People in Taiwan do not want to be treated as a pawn in a great powers’ game, says expert

Pelosi‘s visit is seen not so much as a genuine trigger point, but as a pretext under which Beijing could launch more drills, says Yu-Jie Chen, Assistant Research Professor at Academia Sinica

Updated - August 19, 2022 10:00 pm IST

Published - August 19, 2022 07:50 pm IST

Yu-Jie Chen, Assistant Research Professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan

Yu-Jie Chen, Assistant Research Professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan

The Taiwan question is in the international spotlight following China’s unprecedented military drills surrounding the island in the wake of the recent visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most high-profile from the U.S. to Taiwan in 25 years.

While Taiwan has emerged as a key flashpoint in already tense U.S.-China ties, lost in the focus on the geopolitics is the question of how Taiwan and its 23 million people view the current moment. In an interview, Yu-Jie Chen, Assistant Research Professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, whose work focuses on international law and cross-strait relations, says Taiwanese are “pragmatic” and don’t want war, but want to preserve the status quo. With a “rapidly coalescing Taiwanese identity” as well as a “strong inclination” to preserve its democracy, China’s plan to absorb Taiwan peacefully, she adds, is unlikely to work.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit has been widely seen through the prism of the U.S.-China geopolitical tussle. This view that tends to ignore what Taiwan itself has made of these developments. What has been the general reaction so far, both to the visit, and to the subsequent response from China to hold military exercises so close to Taiwan?

While some Taiwanese were understandably nervous and concerned, most have remained calm and collected during China’s military exercises. The general situation on the ground is business as usual — we still carry on with our daily lives. The main reason for this relative placidity is that the people in Taiwan are quite used to China’s hostility whenever the relations across the Taiwan Strait deteriorate, and China’s threats have escalated in recent years. Additionally, the assessment in Taiwan was that there would be no invasion at this time. China’s live-fire drills following Pelosi’s visit were generally considered a performative act as well as a preparation for a potential future attack. This observation is in line with a poll conducted days after Pelosi’s visit. The poll shows that 60.1% of the people were not worried about further military conflicts across the Strait, while 34% were worried. Having said that, China’s military exercises have largely made Taiwanese more aware of the possibility of a real strike. The next question is what to do about it.

Discussion in Taiwan has revolved around reforming the military, including better training for our reserve forces and extending the conscription period from four months to one year. Yet, in addition to these military discussions, I believe that the Taiwan government must also better prepare civilians for a conflict scenario, including instructing people how to react to an emergent situation, retaining resilience until further aid arrives, as the people in Ukraine have done. There is a lot of room to improve in this aspect. For example, Forward Alliance, a non-governmental group, has worked hard on raising public awareness of a potential crisis, sharing information on how to pack a go-kit, and holding workshops to train civilians to become first responders, etc. The government can and should do more.

One criticism of the Pelosi visit is that it was "only symbolism", and ultimately left Taiwan with a more adverse strategic environment. Has it been seen that way in Taiwan?

Symbolism matters in diplomacy, not to mention powerful symbolism that emanates from the strong support of the U.S. Congress. I do not see Pelosi’s visit as changing the adverse strategic environment with which Taiwan has already been confronted, and a number of colleagues that I’ve spoken to agree. The visit might have accelerated this trend, but China’s Taiwan policy had already been trending towards more hostility since 2016 after Taiwan elected, and reelected in 2020, current President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has refused to accept Beijing’s “one-China principle” or any kind notions associated with “one China” ideas, including the “1992 Consensus” embraced by the KMT (Kuomintang). Given those developments, the escalation of adversity across the Taiwan Strait would appear to be a matter of course. Pelosi‘s visit is seen not so much as a genuine trigger point, but as a pretext under which Beijing could launch more drills that it had already planned to carry out around Taiwan.

In terms of how people in Taiwan have, over the years, viewed the situation across the strait, how has Taiwan's own democratic transition at home, from the authoritarian period under Chiang Kai-shek to now, shaped ideas about China, as well as about what it means to be Taiwanese?

When I think about our authoritarian past and today’s democracy, I think of Taiwanese endurance and perseverance, and very importantly, the tremendous political and personal sacrifices of our previous generations. They have paid a heavy price for democracy, especially those who were murdered, tortured, locked up, and constantly monitored and harassed. We, the later generations, benefit from what they have done for us and for our country. This is a humbling realisation for me and, I believe, for many others of my generation. We’re proud to be Taiwanese and value our hard-fought and hard-won democratic way of life.

The people in Taiwan can freely voice our decidedly different opinions on politics and policies to pressure our government to improve. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are commonplace in Taiwan, and no one demonstrating goes out to the street with the fear that our demonstration will be brutally quashed like we saw in Hong Kong or have seen often in China. I believe people live a much better life in this vibrant democracy, where our government is responsive to us because it is ultimately held politically and legally accountable by us, and our autonomy is respected. These are emancipating feelings we would not experience in a suffocating dictatorship.

It was only seven years ago that there was a meeting between then President Ma Ying-jeou and President Xi Jinping, amid a broader push for closer economic agreements across the strait. How do we make sense of the changes since, as well as to some of the public backlash to those agreements?

That public backlash was heralded by the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which a group of young Taiwanese students stormed into our legislative chamber and occupied it for 24 days, paralysing the operation of the Legislature. The animating sentiment of the movement was dissatisfaction with Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to form closer ties with China without proper legislative and public supervision and consent. This movement was supported by the majority of Taiwanese, many of whom also took to the street to support the student’s demands for more transparency in cross-strait agreements and dealings.

Since the 2014 movement, cross-strait relations have gradually deteriorated. Not one cross-strait agreement has passed the legislature since. The 2015 Xi-Ma meeting was arranged to attempt to reverse this situation and also to give a political boost to Ma’s KMT, with the aim of tipping the balance in the 2016 Presidential and Legislative election. And yet, the opposition DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen still won the 2016 Presidential election in a landslide. In an unprecedented addition, the DPP won the legislative election and became the majority in the Legislature for the first time. The DPP’s victory can be traced back to the 2014 Sunflower Movement. It should also, rightly, be considered a veto on the KMT’s China policy.

How have views in Taiwan evolved on the future of cross-strait relations? Until recently, it seemed the status quo, or some version of it, was something broadly acceptable to all parties. Each is now accusing the other of trying to change it. Is the status quo no longer sustainable?

The views in Taiwan have been clear. An oft-cited poll conducted by the Chengchi University’s Election Study Center demonstrates that the percentage of people who identify as exclusively Taiwanese has steadily increased since the poll was first conducted 1992. This long-standing trend has experienced a dramatic change since 2019, with the percentage identifying as exclusively Taiwanese climbing from 54.5% to 63.7%. This rapid change in citizen self-understanding is generally attributed to the collective Taiwanese aversion to Xi Jinping’s 2019 January statement to “unite” Taiwan under “One Country, Two Systems” as well as China’s later crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic movement.

Another poll conducted by the same centre similarly shows that after 2019, increasing numbers of people have favored “maintain status quo, move toward independence”, jumping from 15.1% in 2018 to 25.2%.

Here, we should note that Taiwanese are pragmatic—we don’t want a war, so, when polled, people tend to choose the “maintain status quo indefinitely” option (currently standing at 28.6%), instead of directly choosing independence, in order not to provoke a conflict with China. In Taiwan’s perspective, the “status quo” means de facto independence. This polling tendency is what I call “coerced non-decision.” If poll respondents were able to voice their true preferences, or weigh potential political outcomes without also having to consider China’s threat to use force against Taiwan, Taiwanese may not necessarily choose the “status quo.”

All in all, the rapidly coalescing Taiwanese identity and the strong inclination to retain our democratic way of life have considerable implications for cross-strait relations, suggesting that as time presses on, China’s plan to absorb Taiwan peacefully and “reeducate” the Taiwanese [as China’s Ambassador to France advocated this month] are unlikely to work. On the other side of the Strait, we also see mounting aggressiveness towards Taiwan with China’s increasing military penetration of Taiwan’s airspace and surrounding waters. This kind of bilateral interaction, situated in the context of an international environment where the United States and China are competing to determine who is the greater power in the region, is a very dangerous combination.

Beijing has attributed these tensions, and this growing stress on the status quo, in part to the U.S., which it sees as playing a "Taiwan card", and in part to President Tsai Ing-wen, who Beijing says, since coming to power in 2016 and after her re-election in 2020, has been pursuing "independence".

If Taiwan can be considered a card to be played, it is unfortunately a card in multiple ongoing international games, and one that China plays often. Taiwan for decades has strived for what we call “international participation.” Taiwan has tried in vain to join various international organisations that have ultimately shut their doors to us, often under considerable pressure from Beijing; some of these were organisations we knew that Taiwan and our collective experience and expertise could contribute to greatly, including the World Health Organisation. This international ostracism has catalyzed the rise of the Taiwanese identity I described before, which desires more international recognition of Taiwan in and of itself.

The people in Taiwan do not want to be treated as a pawn in a great powers’ game. I recall when Donald Trump was the U.S. president, he suggested that Taiwan could be a bargaining chip to reach a deal with China on trade. That incident was alarming to many in Taiwan and a lesson to us that, as a small country in between two superpowers, Taiwan needs to tread water very carefully, playing our own cards just right.

The White Paper released by China last week has again spoken of "one country, two systems" as what Beijing sees as its preferred outcome for Taiwan. It also, once again, ruled out renouncing the use of force.

The White Paper is a continuation of previous papers in insisting on Beijing’s “one China principle,” but there are indeed some notable differences. For one, this White Paper tries to establish the legal basis for Beijing’s “one China principle,” claiming falsely that the “One China Principle is the common consensus of international society.” This is disconcerting. It suggests that Beijing is employing its own version of “lawfare” (faluzhang) in the larger context of information warfare, that can be launched together with or independent of military attacks. In Beijing’s terms, “lawfare” means using law as an instrument to proscribe certain unwanted target behaviour and to resort to using law-based coercion and sanctions to force compliance for diplomatic, political and economic ends. I believe the White Paper attempts to construct a more exhaustive—but ultimately unfounded—discourse on China’s legal grounds to annex Taiwan.

Another noteworthy point about this current White Paper is that China deleted a promise it made in its last White Paper in 2000: a pledge not to send its military and officials to be stationed in Taiwan. I think China removed this language because Beijing has learned a lesson from its suppression of the Hong Kong democratic movement. During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, Beijing was worried that things could spin out of control but that its “One Country, Two Systems” promises as well as the Basic Law would prevent it from deploying the People’s Liberation Army stationed in Hong Kong. One of the lessons of the Hong Kong protests for Beijing seems to be that it must amend its “One Country, Two Systems” contingency plans.

Given that most countries including India do not have formal relations with Taiwan, what space do you see for cooperation within that limitation? What do you make of the fact that India, as well as most democracies in the global south, have generally tended to keep a studied silence on Taiwan, including on recent developments?

Last week, India called for an “exercise of restraint” and to avoid “unilateral actions to change the status quo” over Taiwan. This is much appreciated. India, like all other countries, understands the importance of the region’s stability and peace to the interest of itself and the world. Although India does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, there are still channels that can deepen people-to-people exchanges, cultural understanding, trade ties and investment that would be beneficial to both sides. Taiwan, for example, has a GCTF (Global Cooperation and Training Framework) with the United States, which was later joined by Japan and other countries to discuss common development issues based on our shared democratic values. India and Taiwan, two democracies, can also initiate dialogues that would be constructive to both. In a world that is witnessing authoritarian expansion, I believe all democracies stand a better chance by standing together, rather than standing alone.

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