OPINION- Chain Reactions in the Geopolitics of Beijing-Taipei-Washington Relations

The recent and ongoing developments in Beijing-Taipei-Washington relations show that their geopolitical tug-of-war is destined to have not only chain reactions but also political ramifications.

On September 10, a host of a China Central Television (CCTV) program on Taiwan, Li Hong, claimed that the possible visit of Wang Jin-pyng, the former vice-charman of the Kuomintang (KMT) and former President of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuen, to attend a cross-strait forum in Xiamen would signal a move toqiuhe (“beg for peace”). Her remarks triggered fierce reactions from the supporters and members of the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who argued that the KMT delegation of attending the cross-strait forum on September 19 would be a “puppet” under the united front work of the mainland Chinese authorities. 

Immediately, the KMT was on the defensive and its leaders decided that the party would not participate in the forum. Wang was rumoured to meet DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen, thereby raising suspicions among some Taiwan people on whether he would become a “messenger” between the mainland and the DPP. Although Wang later clarified that his brief meeting with Tsai had been made before the KMT’s idea of sending him to visit Xiamen, the DPP offensive triggered the KMT’s eventual decision of not participating in the cross-strait forum. The chain reactions originated from Li Hong’s insensitive remarks, which unintentionally brought about the DPP attacks on the KMT.

Li clarified on September 11 that her remarks were referring to the KMT side “seeking for peace.” But such elaboration wasperhaps too little too late. The first impression of her remarks was to “denigrate” the KMT and, even worse, imply an official stance of the mainland authorities on Wang’s possible visit. Although the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made it clear that Li’s remarks did not represent the official position, the harmful impact on the KMT was clearly underestimated. The KMT had to act in such a way as to appeal to the Taiwan electorate, insisting that Li should apologize. The TAO position was that there was no need for any apology, and that the Taiwan side blew up the entire issue out of proportion.

With the benefit of hindsight, Li Hong’s Taiwan program has developed a convention of inviting pro-reunificationcommentators in Taiwan to comment on the affairs of the island republic. Yet, her remarks came at an extremely sensitive time when the ruling DPP and its supporters were grasping any golden opportunity to portray the KMT as “blindly pro-Beijing.” As such, once Li’s remarks on qiuhe were made, regardless of whether it referred to “seeking for peace” or not, the chain reaction in Taiwan was to damage the KMT image. The KMT had no choice but to stand tougher, demanding an apology from the mainland side and deciding to terminate Wang’s visit. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees the KMT as a useful contact point to win the hearts and minds of more Taiwan comrades, Li’s remarks, which were usually under the scrutiny of her gatekeeper in CCTV, provided an unintentional but perfect opportunity for the DPP to launch a full-scale attack on the KMT.

Second, on September 17, the US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach visited Taiwan to attend the memorial service of the former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. Krach was greeted by the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, William Brent Christensen, and officials of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On September 19, Krach attended the late President Lee’s memorial ceremony with the US assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Robert Destro. Clearly, the US government is determined to establish closer relations with Taiwan, especially after the Taiwan government announced the easing of its import restrictions on US beef and pork. During a banquet with Tsai Ing-wen on the night of September 18, Krack remarked that both the US and Taiwan “are facing the challenge of the China threat,” that both sides “share common values and objectives,” and that “the US would stand persistently together with Taiwan.” His comments showed the ideological affinity between the US and Taiwan.

However, Krach’s visit was highly politically provocative to the PRC. On September 18, the Taiwan media reported that the fighter planes of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) went near or across the Taiwan Strait 19 times, and that they appeared again 18 times on the following day. At one time, the Taiwan air force announced to a PLA fighter plane that it “crosses the middle line of the Taiwan Strait,” but the other side replied that “there is no such middle line.” 

On the other hand, the PRC Maritime Safety Administration issued two navigation alerts on September 18 for military drilling activities in China’s Bohai Sea, a day after Krach’s arrival in Taiwan. The drilling represented a move by the PRC to flex its military muscle to express its displeasure with and protest the Donald Trump administration’s closer relations with Taiwan.

Simultaneously, on September 18, the Eastern Theatre Command of the PLA conducted a real-combat military exercise near the Taiwan Strait. Aircrafts from the PLA approached Taiwan from four directions, including the southwest, west, northwest, and north of the island republic.

On September 18, the Global Times said that “the PLA is still restrained,” and that “every time a high-ranking US official visits Taiwan, the fighter jets of the PLA should be one step closer to the island.” It also remarked: “If the US Secretary of State or Secretary of Defence comes to Taiwan, the PLA should fly its aircraft over the island and conduct exercises above it.” Moreover, according to Global Times, “the missiles we test should also fly over Taiwan, even its ‘presidential office building.’” The PRC side is deeply unhappy with the ways in which the US is handling Taiwan.

Third, in view of the PRC moves, the KMT leaders on September 19 made remarks that have implications for Beijing-Taipei relations. The former KMT vice-chairman, Lien Chan, appealed to both the mainland and Taiwan sides to quest for peace. He selectively chose to emphasize the late Lee Teng-hui’s early policy of stressing the importance of bilateral relations with the mainland, although the old Lee later became more radical in his political orientations. Furthermore, KMT chairmanJohnny Chiang warned that the PLA’s “excessive military exercises” would “propel the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people further away” from the PRC side. Chiang also said that such “excessive military exercises” would “push toward a scenario of irreversible deterioration and the borderline of war.” While hardliners from the PRC side believe that flexing military muscles is a must in view of the closer “collaboration” between the US and Taiwan, the possibility of military accidents is likely to increase across the Taiwan strait in the short run.

The remarks of Lien Chan and Johnny Chiang, who belong to the moderates supportive of dialogue with the PRC, are politically significant. The absence of any KMT representative in the cross-strait forum in Xiamen is a blow to the PRC’s united front work in Taiwan. Only 2,000 Taiwan people attend the forum, including the New Party. If the PRC side remains hard-line, if not dogmatic, in its policy toward Taiwan, the efforts at winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan comrade would encounter fierce opposition and resistance.

Hence, the PRC’s policy makers and think tanks need to rethink calmly how to deal with the Taiwan issue in a more skilful, if not softer, manner. Should the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement continue rather than imposing any precondition? The imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong brought about strong global reactions, including the US. The Hong Kong developments havealready hardened the Taiwan people’s resistance to the appeal of the “one country, two systems.” The KMT has recently rejected the utilization of “one country, two systems” to deal with Taiwan’s political future. The problems of the PRC’s policy toward Hong Kong and Taiwan are that, once Beijing adopts a hard-line policy on Hong Kong, the US and Taiwan react in a far more collaborative way than ever before, thereby making Beijing-Taipei relations deteriorate. Once Washington is closer to Taipei, Beijing becomes more hard-line over Taiwan, but this drives more Taiwan people away from the mainland.

Hopefully, the currently tense Beijing-Taipei-Washington relations may turn to a more stable atmosphere after Krach’s visit. However, the chain reactions in the dynamics of Beijing-Taipei-Washington relations will become the hallmark of their triangular interactions in the years to come. Given the US perception of “the China threat,” the geopolitical struggle between Beijing and Washington over both Hong Kong and Taiwan is inevitable.