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[Hwang’s China and the World] Today’s Ukraine, tomorrow’s Taiwan?

Discourse with experts

March 10, 2022 - 14:48 By Choi He-suk
(From left) Jiann-fa Yan, professor of the Department of Business Administration at Chien-Hsin University of Science and Technology; Kwei-Bo Huang, director of the Center for Regional and Global Risk Assessment under the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University
While Ukraine fell into dire straits due to Russia’s attack, on the other side of the world, the US and China are scrambling to make an elaborate effort in dealing with Taiwan. On March 1, the Joe Biden administration has sent US delegations including the retired Navy Adm. Michael Mullen and former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy to Taiwan. On the following day, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also visited Taiwan. Given that a number of high-level US delegations are visiting Taiwan, it might be a message warning against a “power vacuum” in standing against China.

In response, China announced that there will be no normalization in China-US ties without the “One China” principle. On Feb. 28, the date of the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Shanghai Communique, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that the “One-China principle is the cornerstone of China-US relations” and that the US should stop “encouraging and supporting ‘Taiwan independence’ moves, stop attempting to use the Taiwan question to contain China, and stop saying or doing things that interfere in China’s internal affairs.” Wang made it clear that is the way to “maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and uphold the larger interests of China-US relations.”

Would the reality of the US drawing a line in NATO’s military intervention to Ukraine raise China’s will in using military force? The overall international consensus is that the possibility of China using military forces against Taiwan would be extremely low. In the end, Taiwan’s future is up to the change in US-China strategic competition, both in qualitative and quantitative perspectives. For Taiwan, would this US-China strategic competition become an opportunity or a crisis?

This week’s discourse invited two Taiwanese experts to explore Taiwan’s domestic and foreign circumstances and deeply analyze the related followings. Both experts are now in academia and have previously worked at the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and in the government. Professor Kwei-Bo Huang is currently the director of Center for Regional and Global Risk Assessment under the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University, and has served as the KMT’s deputy secretary-general supervising mainland and international affairs. Jiann-fa Yan is a professor of the Department of Business Administration at Chien-Hsin University of Science and Technology and was the director of mainland affairs at DPP. They both have served as the chairman of the Research and Planning Committee of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Hwang: What is Taiwan’s perspective on US-China relations?

Huang: From a “blue perspective,” it is more of a competition-cooperation than a confrontation game. Not only is it affected by respective governments’ strategy and foreign policy, but it also hinges on a variety of regional and global issues in which both governments’ key interests either overlap or collide.

Yan: From a “green perspective,” since late 1949, the Republic of China was tacitly permitted to resume its government in Taiwan, safeguarding the first island chain from China’s invasion. The US has been a constructive factor for Taiwan’s development, while China a threat for Taiwan. Clearly, Taiwan has to side with the US against China.

Hwang: Do you see it as a new Cold War or a competition?

Huang: A “new Cold War” is an exaggeration of what’s going on in such bilateral relations. Beijing isn’t ready for the so-called “G-2” position, and no military confrontation or proxy war has taken place between the two powers. It may be better to portray contemporary Washington-Beijing relations as a “US-led bloc” versus a semicoalition of Beijing and Moscow.

Yan: China’s rising has challenged the hegemony of the West led by the US. The confrontations between the two are not only on power sharing but also challenges systems and ideologies. The forthcoming confrontations are structural and inevitable.

Hwang: What kind of strategic value does Taiwan have from the US’ stance and how can the US apply it?

Yan: From a geo-strategic view, Taiwan located in the center of the first island chain can be a buffer for the US in coping with China in terms of national security. In applying Taiwan’s strategic value into practice, the US may enhance its relations with Taiwan in every sphere of life regardless of China’s objection. The US has to make China accustomed to its will and the order abiding by universal truth. The US has to be determined in bringing China into an order accepted by more people instead of a small group of the power-holders.

Huang: Taiwan is located in an important strategic position in the often-heard first island chain. The sea lanes and air routes over the Taiwan Strait and the east of the island of Taiwan are of strategic significance for the US armed forces operating between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Taiwan is also a place to set up long-range radar stations that can monitor the People’s Liberation Army’s military activities from afar. In addition, the US’ continued reassurance aimed at helping Taiwan maintain enough self-defense capabilities can generate a strategic value for the US’ commitments to its allies and quasi-allies.

Hwang: Under what circumstance would Taiwan no longer have its strategic value for the US?

Yan: Once Taiwan drifts away from the good model for free economy and pluralistic democracy, or its modern architecture is under decay from within or under threat from without, it will become a burden for the US. Certainly, the sustainability of Taiwan in a physical sense is also very important in showing Taiwan’s value for the US and the world. Nowadays, Taiwan has performed well, the US may have to take this opportunity to enhance its linkages with Taiwan to make it much better and more solid during the process of modernization as a young democracy.

Huang: Taiwan will lose its strategic value for the US on one of the following three conditions. First, it decides to surrender to the Chinese communist regime. Second, it decides to stand neutral between Washington and Beijing and even move toward a position of de-militarization. Third, it suffers a very serious deadly natural disaster that ruins the strategically important parts of the island.

Hwang: What options does Taiwan have in any case its security supporter, the US, decides not to protect Taiwan anymore?

Huang: If so, Taiwan needs to map out a plan in advance that can ensure its peaceful co-existence with mainland China, probably followed by an incremental integration between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Neither maintaining Taiwan’s defense capability to resist the offensive measures from mainland China nor making Taiwan a politically neutral entity would be literally impossible because no other countries are willing to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan and because the Beijing authorities have not given up the possibility of using force to achieve national reunification.

Yan: Like all the other countries, the US seeks its own national interests. It is so real and practical. This scenario would presuppose some change of the international environment, such as the decline of the US national strength or its appearance of internal turmoil, making the Taiwan issue no more urgent. Or, at the same time, if Taiwan’s domestic economy and politics are dominated by China. Besides, the other stakeholders in this region may also show the US their own interests and concerns if the US is to change its mind in supporting Taiwan.

Hwang: Xi Jinping has made a historical decision in the sixth plenary session at China’s 19th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. What does Taiwan basically mean to either China or Xi?

Yan: In the report of China’s 19th Central Committee of the CCP, unifying Taiwan is one of the three major goals to accomplish the China Dream in 2050. As a matter of fact, it can be seen as a strategic rhetoric since the incumbent leaders may be removed from the political circle by 2050. The CCP knows that it will be a tough job to annex Taiwan because of the US factor. The timetable is unrealistic but needed politically. For China or Xi, the Taiwan issue may play as an instrument to fulfill the interests of the CCP or leaders.

Huang: Taiwan is an integral part of Xi’s scheme of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. Taking Taiwan back into the arms of China, being represented by the PRC, is both a long-educated goal of national reunification on mainland China and a crucial symbol of China countering back the Western hegemony and influence since the so-called “New China” being established by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. If Taiwan is drifting away from “China,” both historically and legally defined, Xi will encounter a series of challenges from within regarding his “Taiwan policy,” which may affect his legitimacy for the continued leadership as the CPC general secretary and the PRC president. Opposing Taiwan independence and promoting reunification has remained as the two pillars for the Chinese communist regime’s Taiwan policy.

Hwang: Do you see Taiwan being able to endure the economic pressures from China? We see Taiwan standing on a dual track that distinguished politics and economy when it comes to the relationship with China. How has that gone?

Huang: It will be an unrealistic or wishful thinking to separate Taiwan from mainland China economically. Therefore, for a smaller economy like Taiwan that is so close to mainland China, economic exchanges with mainland China represent both opportunities and challenges or pressures. Taiwan’s trade dependence on the mainland and Hong Kong has reached a historical high, i.e., roughly 43 percent, in the second term of President Tsai Ing-wen. Some in Taiwan argue that it’s the mainland who has been dependent on Taiwan due to the former’s strong need for semiconductor products from Taiwan. Yet, in general, the center of economic gravity continues to be in favor of the mainland since the mid-2000s. That’s why the Tsai administration has to distinguish political interactions -- denying the political foundation that paved a way for cross-strait dialogues while still asking for conversations with no preconditions -- from economic ones in the Taiwan Strait.

Yan: The Taiwanese economy has relied on small and midsize enterprises. The nature of the SMEs is its diversity and flexibility. Since mid-1980s, due to the deteriorating economic environment and dramatic appreciation of the New Taiwan dollar, the SMEs were forced to move their businesses abroad. In a sense, businesses are very global; they are very sensitive toward the changing environment. Besides, the well-known reputation of Taiwan SMEs attracts many foreign conglomerates to build partnerships with them. The Taiwanese economy is highly dependent on Chinese market, but Taiwanese SMEs are not.

Hwang: It seems the KMT is steadily diminishing in Taiwan’s politics. The expectation for both the general and presidential elections is getting lower. Do you have any hidden cards or strategies that could turn the tides?

Huang: The leadership of the KMT has been in a weak position in the upcoming local elections in November 2022. Two possible “game changers” may help the KMT in the said local elections. First, the KMT may turn the tables if the impacts of large-scale power outages, air pollution and inflation that has eaten up people’s paychecks loom large. Second, if the KMT candidates in at least one of the four special municipalities -- in particular Taipei City -- can win an advantage over the ruling party’s candidates, thus serving to boost the momentum in the KMT’s campaigns in the other cities and counties.

Hwang: The DPP is being more and more influential in Taiwan’s politics. It seems KMT is no longer a competitive opponent. The international flow also seems quite favorable as well. Is Taiwan’s independence the ultimate goal?

Yan: Generally speaking, Taiwanese people are very practical, pragmatic, realistic, flexible, and durable; most of them are not ideology-oriented. Hence, independence is not a fatal or an urgent issue; survival and development are more important and significant. Once maintaining the status quo is much more supported by all the stakeholders in this region, most Taiwanese people will be patient and wait for the coming opportunity toward internationally recognized independence.

Hwang: How are inter-Korean relations different from Taiwan-China relations?

Yan: They are more different than similar: First, inter-Korean relations are “two different ideology-based countries under one roof of the Korean nationality.” Taiwan-China relations are controversial and debatable among stakeholders in the region, shown on the spectrum of independence vis-a-vis unification; the CPP’s cognitive picture of one China is different than that of the KMT while the KMT’s scope of the ROC is different from that of the DPP. Besides, the PRC’s claim of the one China principle is rhetorically similar to US’ one China policy, but with different strategic implications; the US has never recognized that Taiwan is a part of China. The US position on cross-strait relations are much clearer than ever since China’s rise.

Huang: Despite the lower level of people-to-people and economic interactions and despite sporadic military skirmishes between the two Koreas, there are five top leaders’ meetings on the Korean Peninsula, whereas there is only one between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait (in November 2015). Generally, the two Korean leaders call each other’s official titles, occasionally with the use of the “peninsula flag.” In the case of the Taiwan Strait, no official titles were used in the summit and no symbols of reunification were represented.

Hwang: How do you evaluate the two Koreas’ relations?

Huang: The probability of armed conflicts between the two Koreas may be higher than that between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. The reason is threefold. First, there is no natural division such as a strait between the two Koreas. Second, the decision-making of North Korea is more unpredictable. Third, the uncertainty of North Korean leaders about whether the US can assure the security of North Korea may lead to a higher level of military tension between the two Koreas, as well as between North Korea and the US. However, it appears less likely that the two Koreas are going into war in the short run.

Yan: A peaceful reunification of the two Koreas will not be happily seen by China since a new Korea, likely to be an economic and military giant, will be a potential threat to itself; a divided Korea is of China’s interests. For the US, a new Korea must be in line with democracy as the basic requirement. China will not sit idle seeing that scenario happen, especially if the future China after Xi Jinping still sticks its political doctrine to the one-party-rule politics. The prospects of inter-Korean relations are bleak with the widening cultural gaps between the two societies. It is not improbable to see that North Korea remains isolated and South Korea keeps on modernizing for decades on.

Hwang: This year marks the 30th year from the time that Taiwan and Korea terminated diplomatic ties. What is Taiwan’s perception of Korea?

Huang: Generally speaking, Taiwan sees the Republic of Korea (ROK) as a rising middle power on the world stage. Some Taiwanese people still perceive South Korea as one of the four little dragons of East Asia, a phrase widely quoted in the 1980s and 1990s. Some know the ROK has been one of the G-20 member states and has participated in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); besides, its former official was once secretary-general of the United Nations. Also, some Taiwanese people think South Koreans are patriotic, openly emotional, and less patient.

Yan: The strong wave of Korean culture erupting in the early 2000s has challenged the Taiwanese image of Korean culture and people. That can be seen in the booming availability of Korean language courses in universities.

Hwang: From Taiwan’s view, what could be the advantages and disadvantages of Korea’s diplomacy?

Yan: As an economic and technological giant, if Korean people contribute more to this region than just to itself, namely more altruistic than egoistic, it could lead to a drastic change in outsiders’ perspective of Korea. The development and performance of NGOs worldwide will be an indicator for us to gauge. Above all, people living in the Korean Peninsula have survived in face of hegemonic challenges from all sides. Korea can play a bigger role in this region as a rising power since the early 2000s.

Huang: Korea’s economic and political status has been higher than ever in the international community. In addition, Korea, who faces Washington-Beijing tensions -- can strike more or less of a balance between these two major powers. Korea has been leaning too much toward Beijing diplomatically. Yet, actually, Seoul-Beijing relations have been a bit volatile, or to put it another way -- have not been as stable as some imagine, with the change of the leadership in Seoul. The long-standing quarrels between Korea and Japan have complicated the former’s diplomatic context in East Asia.

Hwang: How big of a part does Korea play in Taiwan’s diplomacy and to what level do you anticipate the Korea-Taiwan relations to develop in the future?

Yan: In contrast to KMT-ruled Taiwan-Korea relations, a DPP-ruled Taiwan may get rid of the interwoven history and start a new beginning for future engagement. To be practical and realistic, in the regional diplomacy, what can be learned by Korea is the Japanese model instead of the Singaporean one. By doing so, we may anticipate a growing development of Koran-Taiwan relations.

Huang: In the near future, Seoul-Taipei relations may remain lukewarm in the context of Cross-Taiwan Strait tensions, in part because Seoul has kept in line with its “one China” understanding and doesn’t want to get involved in Taiwan’s bid for the RCEP membership for the sake of stable Seoul-Beijing relations, and in part because there appears to be weaker economic trade between Korea and the ROC.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Hwang Jae-ho