Musings from afar

Taiwan's self-governance proving to be a thorn in China's flesh

It is a sign of China's growing economic heft around the globe that only 15 countries now recognise the self-governing territory of Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   23-01-2020
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One of the biggest political stories of 2020 so far has been the reelection of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan's President in a sweeping victory, which saw her directly challenging the might of China. In her victory speech, Tsai challenged China to give up brandishing threats to the island, underlining that "peace means that China must abandon threats of force against Taiwan".

Tsai Ing-wen returns

She hoped that "the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation.” It's a tall order, of course, and Tsai knows it.

However, she is a politician who, till sometime back, was facing a sure defeat with low wages and controversial pension reform pulling down her approval ratings to as low as 15 per cent. As a result, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a crushing defeat in the November 2018 local elections. Meanwhile, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) gained traction primarily due to economic issues. Led by Han Kuo-yu, the KMT has been offering closer economic ties with Beijing for economic betterment.

main_tsai-ing-wen-ta_012320121215.jpgIn her victory speech, Tsai challenged China to give up brandishing threats to Taiwan. (Photo: Reuters)

Meanwhile, Beijing was busy intimidating Taiwan and Tsai by gradually taking away the limited number of diplomatic partners of Taiwan and banning Chinese tourists from visiting the island. China also showcased its military heft as the People's Liberation Army Air Force and Navy ships intruded the air space and waters in Taiwan's vicinity.

It is a sign of China's growing economic heft around the globe that only 15 countries now recognise the self-governing territory of Taiwan as a sovereign nation. So, Tsai would have fought these elections with her back against the wall. But that was not to be, as Taiwan's relationship with China emerged as the central issue in the election campaign and made her the natural choice for most Taiwanese. Beijing's mishandling of the situation in Hong Kong, in particular, galvanised Taiwanese voters to defend their national identity.

Beijing's much-touted 'one country, two systems' formula is viewed as a failure in Hong Kong and only 4.5 per cent of Taiwanese currently support the idea of "unification" with China. In 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping called upon Taiwan to adopt Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' model as the basis for talks on reunification, Tsai categorically suggested that Taiwan would "never accept one country, two systems." Not surprisingly, she channelled this sentiment through the use of the slogan 'Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan' in her re-election campaign with great effect.

Trump backs Taipei

The US has welcomed Tsai's victory as a demonstration of Taiwan's "robust democratic system", highlighting Taiwan "as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity and a better path for their people". Though the US is legally bound to provide Taiwan means to defend itself, Washington has had to traditionally perform a delicate balancing act when it comes to its ties with Taiwan and China.

Yet, the Trump administration's hardline approach towards China has suited Taiwan well. Trump is viewed as one of the most Taiwan-friendly US Presidents since Richard Nixon. Not only did Trump talk directly with Tsai on the phone after the 2016 election, a first for a US president or President-elect since at least 1979, he also approved the sale of 66 F-16 fighters to Taiwan and the US naval ships have more regularly sailed through the Taiwan Strait in the last three years.

Tsai has been very keen to cultivate new partners and her New Southbound Policy (NSP) has sought to enhance links with countries across South and Southeast Asia. India is a natural partner in more ways than one. At a time of US-China trade tensions, Taiwanese firms are keen to take advantage of India in various sectors such as technology, renewable energy, electric vehicles and agriculture.

Good ties with India

This is reflected in Taiwan's decision to open four trade offices in India in the last few years. As Taiwan looks at India more closely, New Delhi needs to reciprocate and welcome Taiwanese investment, even prioritise it. And closer interactions between the two on strategic matters are now the need of the hour. Tsai has made it clear that Taiwan should "learn a lesson" from Hong Kong: "If we don't insist [on maintaining Taiwan's independence], we'll be losing everything we have now," Tsai said. Her views have been endorsed by the country's voters.

But Beijing is in no mood to relent, as underscored by official Chinese reactions to Tsai's victory. The situation across the Taiwan Strait is likely to remain complex for the foreseeable future. It has made it's choice clear that it won't budge on the question of its independence even if it has to stand mostly alone in the world. There is much to cherish and respect in that approach even as it is now time for India to galvanise its diplomacy towards Taiwan.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How India is adjusting to the global power shifts

Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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