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My War Eagles are Circling the Treasure Island

Reading time: 7 minutes

Rarely do we experience the flashes of the contemporary wave of democratisation popularised once by S. Huntington. Looming behind the illiberal politics of the United States, India or Brazil, to name a few, is the landslide victory of the democratic candidate Tsai Ing-wen in the Taiwanese presidential election which took place on the 11th of January. Her re-election is what may come as a surprise not only to those Taiwanese citizens who have already been disappointed with the rule of Tsai since she was elected in 2016, but also to Xi Jinping for whom the predicted Kuomintang (KMT) victory (that was sitting above 50% in the first election polls in comparison to Tsai’s which was 37%) was to be an indisputable display of Beijing’s power over the semi-independent island. Bearing in mind that the island’s wellbeing depends largely on its alliance with the US and China, the leadership of Taiwan is supposed to adequately and explicitly address its relationship with both nations for us to accurately assess the change that Tsai’s victory might bring, making her term of office unpredictable in the long run.

Tsai Ing-wen is undoubtedly a force behind the development of the diplomatic ties between the democratic Asian nations and the US. Yet, her separatist spirits may threaten the safety of the Taiwanese democracy in the face of mounting danger coming from China, and – consequently – may cause harm to the Taiwan-US relationship. At the other end of the spectrum, the appealing possibility of thwarting the military ambitions of Jinping might encourage the US to act side by side with Taiwan. What mark will the second presidential term of Tsai Ing-wen hypothetically leave on the political landscape of Taiwan with the US and China as the main actors?

Signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration 1984, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the People’s Republic of China established the one country, two systems principle crucial in order to maintain Hong Kong’s democratic frame of mind and the capitalist system. In effect, the spirit of freedom was predicted to loom over the entire mainland promoting democratic values of the West. In 2019, in the light of a broken deal and disappointment, Hong Kong, followed up by Taiwan horrified by the violent protests, was increasingly reluctant to identify with China. For that reason, Tsai Ing-wen, who strictly opposed the one country, two systems framework, putting attention to the defence of sovereign and democratic values, could secure her victory. Inevitably, the new leader’s rigid stance towards China’s unifying policies met with the endorsement of the United States, the guarantor of Taiwan’s safety. President Trump declared Taiwan a force for good in the world[1] in faith that it is both a model of democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, but also a unifying agent in the face of unremitting pressure. The slogans of Tsai are an American publicity stunt, praising the triumph of the human rights and citizens’ freedoms, which strengthens the Taiwan-US relations. Whether the attack of Beijing on Taiwan might be delayed or repulsed is contingent on Washington’s ability to alter Taiwan’s stance to such an extent that the alliance would act as a strong deterrent for Beijing to advance. Indeed, without consistent external help, Taiwan might not stand the ground for long when involved in a proper fight with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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However, if the US will politicise the chain of events in Taiwan, and its alliance with Tsai will grow in force, China may take a harder stance[2] towards the government in Taipei. At that point, the latter will be likely to compel the US – which is afraid of the audience costs – to steadily withdraw from the conflict. As the PLA’s capabilities expand, so do its prospects of the possible use of military force. Potentially, the US military’s freedom to operate in Asian waters and airspace will be undermined, leading to Taiwan’s eventual loss of its ally. In turn, Taiwan – either ineffective, lacking strong alliance or fully aware of their helplessness that even the US could not address – might reasonably give up. Being mindful of the powerful rhetoric and intermediate-range missiles with which Beijing could target the US aircraft carriers and military bases in Japan and Guam (the two most commonly used locations in case of a US intervention)[3], the strong tie which was formed with the US could eventually backfire at Taiwan which will be unable to benefit from the alliance.

Be that as it may, the outcome of the conflict is the resultant force of many factors, including the efficiency of Tsai’s domestic actions and their integration with foreign policies. If Beijing adopts more repressive measures, Tsai may be provoked to implement further radical strategies that, in turn, might evoke strong unification feelings across the mainland, triggering China even more. That would lead two nations into an endless cycle of fruitless communication. Yet, the Taiwanese representative of a centre green party has been accused for years of her lenient attitude towards Beijing and reluctance to postulate Taiwan’s independence. Who knows if the government in Taipei will continue to play internally with powerful rhetoric to hide external inadequacy?

Tsai’s crushing victory (with 57% of secured votes) represents yet another – among many others encountered nowadays – example of surging populism. Playing with the pro-environmentalist feelings, inter alia, Tsai fuelled the resistance to the use of just built nuclear power plants, while promising no nukes by 2025 and subsequently ignoring the long Taiwanese history of massive blackouts in the biggest cities. Disregarding the fact that Taiwan is in no condition to fully support clean energy with its lack of steady, controllable wind or water, she aims at gathering a strong electoral advantage with the anti-nuke and green groups, consequently depriving the country of any stable electricity supply. As the businesses will seek stable electricity supplies (a process that might be observable in India), be it into mainland China or Southeast Asia, in the long run we might expect a change of the location of once Taiwan-located foreign direct investments (FDIs). Then, with no manufacturers in the big cities, a decreasing supply of jobs and the loss of tax income from the FDIs is what may be anticipated. Not surprisingly, the stagnant economy might be precisely the opposite of what Tsai needs now, bearing in mind how her re-election put the country in an unstable position with regards to China. The fragile economic conditions neither encourage the US to help, nor discourage China to attack.

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Before employing these theories to examine the hypothetical effects of the Taiwan-China discord, it is necessary to delve into Beijing’s stance on the issue discussed. Tsai Ing-wen’s reverberant re- election may harden Xi Jinping’s unwavering approach towards the island[4] – be it by controlling the opinions on the island through unofficial grassroots channels and displays of Chinese might, or by getting directly involved in the conflict with the Taiwanese. However, if China wants to turn to a more internationally confident position, while its relationship with the US hangs by a thread, Xi Jinping will be likely to use means which are more delicate, in order to take control over the island.

The push for gradual, peaceful fusion with Taiwan is more suggested by the Chinese political analysts and advisors; however, the final result highly revolves around the Sino-US relationship. If the president of the US slants to engage militarily, the potential conflict may escalate, resulting in a military confrontation between the two countries. As long as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to stymie the Tsai’s government by maintaining its one country, two systems model in global discourse without resorting to force, the unification might take non-violent direction. Sole prolongation of the conflict by poaching the international supporters of Taiwan, or increasing the control over Taiwanese media, might allow avoiding the military discord. As of what was displayed until now, neither manifestations of the military might nor incentives to Taiwanese youth, businesses and tourists have had positive effects for Xi Jinping, but these are for now the exclusive things in the Chinese playbook and thus might continue, alongside cyber-attacks and persistent military modernisation. Yet, the military friction remains just a potential menace, considering the Chinese military deficiencies: not only the capacity in ships and aircraft, greatly needed to transport an invasion force across the Taiwan Strait, but also the number of troops is insufficient to engender real confidence of victory in the Chinese army. Moreover, only 14 Taiwanese beaches are suitable for a seaborne invasion, with the rest being either reefs, small rocky coves, sheer cliffs, or blocked with wave breakers and concrete piers[5], or simply not deep enough[6].

Regardless of the predictions of the political analysts, the direct military threat coming from Xi’s overreaction is within the bounds of possibility, according to some recent precedent. In February 2019, the PLA’s air force released the music video of the song My War Eagles are Circling the Treasure Island with the aerial footage of Taiwan. As a follow-up to the video, in August 2019 PLA fighter jets crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait[7]. Both moves were considered a promise of how Taiwan – if indocile – might become a victim. The Taiwanese and US researchers expect Chinese cyber-attacks in Taiwan, which would deprive Taiwan’s military commanders of the means to issue orders, pushing the conflict into a more violent direction. Although, as disclosed before, the PLA lacks the required military capacity, it could make up for the shortfall by ordering civilian vessels, many of which are currently constructed to be military-capable. Indeed, as demonstrated by its utilisation of maritime militia in low-level conflicts in the South China Sea, China owns a firmly established practice of using civilian ships under military command. After all, the Chinese military could completely avoid landing on the beach if they seized the Taiwanese airfields and used commercial airliners to fly in soldiers.

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However, despite the two airbases in possession of the mountain tunnels that would grant safe shelters to more than 200 aircrafts, or the fast-growing sea mining skills, Taipei cannot make up for the fact that Beijing spends fifteen times more resources on defence than Taiwan, which makes US officials believe the Chinese military would be able to grab control of the skies. Dubious capabilities of Taiwan’s military would discourage the US to become fully involved in the conflict, pressuring Tsai to focus more on delaying Chinese military attacks or increasing the costs of invasion for China. How to defend itself properly by accepting the potential risk of conflict might be increasingly a central theme of Taiwan politics.

In conclusion, the victory of Tsai Ing-wen is a strong message of rejection of political obedience to the government in Beijing and territorial integrity – unwavering interests of the Chinese Communist Party. Many want to believe that the only steps that will be taken by Jinping’s government against Taiwan are to increase the efforts to internationally isolate it and intimidate it militarily, as well as to attempt to squeeze its economy by drastically limiting tourism to the island. Though, the relationship with the US, the diplomatic consistency and the ability of Taiwan to gamble on the strong defence, rather than create more radical policies which could trigger China, are the determining factors of the tide. Whether the divisions created by the Chinese Civil War will continue to colour the PRC relations with the people, both in the mainland and with the Chinese communities outside, remains ex-ante uncertain with some possibilities of the conflict unfolding as psychological warfare.[8]


[1] “Tsai Ing-Wen Wins Second Term As Taiwan President | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/ce3c30c2-3473-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] “Taiwan: Concern Grows Over China’s Invasion Threat | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/e3462762-3080-11ea-9703-eea0cae3f0de.

[4] “Taiwan Election Result Leaves China’s Xi Jinping With Few Options | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/82df5ac6-3506-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.

[5] “Taiwan: Concern Grows Over China’s Invasion Threat | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/e3462762-3080-11ea-9703-eea0cae3f0de.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ibidem.


Bibliography

“Beijing And Taipei Headed For Collision Over Democracy | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/7b03c8ce-3b7c-11ea-a01a-bae547046735.

Hans, Gursimran. “What Does Tsai Ing-Wen’s Landslide Taiwan Election Win Mean For Tense China Relations?”. Express.Co.Uk, 2020, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1228834/China- news-Taiwan-elections-Tsai-Ing-wen-Beijing-Taipei-tension-democracy.

“Taiwan: Concern Grows Over China’s Invasion Threat | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/e3462762-3080-11ea-9703-eea0cae3f0de.

“Taiwan Election Result Leaves China’s Xi Jinping With Few Options | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/82df5ac6-3506-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.

“Tsai Ing-Wen Wins Second Term As Taiwan President | Financial Times”. Ft.Com, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/ce3c30c2-3473-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.


by Julia Galusiakowska

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