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  1. The Weekend Report
9 December 2023

Taipei’s tipping point

Ahead of the presidential election in January, Taiwanese officials know that keeping China calm is a delicate balancing act.

By Bruno Maçães

As I sat on the stands watching the National Day parade in Taipei in October, one quintessential display of national pride was notably muted. Just three jets performed a fly over and the Taiwanese Armed Forces made a quick appearance with a small group of soldiers from the Honour Guard marching with old-fashioned bayonets on their shoulders. Overall, the parade was overwhelmingly devoted to dancing, music, acrobatics and cheerful throngs of Japanese and American college students. The military bravado one would expect at such an event was noticeably absent. It felt less like a National Day parade and more like the Super Bowl.

As several Taiwanese officials explained to me later, that impression was deliberate. Joseph Wu, the foreign minister, told me the goal of the parade was to exemplify Taiwanese “vitality and dynamism” – not military readiness. These officials made a point of stressing that a different choice could always be made in the future.

That caveat is quite central to how Taiwan thinks about the future: flexibility above all. In her speech before the parade, President Tsai Ing-wen performed her own type of acrobatics, rhetorically pushing the idea of an independent Taiwan to the very limits of what China, which claims the island as part of its territory, would conceivably tolerate, while remaining acutely aware that a red line exists. Her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has a skilful way of avoiding the dangers of a full march to independence; instead, it argues, very simply, that Taiwan is already independent. Since China seems to have more problems with a declaration of independence than with its de facto exercise, the DPP has renounced that step as fundamentally unnecessary. Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) the current vice-president and the DPP’s candidate for the presidential election in January, takes the same approach.

When I first arrived earlier that week at the presidential palace in Taipei, I noticed that some of the signs outside read “Taiwan National Day”. This seemed a bold move, in contradiction to the policy of caution advocated publicly. The constitutional name for Taiwan is the Republic of China. My visa said as much, and China is widely assumed to regard a change of name as tantamount to a declaration of independence. Was I witnessing something momentous? Perhaps not. An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured me that the name was nothing official, just a marketing brand. Another justification you hear in Taipei is that “Republic of China” is simply too long, “Taiwan” conveniently short.

When I shared my recollection of those street signs with academics and journalists in Beijing at the Belt and Road Forum a few days later (where I spoke as the author of a book on the infrastructure initiative), their reaction was different. Some were angry, others alarmed. Some were both. Others blasted that the signs were unconstitutional, which was perhaps not entirely accurate given that they were, after all, street signs. The most conciliatory reaction was from a Chinese academic who described the informal name change as the “usual Taiwanese salami tactics”: pushing the line slowly and imperceptibly in order not to provoke a Chinese reaction.

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Indeed, during her speech at the National Day parade, I watched Tsai perform a careful dance between the island’s two names. “Republic of China” was used at the beginning and the end of her short speech, as well as when referring to the formal office of the president; otherwise “Taiwan” was used much more frequently and, in a section on foreign policy, exclusively. One foreign diplomat in Taipei told me a previous speech by Tsai had gone through 62 drafts before being delivered. The National Day speech this year certainly deserved that level of attention. When I asked a Taiwanese diplomat how many times it had been revised, he smiled coyly.

[See also: Letter from Kinmen: Taiwan is already under attack]

The day following the parade I met Wu at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I asked him about the contrast between the mood in Taipei, which invariably emphasises calm and stability, and the mood in Washington, where the inevitability of conflict in the Taiwan strait is increasingly taken for granted. What would the hawks in Washington think of that parade? Wu told me he recognises China is a threat, but he is reassured by the fact that a conflict over Taiwan would paralyse the global economy. “Any kind of military threat against Taiwan or any kind of blockade will have global consequences,” he told me. Those consequences, particularly the disruption to supply chains, could effectively act as a shield for Taiwan. He was not arguing that economic interdependence will prevent a Chinese invasion. His point was that interdependence will force countries such as the United States to do their utmost to prevent a conflict over Taiwan. It seemed to follow that Taiwan is against a decoupling of the world’s two largest economies, but when pressed Wu refrained from saying it.

Wu also wanted me to understand that Taiwan will honour its responsibilities. The way he defined those responsibilities initially seems paradoxical. First, Taiwan should be cautious and conciliatory, preventing China from “finding an excuse” to decide the future of Taiwan by force. “But,” he added, “Taiwan also needs to be strong militarily.” In brief: develop your military capacities but avoid parading them.

When I asked him about the connection between Taiwan and Ukraine, Wu made clear he strongly disagreed with those in America who want to decouple the two issues. For him, a Ukrainian defeat would mean that the commitments made by Western democracies and their allies to defend each other would “be called into question”. You might think he was merely parroting liberal pieties, but when I met the experts and researchers from the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a think tank in Taipei, the same message was repeated, and not for political effect. These experts thought the most worrisome development for Taiwan in recent years was the sluggish and limited scale of support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. The institute has studied the war in Ukraine in great detail and even boasts a resident Ukrainian military expert.

Listening to those researchers,  I could not help thinking that Taiwan needs an America constrained in its freedom to choose. Ukraine has been a potent reminder that it is only Nato membership that constrains the US’s ability to choose whether to succour an ally or not; Article 5 of the treaty demands it must. How good is an ally that remains free to decide on what terms it will come to your aid? What does Taiwan have that Ukraine lacks? The answer is the supply chains and trade routes that so reassure Wu. Their disruption would be a disaster for the United States. Their control by China, even worse.

Slowly but inexorably, the US has modified its position on Taiwan. It once committed not to challenge the concept that Taiwan is part of China, but that was before China became a peer rival, one aiming to replace American global hegemony. Today, even a peaceful reunification with the mainland has begun to seem intolerable to Washington. What makes the present moment so dangerous is that the US is not the only actor to feel uncomfortable with the fragile understanding agreed between Mao and Nixon half a century ago.

[See also: The end of panda diplomacy]

The Taiwanese officials I spoke to during my visit believe that Xi Jinping has unilaterally modified the status quo over Taiwan. As made clear in Xi’s speech on Taiwan in January 2019, China now affirms that the status quo is in fact a status quo of irrevocable movement towards reunification. For the current government in Taipei, this could not be further from the truth: the status quo is not committed to any final outcome or resolution. It is open. By contrast, the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) has traditionally agreed with Beijing on the interpretation that Taiwan is part of China, while disagreeing on what “China” means and who should rule it. When asked by a journalist if he would join an anti-independence protest last October the KMT presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, answered: “I am against Taiwanese independence and I defend the Republic of China.” The Republic of China, a paper concept, includes Taiwan as one of its provinces. For many outside the island, these subtle distinctions are hard to comprehend.

The third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and a popular former mayor of Taipei, takes something of a middle path: he has argued not that Taiwan is part of China but that the two belong to the same “family”. What does family mean? Is it a family like the European Union? Or a family like the family of African nations? The formulation creates a whole new level of ambiguity. Like the proverbial cat of quantum mechanics, Taiwan may or may not be part of China. The status quo may or may not be a shifting one.

The presidential elections are scheduled to be held on 13 January 2024. All three candidates have a real chance, although the TPP seems to have lost ground in recent polls. Lai, of the ruling DPP, has a very slight lead but the polls suggest he has probably hit a hard ceiling in voting preferences. Even a small amount of tactical voting between the two opposition parties might translate into a defeat for the DPP and the beginning of a new era of somewhat closer ties between Beijing and Taipei.

I am told that in the meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in Bali in November 2022, the Chinese president said that China reserved the right to use force if the Taiwanese did not make a genuine effort to bring about China’s reunification. This was an entirely new position and, in the words of someone with direct knowledge of the Bali meeting, “it freaked the American delegation out”.

In his 2019 speech Xi had said: “We will work with the greatest sincerity and exert utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification, because this works best for the people on both sides and for our whole nation. We do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.” Back then the ideas of reunification and force were not directly connected. In Bali they were connected, but Xi has yet to mention the new position in public.

The meeting between Xi and Biden a few weeks ago in San Francisco was meant to tone down the rhetoric. All Xi said this time, according to a senior US official, was that “at some point we need to move towards resolution” of the issue. Perhaps the new position privately affirmed in Bali will never be made public. I suspect that depends, most of all, on the result of the January election. Beijing will interpret a victory for the KMT as a welcome sign the train of reunification is again moving, however haltingly, but in that case one can expect Washington to try to apply the brakes. A victory for the DPP, on the other hand, might precipitate a public show of force by Beijing.

No one I talked to in either Taipei or Beijing thought that a war was imminent. To return to the Ukraine comparison, we are not in 2022 or 2021. But many think it may well be 2004, the year of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – and the moment the foundations for a future conflict began to emerge.

[See also: The diplomatic battle for Taiwan]

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