An intensified “David versus Goliath” battle appears to be brewing between democratic Taiwan and authoritarian mainland China. That battle will come to the United States this month, as Taiwan’s president and pro-China opposition leader make competing U.S. visits just in time for Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.
At issue is the international status of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province that must be “reunified” with the mainland by any means necessary including military force. The problem for China is that the overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens consider the island a free and independent country, and have no interest whatsoever in “reunifying” with a one-party dictatorship. Despite Beijing’s insistence to the contrary, the island’s people increasingly “see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese.”
In early December 2016, Taiwan’s democratically-elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, enraged mainland China’s dictators by making a congratulatory telephone call to U.S. president-elect Trump. Trump further angered Beijing by accepting the call from Tsai and challenging the “one-China policy” that Beijing unilaterally considers “the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations.” That Beijing would be so upset by a mere phone call illustrates the weakness of its position in the matter.
Now, Tsai has again irritated China by announcing stopovers in the United States during a January trip to visit allies in Latin America; and the United States has in turn angered China by allowing the stopovers. Tsai plans a stop in Houston on her outbound journey January 7 followed by a stop in San Francisco on her return journey January 13. China’s foreign ministry called on the United States to block Tsai’s U.S. stopovers, “warning that such a visit would embolden independence activists in Taiwan.”
The plot thickens: Coinciding with Tsai’s trip will be a U.S. visit by Hung Hsiu-chu, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) favored by Beijing but resoundingly defeated by Tsai’s more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s 2016 election. Tsai and Hung will both arrive in San Francisco on January 13, with competing events planned in the San Francisco Bay Area for January 13-15. Hung will then visit Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles before returning to Taiwan on January 21.
Hung has been noted for her “extreme pro-unification views” and “radical pro-Beijing policy.” In a December 30 speech at a Taipei university, Hung insisted that Taiwan and the mainland are “not two countries” and that “Taiwan’s future lies in China.” In November, Hung led a KMT delegation to Beijing and met with Chinese Communist Party officials including President Xi Jinping. No such meetings have taken place with DPP leaders, whom Beijing considers illegitimate despite their landslide victory in the 2016 election.
While Beijing “has attempted to punish Tsai and the DPP” for their refusal to bow to mainland Chinese demands, it has increasingly relied on the Hung and the KMT “to be its proxy in the fight against Taiwanese independence.” Unfortunately for Beijing and the KMT, Hung’s visit to the United States is likely to be of little consequence beyond pro-Beijing propaganda circles, since Tsai is an elected president and Hung is not.
Said Tsai at a year-end press conference on December 31: “Step by step, Beijing is going back to the old path of dividing, coercing, and even threatening and intimidating Taiwan.” Indeed it would appear that China has dropped all pretense of cross-strait “friendship” and now sees the majority of the Taiwanese people and their democratically-elected government as an enemy that must be brought to heel. The clearly-expressed will of Taiwan’s people means nothing to China’s autocratic leaders.
As Reuters reported on December 31, China is “considering strong measures to contain Taiwan.” According to sources close to senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers, “China’s military has become alarmed” at the direction U.S.-Taiwan ties might take under the incoming Trump administration, and is anxious to head off any moves by Taiwan toward formal independence.
“We’re ready. If Taiwan wants to make trouble so can we. Let’s hit them hard,” one unnamed official told Reuters, “We can hold exercises close to Taiwan, and show them the damage we could cause. Taiwan will have to give in then.”
Said a retired PLA officer: “We can just cut them off economically. No more direct flights, no more trade. Nothing. Taiwan would not last long…. There would be no need for war.” None of this sounds much like “brotherly love” between cross-strait “compatriots.”
In a December 25 editorial the state-run Global Times likewise called for “military pressure” and other coercive measures against Taiwan and its elected government. In addition to military air and sea exercises designed to intimidate Taiwan, the editorial recommended in absentia criminal trials for Taiwanese independence leaders under China’s “anti-secession law” enacted in 2005.
Causing further consternation in Beijing is Trump’s suggestion that he might agree to meet face-to-face with Tsai after he takes office as President of the United States. Such a meeting, according to Liu Xiangping, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Nanjing University, would be a “deliberate provocation” that would “harm China’s core interests and the feelings of the Chinese people, and directly endanger the development of Sino-U.S. relations.”
More such frothing-at-the-mouth can surely be expected from China as President Tsai visits the United States and Hung attempts to upstage her. As for the future direction of U.S.-Taiwan ties under the incoming U.S. administration, “We’ll see,” according to America’s unpredictable president-elect.