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Taiwan: The New Sino-American Iron Curtain

Aug 09 , 2019

“China is getting more and more aggressive,” declared Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, when I asked her the most pressing issue facing her island nation. “We will not back down,” she added defiantly, underscoring her administration’s commitment to resist Beijing’s “hybrid warfare” to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence. 

Several Taiwanese senior national security officials have warned of Beijing’s full-spectrum attempt at bludgeoning the besieged nation into eventual reunification under Mainland China’s terms.  

And with the crucial presidential elections on the horizon, there are growing fears that China will deploy cutting-edge sharp power to sideline pro-independence elements in Taiwan, weaken Tsai’s bid for re-election, and facilitate the victory of her Beijing-friendly rivals. 

Nonetheless, Taiwanese officials have repeatedly expressed their growing optimism over the Trump administration’s commitment to deter and defeat any Chinese military action. They have also been encouraged by massive Hong Kong protests, which they view as a powerful symbol of growing backlash against Chinese influence. Perhaps more than any country on earth, Taiwan is at the frontline of the brewing Sino-American Cold War, which is engulfing the Indo-Pacific region. 

D-Day Preparation 

"If you want peace, prepare for war,” advised the ancient Roman strategist Vegetius.  In many ways, Taiwan has adopted a similar attitude amid rising cross-straits tensions in recent years, especially under the increasingly strident Xi Jinping regime. 

During his New Year Eve’s address, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that Taiwan "must and will be" reunited with Mainland China. Touting the “great rejuvenation” of his country, the Chinese leader has made it clear that any reunification will be on Beijing’s terms. 

In the same month, during a high-stakes meeting with Chinese military commanders, Xi instructed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for a “comprehensive military struggle from a new starting point”.  The Chinese leader has reportedly marked the year 2020 as the critical year to initiate the process of reunification by all means necessary. 

Amid concerns of a structural economic slowdown in China, exacerbated by the ongoing trade war with Washington, Xi has every reason to leverage a more aggressive foreign policy to rally support at home. 

Buoyed by rising defense budget and full-fledged support from the Chinese leadership, the PLA seems more confident than ever.  During his maiden speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the swaggering Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe made it clear that Chinese armed forces “make no promise to renounce the use of force" to reincorporate Taiwan into a Greater China. 

The PLA, he reiterated, has a "sacred duty" to protect China’s “core interests”, which includes, among others, the eventual reunification of China. And Beijing is tightening the noose around Taiwan, ever-expanding deployment of warships, fighter jets, and military assets to the Taiwan Straits and its vicinities. 

Earlier this year, Chinese jet fighters crossed the media line separating Mainland China and Taiwan for the first time in almost a decade. In June, China deployed Liaoning, its flagship aircraft carrier, across the Taiwan Straits, warning Taiwan of Beijing’s rapidly expanding naval firepower. 

The asymmetry of power is staggering. According to the latest US Defense Department report,

China has a million-strong army, boasting close to 6,000 tanks, 1500 jet fighters, and 33 navy destroyers, with ever-growing technological sophistication. 

In contrast, Taiwan has a maximum of 150,000 troops, with only 800 tanks, 350 fighter jets, and four destroyers. In an event of invasion, China will likely mobilize not only its conventional forces, employing 20 landing ships and close to 40 amphibious transport docks, but also a formidable armada of coast guard and militia forces, which would collectively target around 14 landing areas across the island nation. 

Chinese Sharp Power 

The Pentagon believes that China aims to leverage its growing military superiority to intimidate Taiwan into acquiescence and, if necessary, launch a successful invasion of the island nation. 

In response, the Trump administration has stepped up both diplomatic support and security assistance to Taiwan. Washington has cleared multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Taiwan, which aim to enhance the island nation’s ability to deter, forestall, or significantly slow down a potential Chinese invasion, providing sufficient time for military intervention by the US forces in the Pacific. 

And there is growing legislative, bipartisan support for the Trump administration’s Taiwan-friendly policy. Upon clearing the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2020 fiscal year, the U.S. Senate called for expanded military support to “improve the predictability of its arms sales to Taiwan by ensuring that Taipei’s requests for defensive articles and services are reviewed and responded to in a timely manner.” 

From Trump’s unprecedented phone conversations with Taiwan’s leadership to visits and expanded diplomatic contacts between senior American officials and legislators and the Tsai administration, the two sides are also enjoying a quiet diplomatic renaissance. 

“We are now [more] confident about America’s commitment to our alliance,” a senior Taiwanese national security adviser told me. But the more clear and present danger stems from China’s efforts to infiltrate Taiwan’s democratic institutions through elite co-optation, disinformation campaigns, and outright propaganda, Taiwanese officials added. 

As Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told me, “The Chinese will try to push the envelope short of military conflict… They are engaged in a hybrid warfare… trying very hard to infiltrate our society.” According to a senior official, China is deploying a “sophisticated strategic plan”, which aims at co-opting the business elite, celebrities, political figures, and even low-level political leaders in order to promote a Beijing-friendly policy in Taipei. 

In particular, Taiwanese officials are worried about China’s attempts to co-opt contenders for top political offices, particularly the presidency in 2020. Both of Tsai’s likely rivals next year have been accused of either receiving support from China or known as having warm ties with the Chinese leadership. 

The populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, for instance, experienced a massive surge in his social media following and popularity likely with backing from China-based cyber groups. 

The other likely presidential contender, businessman-turned-populist Terry Gou, former chairman of the electronics giant Foxconn, which has maintained huge manufacturing plants in China. Throughout his long years of business dealings in the Mainland, Gou cultivated warm ties with the Beijing leadership, including Xi. 

Both Gou and Han have criticized pro-independence movements at home, while welcoming warmer ties with China, ostensibly for maintaining cross-straits peace and stability as well as expanding bilateral investments deals. 

The Tsai administration, however, remains optimistic for two reasons. First of all, Taiwan has been experiencing gradual economic decoupling from China, as Taiwanese businessmen seek more attractive opportunities in Southeast Asia. As President Tsai told me, the upshot is that, “We now have more liberty to speak for our independence,” because, “People have to bear in mind that you need to be independent [economically too], since China uses economics as leverage.” 

Moreover, the Taiwanese public, particularly the youth behind the “sunflower movement”, is turning increasingly critical of Chinese influence in Taiwan. Most recent surveys show that a majority of citizens prioritize preservation of Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty over further economic engagement with China. 

The widespread protests in Hong Kong, which led to the defeat of a perceived pro-Beijing extradition bill, has only emboldened the pro-independence movement in Taiwan. With all sides hardening their respective positions, democratic Taiwan is quickly turning into the frontline of Sino-American Cold War in the Indo-Pacific. 

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