TAIPEI, Taiwan — While the world’s eyes have focused on democracy protests in Hong Kong, far less attention has been paid to Hong Kong’s spillover effect on Taiwan, a nearby island republic off the coast of China.
Here’s why Americans need to be more aware of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy of 23 million people, with its tight educational, high-tech and military ties to the United States: Its fate is the issue most likely to spark a military confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
And the reverberations of the pro-democracy revolt in Hong Kong almost guarantee that tensions between China and Taiwan will rise in the near future, especially as Taiwan heads for presidential elections early next year.
A little history is necessary to understand the prospects for a future U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan.
China considers Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China, or ROC) to be a renegade republic. China’s president Xi Jinping is anxious to reunify it with the mainland while he holds power.
The ROC was set up in Taiwan when Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his army fled there in 1949 after his government was defeated by the communists on the mainland. The United States eventually withdrew its recognition of the ROC government on Taiwan (as did most countries) when it recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
But Washington also signed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that called for the island’s future to be determined “by peaceful means” and promised to provide Taipei with defensive weapons. (The Trump administration has recently approved sales to Taiwan of $2 billion worth of tanks, armored vehicles and Stinger antiaircraft missiles as well as an $8 billion sale of new F-16 fighter jets).
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Ever since 1979, the ROC has existed in a sort of gray zone. Beijing and Taiwan eventually adopted a fuzzy formula, known as the 1992 consensus, in which each side claimed to be the legitimate government of one China (thus finessing the issue of whether Taiwan had seceded).
That consensus eroded over time. Beijing redefined it as “one China, two systems,” meaning Taiwan could maintain its democratic system but under Beijing’s overlordship. (A similar formula was applied to Hong Kong).
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Taiwan’s gray zone faded further in January 2016, when its citizens elected President Tsai Ing-wen. She rejects the “one China” concept, insisting Taiwan is a “sovereign” republic, while carefully refraining from proclaiming independence.
Chinese leaders cut off any official dialogue with Tsai’s government but were confident she would lose re-election in 2020 to a more Beijing-friendly candidate. But as police battled pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Tsai’s poll numbers soared, and she is now the overwhelming favorite.
“They were trying to use Hong Kong as a model, but we see it is a fake,” I was told by Wang Ting-yu, chairman of the foreign affairs and national defense committee of Taiwan’s parliament. “The Hong Kong events woke up a lot of people, especially the younger generation.”
Adds Ketty Chen, of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, “The sense of Taiwan identity is very strong among young people. Taiwanese are not necessarily pro-independence, but they are anti-unification. They want to live under a democratic system.”
This raises an existential question: With Xi Jinping insisting that unification is China’s goal — and refusing to rule out use of force — how does Taiwan hold him off? And what should U.S. policy be if China tests Taiwan’s resolve?
I put these questions to Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu. “The policy of this government is not to make any provocation,” he insisted (though Tsai picked a vice presidential candidate who has been openly pro-independence). “We will not give China any excuse to launch an attack on Taiwan.”
But Taiwan leaders do worry. China just sent its new aircraft carrier through the straits as a warning, and is buying off the handful of states that recognize Taiwan diplomatically.
If trade wars continue, and the Hong Kong crisis drags on, might Xi try to divert attention by squeezing Taiwan?
“What we are concerned about is hybrid warfare, including cyberattacks, massive disinformation attacks, combined with military activity,” Wu says.
Cyberwar could shut down key systems (which are already under attack from Beijing), while Chinese missiles could take out Taiwanese planes and ports.
But Taiwan’s goal, Wu says, is to “show China they would have to pay a very dear price if they want to launch an attack,” helped by U.S. weapons. He also says, “Our military strategy is to prepare to defend ourselves alone.”
Still, in a worst-case scenario, Washington would no doubt be called on, and no one is certain what response would be forthcoming. While Congress firmly supports Taiwan, President Trump’s reaction is unpredictable.
A normal White House would be devising a broad strategy, in concert with Asian allies, to convince China not to make any risky moves on Taiwan. And it would strongly advise Tsai Ing-wen, should she win reelection in January, to be very cautious in her second term. Stay tuned.
Rubin writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer: firstname.lastname@example.org.