American and Chinese military officials resuming their annual Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) after Beijing had boycotted it last year could reduce, it seems the tension in the air of Taiwan, the self-governing island whose 24 million people are to choose their next government on January 13.
Reportedly, the two-day DPCT talks that concluded at the Pentagon on January 9 reportedly dealt with the issues of safety and security in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Cross-Straits relations.
While the Chinese side emphasized on the principle of One-China with regard to tensions over Taiwan, the US officials “reaffirmed that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate safely and responsibly wherever international law allows; and underscored that the U.S. commitment to our allies in the Indo-Pacific and globally remains ironclad.”
While the Biden administration does not seem to favor any particular candidate or party and stands ready to work with whoever wins, it is very clear that the United States should continue to demand that China not interfere in the election and respect the will of the people of Taiwan as expressed through the democratic process.
“Our strong expectation and hope is that those elections be free of intimidation or coercion, or interference from all sides. The United States is not involved and will not be involved in these elections,” U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns had said in December.
However, it has been widely reported that this time cross-strait relations and geopolitics will weigh on the minds of the Taiwanese voters, given China’s unprecedented interference in the island nation’s upcoming elections.
The incumbent Vice president of Taiwan, Lai Ching-te, who is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Presidential candidate and who is leading in the opinion polls over his Kumomintang (KMT) rival Hou Yu-ih ( the current mayor of New Taipei City) as well as Taiwan People’s Party(TPP) Chairman Ko Wen-je, has alleged that China’s election meddling is its “most serious ever.”
He has accused Beijing of using “military threats, economic coercion, cognitive warfare, and misinformation” to manipulate voters.
For Lai, it is obvious that China is manipulating the topic of “war and peace” to meddle in Taiwan’s election with the objective of establishing a new government that is pro-China.
“If China designates someone, supports someone, and that person can be elected as Taiwanese President, then there is no democracy in Taiwan,” Lai said, adding, “If the person [Beijing] supports wins the election, then it will be like we are not electing a president but electing a chief executive like Hong Kong.”
Lai’s comments on Chinese interference in electioneering followed Taiwan Defence Ministry’s accusations that China was threatening aviation safety and waging psychological warfare on the island’s people with a recent spate of balloons spotted near or over the island, days before key Taiwanese elections.
It may be noted here that the potential for China to use balloons for spying had become a global issue in February last year when the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese surveillance balloon.
Similarly, Taiwanese researchers say that it is the first time that Beijing’s efforts to influence voter perception have been observed both online and in person. Financial Times has reported instances of social media being hacked, allegedly by China, during the election campaign and used to spread fake news stemming from Chinese accounts.
The paper has quoted Puma Shen, a criminologist at National Taipei University and chair of digital defense NGO Doublethink Lab, who is running as a parliamentary candidate for the DPP, saying, “We had observed those respective tactics before, but it is the first time they frequently appear in combination.”
Allegations that the Chinese Communist party has long attempted to infiltrate Taiwanese society and co-opt residents and social groups as part of its strategy to sway Taiwan towards unification with the mainland is nothing new. But over the last year, the number of such incidents has risen very high, something Taiwan’s outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen has frequently accused Beijing of.
As it is, Beijing has, ahead of Taiwan’s election, increased pressure on the island by sending large numbers of military aircraft and warships toward it and strongly conveyed the message to the Taiwanese voters that they must make a choice between “war and peace,” suggesting that the risk of cross-strait conflict increases with a win by the DPP candidate, whom Beijing characterizes as a separatist. It sees him as an advocate for Taiwan independence, based on his younger, more vocal days, though he rejects that description now.
The DPP has won the last two elections, and if the party manages to win an unprecedented third straight term, there is every likelihood that Beijing could up the ante on military pressure in the Taiwan Strait, many experts believe.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a hard line on cross-strait relations throughout his tenure. His recent New Year’s address included an unusually strong message to Taiwan voters on cross-strait unification, which he called an inevitability.
Xi asserts that China prefers peaceful unification (or “reunification”) but has refused to disavow the use of military force to achieve this goal or as a response to any declaration of formal independence by Taiwan. And this explains why Beijing has increased pressure on the island’s voters to choose between “war and peace.”
Beijing’s preferred candidate seems to be the KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih. If he wins, Beijing is likely to consider the result to be a de facto endorsement of its “One-China Principle.”
As a result, it is likely to soften the hard line it has taken against Taiwan since the current President Tsai Ing-wen’s first term, with immediate actions, including reversing the trade restrictions it imposed on Taiwan ahead of the election and opening the door to cross-strait dialogue.
Reportedly, groundwork has already been laid toward such a scenario with a series of recent cross-strait trips by KMT representatives, such as KMT vice-chairman and former Taiwan diplomat Andrew Hsia’s mid-December travel to China.
However, the fact remains that whether it is the ruling DPP, the opposition KMT, or the third party that is running the elections, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), all claim that they are best placed to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence and peace with China, despite differences in how warmly they would approach Beijing.
The KMT has never said that the island should be controlled by Beijing and adopt the Hong Kong- model of one country-two systems. What the KMT, or for that matter TPP, has said is that it would seek to open channels of communication with the Chinese leadership while also boosting Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.
The DPP may have been the most outspoken about the growing threat posed by Beijing, but it also talks of maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and is in favor of dialogue with China.
As Lai says, there is no need to declare Taiwan as an independent country. “The Republic of China, Taiwan, is already a sovereign independent country.”
Lai has said further that he will follow current President Tsai’s “steady and pragmatic” policies and will “always hold a friendly attitude” toward dialogue with China. “Peace is priceless, and war has no winners.”
In fact, many analysts agree that the present status quo is Taiwan’s de facto independence. Thus, there is an increasing concern that China, by not recognizing it, poses serious threats to global stability. For Taiwan, the status quo is an existential question.
All told, the successful consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy in recent decades has resulted in Taiwan developing a distinct identity. The more this identity gets consolidated, it will become increasingly harder for China to absorb Taiwan, unless it resorts to force.
But that is something that very few Taiwanese want. Most of the world does not want it either.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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