How China’s heavy steps in Hong Kong reverberate in Taiwan

Why We Wrote This

The Taiwanese are fervently democratic. In polls, a resounding majority oppose a “one country, two systems” formula for relations with China, à la Hong Kong. But how do they walk that path?

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Hong Kongers participate in a candlelight vigil at Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, June 4, 2020, to mark the 31st anniversary of the Chinese military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

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In China’s eyes, Taiwan is a province that ultimately should be fully united with the mainland under Communist Party rule, by force if necessary. Beijing vows to take over Taiwan, invoking the same “one country, two systems” formula of its Hong Kong policy.

It’s a plan rejected by more than 85% of Taiwan’s people, many of whom are closely watching China’s clampdown on Hong Kong. At boisterous marches, they chant cautionary slogans like “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan!”

While China is facing internal pressure to demonstrate strength, no one anticipates steps threatening Taiwan’s autonomy any time soon. Beijing has its hands full. What does worry some experts, however, is that China might misjudge the United States, seeing it as weak and distracted. Others wonder if an American president seeking reelection might be tempted to bolster his increasingly anti-China stance.

For now, Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. have strengthened. The island’s president has deftly inserted Taiwan into the collection of countries condemning China’s attacks on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status. Shirley Kan, a specialist in Asian security affairs, says China should avoid miscalculation, saying if anything, Taiwan’s position in what she calls the “coalition of democracies” standing up to China is stronger than ever.

Preparing the lifeguard station from which he watches over sea bathers in Taiwan’s Kenting National Park, Su Chenzhe takes a moment to reflect on events in Hong Kong, some 400 miles away across the Taiwan Strait.

“We don’t want today’s Hong Kong to be tomorrow’s Taiwan,” the young man with a swimmer’s build says one morning as he surveys the waves breaking at his beach in southernmost Pingtung County. “I want Taiwan to be a free, democratic country.”

Mr. Su’s words echo the conversations and slogans one hears increasingly across a fervently democratic Taiwan – and especially in the pro-Hong Kong bookshops and coffeehouses of the capital, Taipei – as mainland China steps up actions weakening Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status and democratic political system.

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan in the eyes of China’s Communist Party government is a province – governed separately for now but ultimately to be fully united with the mainland under Communist rule, by force if necessary. Beijing vows to take over Taiwan, invoking the same “one country, two systems” formula of Hong Kong policy – a plan rejected, say polls, by more than 85% of Taiwan’s 23 million people.

And it is this stance from the increasingly aggressive authorities in Beijing that has many Taiwanese keeping a sharp eye on events in Hong Kong, attending boisterous pro-Hong Kong marches, and invoking cautionary slogans like “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan!”

No one anticipates any steps threatening Taiwan’s autonomy on the order of the mainland’s tightening grip on Hong Kong any time soon. Beijing would seem to have its hands full managing events in Hong Kong and other restive regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, economic fallout from the coronavirus, the U.S.-China trade spat, and steering China’s rise to dominance in a dynamic Asia.

Moreover, Taiwan’s relations with the United States have strengthened under President Donald Trump, and the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has played her limited cards adeptly, foreign policy experts say. She has recently showcased the advantages of handling the coronavirus crisis with transparency (as opposed to the mainland) and clarity at home. And, they say, she has deftly inserted Taiwan into the collection of democracies, starting with the U.S., that have condemned China’s attacks on Hong Kong’s democratic system and its status as a semi-autonomous entity.

Risk of miscalculation

What does worry some experts in Asian security issues, however, is that China might misjudge the U.S., seeing it as weak and distracted with multiple crises and thus unlikely to respond to Chinese provocations. Others wonder if a mercurial American president might be tempted to take dramatic steps concerning Taiwan to put fresh meat on the bones of his increasingly anti-China stance in the run-up to November elections.

“The U.S. now has three crises – in public health, in the economy, and the political crisis playing out on the streets – and so what I’m arguing is that the [Chinese Communist Party] might think that U.S. leadership and America’s strengths are weakened, and that could lead to some dangerous miscalculations,” says Shirley Kan, an independent specialist in Asian security affairs and former analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

“But China should not make that mistake,” she adds, noting that if anything, Taiwan’s position in what she calls the “coalition of democracies” standing up to China over Hong Kong is stronger than ever.

Other experts underscore Mr. Trump’s penchant for dramatic foreign policy actions – meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there – and posit that he could choose Taiwan as a way of dramatizing his newfound toughness on China.

Ann Wang/Reuters
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd in Keelung, Taiwan, June 9, 2020.

“Imagine a major incident in the South China Sea,” where China has been stepping up its fighter jet reconnaissance flights in Taiwan’s airspace, “and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of a number of dramatic steps in response, like rushing through more sophisticated arms sales to Taipei or even inviting President Tsai to the White House,” says Harry Kazianis, an expert in U.S.-China relations and East Asian security at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Basically, it would be the U.S. recognizing Taiwan as a separate entity” from China.

Taiwan’s public overwhelmingly supports closer economic and political ties with the U.S., while rating the U.S. more favorably than mainland China by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, according to a May poll by the Pew Research Center.

“There is no doubt Taiwan will get closer to the U.S. and further away” from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), says Dennis Lu-Chung Weng, a political science professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

For many analysts, it was China’s aggression, heightened by its tightening grip on Hong Kong, that led to President Tsai’s landslide reelection victory in January. Her Democratic Progressive Party considers Taiwan an independent country, though Ms. Tsai is careful not to enflame the independence-unification debate.

Ms. Tsai is “a stable hand at the tiller. She does not create surprises for anyone,” says Kharis Templeman, an adviser on the Hoover Institution Project on Taiwan.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But to understand Beijing’s pressure on both Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s important to consider Communist Party leaders’ concerns about discontent at home, some Asia experts say.

“The Chinese Communist Party is now experiencing some domestic internal pressure,” in part over its handling of the coronavirus, says Dr. Weng, who is also a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “There are a lot of complaints,” he adds. “They have to show the people ... they are strong enough to take over Hong Kong.”

Pressure tactics

In recent months, Beijing has adopted a similar toughened posture toward Taiwan, escalating military patrols around the island, which lies just 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, while waging a constant barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation.

Beijing has become “even more aggressive in military threats, [diplomatically] poaching Taiwan’s allies, preventing Taiwan from participating in international organizations,” says Ketty W. Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in Taipei. Beijing, for example, has barred Taiwan from participation in the World Health Organization, even though Taiwan has been on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic.

But if anything, this approach has backfired, says Dr. Chen. “The PRC government and President Xi [Jinping] have painted themselves into a corner and have to treat Taiwan harshly,” she adds, “but then what to do after that?”

Meanwhile, China’s pressure tactics are wearing thin, say Taiwanese interviewed across the island.

“China wants to unite with us, but they are constantly attacking us!” says Jojo Lin, a recent college graduate and one of the record number of voters who cast their ballot for Ms. Tsai.

In her inauguration address in May, Ms. Tsai took her trademark balanced approach, calling for peace and stability and urging both sides to “find a way to coexist over the long term.” But she confirmed Taiwan’s opposition to Beijing’s reunification policy: “We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems,’” she said, “to dwarf Taiwan and destroy the cross-strait status quo.”

“It’s cool to be pro-Taiwan again”

With both Beijing’s aggression and her public’s regard for the U.S. on the rise, Ms. Tsai is likely to continue highlighting her strong relations with Washington. At the same time, it may not be in her interest to see Taiwan become a pawn in what the National Interest’s Mr. Kazianis calls a “rhetorical cold war” between the two superpowers.

Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement blasting the Communist Party for its “obscene propaganda” about U.S. street protests even as China represses individual freedoms. “When people – such as those in Hong Kong and Taiwan – with common roots in an awe-inspiring civilization … embrace freedom, that freedom is crushed, and the people subordinated to Party dictates and demands.”

That their freedom has been “crushed” might be news to the Taiwanese. But being mentioned in the same breath as Hong Kong is also reassurance that Taiwan’s standing in Washington, long secondary to relations with Beijing, is now on stronger footing.

“Suddenly it’s cool to be pro-Taiwan again in U.S. foreign policy circles,” says Mr. Kazianis. “What it amounts to is a de facto recognition of Taiwan’s existence as a separate entity” from mainland China.

Still, many experts caution that Taiwan must remain “realistic,” as Ms. Kan says, and understand that even an increasingly anti-China U.S. will have to carefully tend its relations with Asia’s rising superpower, the world’s second-largest economy.

“Much more than in the past, Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, especially in the Congress, and is viewed as one of the partners in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” says Ms. Kan. “That said, I see no paradigm shift” in the triangle of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.  

Ann Scott Tyson’s reporting included some from Taiwan.

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