Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has a simple campaign trail message for China amid its rising threats to invade her island nation after elections scheduled for early next year: “We will not back down.”
“China is getting more and more aggressive,” Tsai told this correspondent at the Republic of China’s presidential palace this month. “[But] we now have more liberty to speak for our independence,” the leader said.
Taiwan’s leader spoke in broad terms as crucial presidential elections approach in January, 2020, polls that will serve as a de facto pro- versus anti-China national referendum with major implications for regional stability.
In a provocative new year’s speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with the mainland within 2020. That has raised concerns that China may resort to force if Tsai and pro-independence forces dominate the elections.
Tsai, whose approval ratings have dipped from 70% in 2016 to around 30% this year, will be pitted against two insurgent candidates who favor closer ties with China.
One is Han Kuo-yu, the populist Kaohsiung mayor often likened to the “Trump of Taiwan” who has shot to superstardom with anti-establishment rhetoric but also likely backing of China-based cyber groups which have broadened his appeal via a well-targeted disinformation campaign.
The other likely contender is Terry Gou, the tough-talking billionaire chairman of Foxconn who has similarly combined self-styled populism with an emphasis on the need for closer ties with China, where a large chunk of his business empire is concentrated.
Unlike Han, he is openly known for close personal ties with the Chinese leadership.
Both Ha and Gou are expected to emphasize the necessity for closer economic ties with China and challenge Tsai’s pro-independence stance.
Those are diametrically opposed democratic choices. Cross-straits tensions have reached new heights ahead of the polls, potentially placing the US and China on a collision course over the island state’s fate.
Chinese officials have warned US President Donald Trump of “playing with fire” with his administration’s military deployments to the Taiwan Straits and his growing diplomatic support for the island state.
Most recently, China deployed (June 25) its flagship Liaoning aircraft carrier along with five military vessel escorts to the Taiwan Straits, a show of naval force which dwarfs Taiwan’s power-projecting capabilities.
In April, for the first time since 2011, Chinese jet fighters brazenly crossed the median line separating the airspace between mainland China and Taiwan.
Taiwanese authorities blasted that aerial maneuver as “reckless and provocative.”
“The Chinese will try to push the envelope short of military conflict,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told this correspondent on June 21. “They are engaged in a hybrid warfare…trying very hard to infiltrate our society.”
“Showing weakness [to China] is an invitation for aggression,” Wu said, emphasizing the necessity for the island nation to stand its ground amid China’s escalating intimidation tactics.
At the same time, America’s allies have stepped up their military presence in the area. Just weeks earlier, two Canadian warships conducted classified “freedom of navigation” operations in the area.
American, French and British warships have also conducted similar maneuvers in the maritime area this year.
The Trump administration also recently cleared a multi-billion dollar sale of American weapons to Taiwan, including missile systems and aircrafts which could be deployed against a possible Chinese invasion.
The US Senate has also called for direct support for Taiwan’s ability to develop minimum deterrence capabilities, including “anti-ship, coastal defense, anti-armor, air defense, undersea warfare, advanced command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR), and resilient command and control capabilities.”
Tsai’s Cabinet ministers told this author that they believe the Trump administration is now more supportive of Taiwan’s de facto independence, witnessed in the growing frequency of meetings between American senior officials and Taiwan’s leadership and deepening military interoperability.
They also believe that Trump seems more willing to take the fight to China compared to his predecessors, witnessed in his government’s expanded naval operations in the Western Pacific.
China has responded in rhetorical kind. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this month, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe warned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will “make no promise to renounce the use of force” in order to reincorporate Taiwan into a Greater China.
“Any underestimation of the PLA’s resolve and will [to use force] is extremely dangerous,” he said, describing the Chinese military’s “sacred duty” to defend and unify China.
China is clearly banking on its immense asymmetry of power vis-à-vis Taiwan. The PLA boasts up to one million troops, 1,500 jet fighters, 33 navy destroyers, and close to 6,000 tanks, according to the latest US Defense Department report.
In the event of an attempted invasion of Taiwan, China could be expected to mobilize more than 20 landing ships and close to 40 amphibious transport docks, along with its large armada of para-military and coast guard forces, experts say.
Taiwan, geographically as large as Denmark, has only 150,000 troops at its disposal, along with 350 fighter jets, four destroyer-class warships, and 800 tanks. Taiwan’s leadership, however, is preparing accordingly.
During a major military drill held last month against a possible Chinese amphibious invasion, Taiwan’s military spokesman Major General Chen Chung-Chi made it clear that the island nation is “combat-ready.”
“Of course, we don’t want war, but only by gaining our own strength can we defend ourselves,” he told CNN international. “If China wants to take any action against us, it has to consider paying a painful price.”
One senior Taiwanese national security official told this author on June 20 that “China has limited areas to launch any amphibious attack against Taiwan.”
Amid mass industrialization and expansion of real estate along Taiwan’s western shores, there are at most 14 potential landing areas for a possible Chinese amphibious invasion, he said.
Taiwan’s military has prepared for the scenario by placing heavy defensive barriers along those areas, along with underground tunnels and anti-amphibious attack equipment, he said.
Other senior Taiwanese officials told this correspondent that Beijing is looking at a combination of “surprise attack plus infiltration” strategies to undermine the island nation’s independence.
Those include disinformation campaigns, co-optation of Taiwanese media outlets and business elite, and support for pro-China politicians, they claimed.
The Trump administration has taken notice of China’s multi-pronged offensive against its de facto democratic ally.
According to a 2019 US Defense Intelligence Agency report, “China’s leaders hope that possessing these military capabilities will deter pro-independence moves by Taiwan or, should deterrence fail, will permit a range of tailored military options against Taiwan and potential third-party military intervention,”
Taiwanese leaders seem increasingly confident with the Trump administration’s more assertive policy against China and its growing strategic reassurance to regional allies.
Tsai emphasized in discussions with this correspondent how Taiwan is asserting its de facto independence by diminishing its economic interdependence with China.
“People have to bear in mind that you need to be independent [economically too], since China uses economics as leverage,” Tsai said.
Other officials noted how Taiwan has gradually economically decoupled with China over the past five years, as Taiwanese investors have shifted production facilities to alternative locations in Southeast Asia.
But with both sides sticking to their guns, both literally and figuratively, the potential for miscalculation and escalation is rising as the pivotal polls approach in 2020.