Taiwan is a sovereign state with robust democratic institutions, armed forces, foreign diplomatic partners, and one of the world’s largest economies. It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and yet the State Department does not even call it a chicken. Is it a country? A territory? A self-governing collection of islands? The State Department’s bureaucracy would rather not say – notoriously insisting on “strategic ambiguity”!
Yet, the odds of a P.R.C. blockade, missile strike, or even invasion grow with each passing year. To effectively dissuade Beijing from that course, clarity is in order. Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) recently argued that “now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan.” He is completely right. Given Taiwan’s strategic centrality in East Asia— an island gate to the larger Pacific—such a statement might be the single most effective thing President Donald Trump could do to ensure continuing peace in the region.