Taiwan strait map close up  in an small world globe (this picture has been shot with a High Definition Hasselblad H3D II 31 megapixels camera and 120 mm f4H Hasselblad macro lens). Image: iStock
The Taiwan Strait is the scene of a geopolitical crisis again. Image: iStock

Asked “to describe Taiwan to someone who knows very little about it” during an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) last month, its president, Tsai Ing-wen, said: “If I were to describe Taiwan using one word I would say ‘resilience.’”

According to her, thanks to its resilience, though it “lacks natural resources” and is “more prone to natural disasters” and faced with “ongoing pressure” from China, “a very large neighbor,” Taiwan has not only survived, it has also developed “a very strong democracy and a solid economy” and “still managed to uphold [its] values of democracy and freedom.”

When pressed on whether she “love[s] Taiwan’s democracy and freedom the most,” the 61-year-old leader again insisted, “If I were to label Taiwan, I would label Taiwan as an island of resilience.”

Indeed, without its resilience, the 36,193-square-kilometer island would not have become a prosperous economy, a vigorous society and, especially, a flourishing democracy that has – as stressed by two US presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush – become an example for the region and the world to follow.

In almost all key political, economic and social aspects – from personal income and economic freedom, to press freedom, transparency and democracy – the self-ruled island also officially called the Republic of China (ROC), fares much better than many regional peers, including mainland China or the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

For instance, in its 2018 report on “freedom” around the world, Freedom House gave the democratically ruled island a very high score of 93 (out of 100), the second-highest in Asia after Japan, while the communist-ruled PRC was placed almost at the bottom. The United Nations’ 2018 World Happiness Report put the former 26th (out of 156) where the latter came in 86th. The six main areas used to measure happiness are “income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.”

Taiwan’s resilience is now facing a greater test as China has widened and intensified its pressure campaign against it.

As identified in an article in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Policy on June 19, over the past two years, Beijing has employed a wide range of punitive measures against Taipei, with most of these being not new, but recently intensified.

One of these is military coercion. Between August 2016 and December 2017, it is reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted at least 26 aerial exercises around Taiwan, compared to a total of eight in 2015 and 2016.

Late last month, a group of Chinese navy warships, including a Type 054A frigate and a Type 052C destroyer, held combat drills in waters near Taiwan. In May Chinese bombers encircled the island republic as part of another military drill designed to unnerve Taipei.

Diplomatically, Beijing has stepped up its efforts to marginalize Taiwan internationally by picking off the latter’s few remaining diplomatic allies and blocking it from participating in international organizations and events, such as the World Health Assembly in May.

With São Tomé and Príncipe (December 2016), Panama (June 2017), the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso (May 2018) severing ties with Taipei and switching their recognition to the PRC, Taiwan now has only 18 diplomatic allies – the fewest in its history.

A Taiwan official reportedly said that Beijing offered the Dominican Republic a US$3.1 billion package of investments and loans to get them to cut ties with Taiwan.

In January 2017, Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Alpha Barry reportedly told Bloomberg that Beijing would “offer $50 billion or even more” if his country switched allegiance, but the landlocked West African state turned down the “outrageous proposal.”

Following Burkina Faso’s decision to sever ties, President Tsai accused the giant neighbor of “promising vast amounts of money” to lure away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and reaffirmed that her country “will not engage in dollar diplomacy with China.”

With only US$89 million for its annual diplomatic budget, it is obvious that the ROC cannot compete with the PRC’s “dollar diplomacy.”

The Vatican, Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe, is probably Beijing’s next target to woo. The officially atheist state and the Holy See have apparently edged closer to an agreement on the appointment of bishops, which could pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic ties. Should this happen, it would be a huge blow for Taipei because, though it is officially a tiny “state,” the Vatican’s global voice and influence is huge.

In an effort to erase Taiwan’s global identity, a powerful and forceful China has ordered foreign airlines to drop Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, from their websites or refer to it as part of China. Most of them – including Australia’s national airline Qantas, Air France, Air Canada, British Airways and Air India – have complied.

Besides foreign airlines, other big international companies, including hotel and clothing chains, such as Gap, Zara and Marriott, have bowed to Beijing’s demands because they cannot afford to lose a huge market such as China.

The Chinese government has also taken coercive economic measures against Taiwan, such as limiting the number of group tours visiting Taiwan.

Judging by its extensive coercive measures against Taiwan, which also include political warfare and cyber espionage, China is seeking to isolate, intimidate and weaken the island by hook or by crook.

Judging by its extensive coercive measures against Taiwan, which also include political warfare and cyber espionage, China is seeking to isolate, intimidate and weaken the island by hook or by crook

The question is whether such oppression will make Taiwan succumb.

In her remarks following the Dominican Republic’s switching of allegiance to China on May 1,  Tsai acknowledged that her country’s “diplomatic situation is truly grim.” However, she stated: “No matter how great the external pressure, we will not submit”, vowing “to protect Taiwan and the freedoms of our democratic way of life, and not tolerate any threat to these fundamental values.”

She issued an equally strong statement after Burkina Faso’s severance of ties on May 24, in which she said the mainland’s “efforts to undermine Taiwan’s national sovereignty” – including “dispatching fighter jets to circle Taiwan, luring away [its] diplomatic allies, forcing international corporations to change the name they use to refer to Taiwan [and] preventing Taiwan from participating in international organizations” – “are already challenging Taiwan society’s bottom line.”

When asked to “elaborate on what the bottom line is” in the AFP interview, she said she believed “that the people of Taiwan share the same view of our bottom line,” which is: (1) Taiwan’s “democracy and freedom” that “cannot be infringed on,” (2) its “sovereignty” that “cannot be suppressed and has to be respected” and (3) the right of the Taiwanese people “to decide their own futures – and that right cannot be undermined.”

Given such conviction, as she made clear in the Burkina Faso statement, faced with the increasing Chinese aggression, the people of Taiwan “will simply redouble our resolve and continue to engage with the world, and continue establishing more and more substantive, economic and security partnerships with like-minded countries.”

In an apparent warning to Beijing, she stressed, its “suppression will only make Taiwan’s partnerships in the international community even closer,” adding that her country “will never give in” [to China’s coercion.]

If Beijing’s totalizing campaign of coercion is aimed at pressing Taiwan – or more precisely, Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – to toe its line, it is hitherto apparently counterproductive.

Rather than weakening them, it emboldens their resolve, making them more determined to protect their liberty, democracy, sovereignty, identity and rights.

Tsai and her government are embarking on major domestic reforms and measures to enhance the self-ruled island’s economy and military capabilities. Externally, it is seeking to boost economic and security partnerships with the US and like-minded countries. And such efforts are producing results.

While Taipei has lost a few small, impoverished nations, which are diplomatically significant but strategically less relevant to Taiwan, since Tsai’s election, it has hugely strengthened ties with Washington, its vital ally, if not primary protector.

US President Donald Trump approved a US$1.42 billion arms deal with Taipei and signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which was passed unanimously by Congress. The TTA has already paved the way for Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and other US high-ranking officials – including  Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, who attended  the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)’s new office complex in June – to visit the island. It was also reported that the US might deploy marines to guard its new de facto embassy.

As rightly noted by Merriden Varrall and Charlie Lyons Jones of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, Taiwan’s ties with other regional countries, including Japan and Australia, under Tsai’s leadership have been strengthened. For instance, these two analysts point out that while Australia adopts a wait-and-see approach to China’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative, it is interested in Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, an initiative by the Tsai government to forge deeper ties with Southeast Asian nations and beyond.

It can be said that, as long as Taiwan is able to maintain a strong democracy, economy and military as well as strong ties with the US and like-minded partners, China’s coercion cannot make it tumble. Ironically, judging by what has happened, it is clear that the greater Beijing’s aggression is, the more creative, assertive and resilient Taiwan’s response is likely to be.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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