Taiwan: cross-strait brinkmanship to continue

From the initial rhetoric, it appears that Beijing has not decided how to respond to the DPP victory.

5 mins read
‘Excitement Sister’, fixture at a Taiwanese election rally, Jan 6, 2024

Taiwan’s electoral laws provide for the candidate with the highest number of votes becoming the winner on a first-past-the-post basis, and it is a moot point that the incumbent Vice President William Lai from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who secured only 40 percent of votes is still elected as the next president. 

The DPP suffered a setback in the legislative election too, losing its majority in the 113-seat legislature and falling behind the Nationalist Party (KMT). In effect, it is an electoral outcome akin to what prevails in France or Brazil, for instance, with the exception that both Emmanuel Macron and Lula da Silva won a majority of votes cast in the second round. 

Such hair-splitting may seem irrelevant but then, there are ‘local characteristics’ in the situation around Taiwan that add to the complexity of Sunday’s election result. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made ‘national rejuvenation’ a goal for Beijing to reach by mid-century — and,  bringing Taiwan under its control and reunifying China is part of that rejuvenation vision. In his New Year address, Xi Jinping insisted that the “reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability. 

In this narrative,mainland China and Taiwan were separated at a certain point in time because of being ‘a weak nation’, an issue that would be resolved when ‘rejuvenation’ is achieved. Therefore, the issue is a core question for the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. 

On the other hand, Lai and the DPP see Taiwan as an independent country, whereas, the two main opposition parties who between them garnered 60% of votes in Sunday’s poll do no subscribe to such a stance. The  Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) opposes Taiwan independence and advocates ‘pragmatic dialogue’ while the other rival, the Taiwan People’s Party, proposes engaging with Beijing and maintaining peace. 

In sum, the majority of Taiwanese public opinion falls short of endorsing independence for the country and also prefers the path of dialogue and engagement with Beijing rather than confrontation. Indeed, some analysts in Taiwan estimate that the result of the legislative election may eventually clear the way for policies to promote exchanges with the mainland, such as reducing restrictions on mainland students and tourists and even promote communication. 

Unsurprisingly, Beijing is extremely critical of Lai who once described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”  and whose vice presidential candidate also happens to be a famous figure in the Beltway, having served as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US. 

The crux of the matter is that the Taiwan question cuts to the heart of a broader geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. Put differently, how Beijing is going to interpret the ascendance of a third successive government in Taipei led by the pro-independence DPP will be crucial. Will Beijing feel the need to up the stakes? That is a big question. 

To be sure, Sunday’s vote will not only decide Taiwan’s policy with Beijing for years to come, but also geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region and US-China relations. Military tensions are already on the rise. Under Lai, who takes over as president in May, Washington will no doubt continue to regard Taiwan as a ‘like-minded’ partner. That, in turn, will complicate the fragile US-China relationship. 

And any surge in theUS-China rivalry can only increase the strategic value of Taiwan for Washington, which will in any case continue to play the Taiwan card against Beijing, as it has been a low-cost, high-return game for the Americans to play — so far at least.  

By internationalising the Taiwan question, which is essentially China’s internal problem, and by drumming up a propaganda campaign against Beijing’s so-called assertiveness in the region and beyond, the US has thrown down the gauntlet at China’s diplomats who are quickly damned as ‘wolf warriors’ if they react robustly. 

Indeed, the strategy  brought dividends insofar as the US’ Asia-Pacific allies Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines, who depend on Washington to guarantee their security, as well as the NATO allies, to a lesser extent, who feel constrained to follow Washington’s lead on the Taiwan issue under the rubric of ‘collective deterrence’. 

The bottom line is, Washington realises that it is unrealistic and difficult for the US alone to respond to China’s material national power and needs to mobilise the assets of its allies and like-minded partners to strengthen ‘collective deterrence.’ 

In fact, the European Union foreign policy  chief Josep Borrell last year called on European navies to patrol the Taiwan Strait to “show Europe’s commitment” to the region. 

However, interestingly, the countries of the Global South — the so-called ‘global majority’ — have remained unmoved and are unwilling to risk their China relations over Taiwan and are not in the least interested in taking sides in the US-China rivalry. 

Beijing knows that it is in a strong position vis-a-vis Taipei and that Lai has very few options and very little room for manoeuvring. Arguably, Beijing’s real challenge lies in showing its grave displeasure without going to war. It may require that Beijing expands its playbook without pushing regional allies further into the US camp. 

From the initial rhetoric, it appears that Beijing has not decided how to respond to the DPP victory. China’s full response may play out over months or years, but the likelihood is that the Taiwan election cannot change the direction of cross-strait relations, which also means that the dynamic of brinkmanship and stress will continue.

Reporting on Sunday’s poll, the New York Times wrote that “To Beijing, the (Taiwan) island is a remnant of its civil war that the United States has no business meddling with. To Washington, it (Taiwan) is the first line of defence for global stability… and the microprocessor factory for the world.” 

Indeed, in geo-strategic terms, the US sees Taiwan as a crucial link in the so-called first island chain that runs from Borneo to the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, where the American bases would curtail the deployment of Chinese presence in the western Pacific. 

But such a cold-war era containment strategy is dated, on the one hand, with the advent of new transport planes, strategic bombers, aircraft carriers and hypersonic missiles that have a multiplier effect on the Chinese military capabilities, while, on the other hand, the AI-driven military technology and machine learning may create lasting change across the national security enterprise. 

In fact, the San Francisco summit between President Joe Biden and Xi turned out to be AI’s ‘Oppenheimer moment,’ as the two leaders agreed to “work together to assess the threats posed by AI” with a view to develop concrete regulatory frameworks to prevent the potentially destabilising consequences of the rapid development of military AI outstripping international law.

When knowledge networks collide with any new technology, different futures tend to appear on the horizon that call for prudence and a more robust dialogue. Significantly, the surcharged Taiwanese elections dd not discourage the US and Chinese defence officials from holding their ‘policy coordination talks’ at the Pentagon last week on Monday and Tuesday — the first such in-person meetings since before the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement in Beijing, the Chinese defence spokesperson said on Friday that Beijing “expects the US side to develop a right perception of China, respect the core interests and major concerns of the Chinese side, and take concrete actions to work with China in the same direction to follow through the important consensus reached by the two heads of state in San Francisco.”

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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