A regular feature of Taiwan Sentinel, ChinaWatch examines developments in China in the areas of internal politics, economics and trade, geopolitics and Taiwan engagement and analyzes their advantages or disadvantages for Taiwan’s standing in the region and the world. This feature is based on the premise that what happens in China has direct relevance for the durability of Taiwan’s de facto independence. ChinaWatch is updated monthly.
Vatican Steering Clear of China — At Least for Now
The Vatican has denied reports claiming that a shift in diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing is imminent, though continuing talks between the Holy See and China underscore the fragility of Taipei’s relations with what is arguably is most important diplomatic partner.
On Oct. 5 the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States said at a reception hosted by Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See that relations between the two would remain intact.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher was quoted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency as saying he could “guarantee that the Vatican would continue as a committed partner” of Taipei. He also said he supported constructive dialogue between the two sides to improve their continuing exchanges.
Gallagher’s comments followed a media interview two days earlier in which Hong Kong emeritus bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun said Vatican recognition of China was inevitable. The two sides have long been engaged in a dialogue aimed at normalizing their relations. The main sticking point is the Vatican’s insistence that the pope be allowed to appoint Chinese bishops. At present that prerogative is held by China.
Some analysts believe that despite China’s seeming lack of flexibility on this issue, it might be prepared to adopt some form of compromise were it to decide that it was in its diplomatic interest to do so. For its part, the Vatican has long made it clear that its ultimate goal is to forge relations with Beijing.
Vatican recognition of Taiwan is important not only in and of itself, but also because it has an impact on the willingness of at least seven of Taiwan’s other 19 diplomatic partners to maintain their own recognition. These are heavily Catholic countries in Latin America in which the Vatican continues to enjoy considerable social and political influence. Were the Vatican to pull the plug on Taipei in favor of Beijing most if not all of them would probably follow suit.
Taiwan has already lost two diplomatic allies — Sao Tome and Principe and Panama — since the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen became president in May 2016. Beijing has expressed discontent with Tsai over her refusal to accept the “one China” principle, under which Taiwan and China are seen as a united polity. The loss of the two diplomatic allies followed Beijing’s unilateral decision to cancel the informal “non-poaching” diplomatic truce that had been in effect between them since 2008.
Singapore Military Training in Taiwan to Continue
Foreign Minister David Lee has told Taiwan’s legislature that Singapore’s 42-year-old program of using the island-nation as a training site for some of its military forces will continue unchanged, despite heavy pressure from China to discontinue the practice.
The so-called Project Starlight military training program began in 1975 under the aegis of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and future Taiwanese president Chiang Ching-kuo. It was based on Singapore’s need for a relatively expansive swathe of territory on which to conduct military exercises — more expansive at any rate than that afforded by Singapore’s own restricted borders.
Some Taiwanese officials were fearful that last month’s visit to China by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would result in a Singaporean announcement cancelling the Starlight program outright. The fear were stoked by the temporary seizure of nine Singapore armored vehicles by Hong Kong authorities when the vehicles were transiting the Chinese territory en route to Singapore after being used in training exercises in Taiwan last year.
But speaking to the Taiwanese legislature in early October, Foreign Minister Lee made it clear that Taiwan would continue to be a site for Singaporean military training. “According to information from Singapore, everything is normal,” Lee said. He added somewhat cryptically that it is “not convenient for me to elaborate on the specific content” of the Singaporean information.
“According to information from Singapore, everything is normal.”
Once relatively confined in terms of its choices for foreign military training, Singapore now uses the territories of at least eight foreign countries for training purposes. In addition to Taiwan, these are New Zealand, Australia, the U.S., Thailand, South Africa, Germany and India.
This broad range of choices strongly suggests that Singapore’s decision to continue military training on Taiwan is designed to underscore the Southeast Asia city state’s longstanding desire to hew a roughly middle path between Taipei and Beijing — notwithstanding Beijing’s rapidly expanding political and economic clout in the region.
In addition to conducting military training in Taiwan, Singapore is also one of only a handful of countries to have signed a free-trade agreement with Taipei — this in 2013. Today Taiwan is Singapore’s sixth leading trading partner, after China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the European Union and Indonesia. Beijing was reportedly unhappy after the Taiwan-Singapore trade deal was announced.
Abe Attends China Event, Calls for Beijing-Tokyo-Seoul Summit
Shinzo Abe has become the first Japanese prime minister in 15 years to attend a Chinese National Day reception in Tokyo. He used the occasion to press for the early convocation of a summit meeting between Japan, China and South Korea.
Abe’s summit call and his attendance at the Tokyo event underscore the changing political landscape in northeast Asia, which has been repeatedly buffeted by troubling questions about the unsteady leadership of U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s inconsistent Asian policies — particularly his unilateral decision to pull the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership — have begun to undermine confidence among longtime American allies about the U.S. commitment to push back against growing Chinese political and economic power in the region.
The idea that countries like Japan and South Korea might eventually cut their own deals with Beijing should be deeply troubling to Taiwan, which sees itself as part and parcel of an informal alliance of China-wary states in east and northeast Asia.
Abe’s attendance at the Chinese National Day event and the comments he made there deeply undercut the viability of this sort of China-skeptical grouping.
In addition to calling for an early Beijing-Tokyo-Seoul summit, Abe also used the National Day celebrations to invite both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Tokyo.
Abe’s moves are a clear indication that after years of confrontation, Japan wants to put its long-running China feud behind it, and find new modalities for constructing a durable security architecture in northeast Asia.
For its part the United States appears to have no answers to this trend, which among other things has been fed by Trump’s destructive feud with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his bombastic comments on North Korea, and his on again off again bromance with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
China Invasion Threat: The Right Balance for Taiwan
The publication of a new book underscoring the possibility that China might be ready to invade Taiwan by 2020 has once again raised the question of how Taiwanese leaders should best deal with such an eventuality.
Ian Easton’s The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (see Taiwan Sentinel review here) contends that China is committed to readying its armed forces to launch a maritime invasion across the Taiwan Strait within the next several years, while arguing that climatological, topographical and logistical difficulties make its success far from certain. Easton also has some positive things to say about Taiwan’s military deterrent, amid a number of salient recommendations about what might be done to improve it.
There is no question that the publication of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia constitutes an important wake-up call for Taiwan’s leadership and for Taiwanese society in general, which, according to critics, have for far too long been blasé about the possibility of a Chinese attack. Egged on by a mass media that prefers various iterations of cat-in-the-tree stories over serious discussion of Taiwan’s existential vulnerabilities, the prevailing Taiwanese narrative is that Beijing’s developmental preoccupations make a cross-Strait attack unlikely, and in the remote event such an attack did actually occur, the United States would move expeditiously to nip it in the bud.
That having been said, there is still a danger that the appearance of Easton’s book will be exploited by Beijing’s ubiquitous agitprop apparatus to try to convince the Taiwanese public that because a credible Chinese invasion option exists, resistance is futile, and that the best approach for everyone is to surrender before too much Taiwanese blood is needlessly spilled. The publication of another Chinese invasion article in Taiwan Sentinel in July engendered just such a Chinese response and there is every reason to believe that The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia will be dealt with in a similar fashion by manipulative Chinese propagandists.
The challenge now for Taiwan’s political leadership is to respond to the real shortcomings in Taiwan’s military deterrent while insuring the Taiwanese public that much as Easton maintains, a successful Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Strait cannot be taken for granted. By finding the right way to judiciously balance these two considerations, it will go a considerable ways toward safeguarding Taiwan’s future for many years to come.
Tsai Double Ten Speech: Big Emphasis on Military Reform
Taiwan must move vigorously to upgrade its military in the face of the Chinese threat, even as it seeks to lower tensions with Beijing.
That was the main message of President Tsai Ing-wen’s much anticipated Double Ten Day speech — a speech that also went out of its way to underscore the importance of national unity in confronting security challenges.
Tsai’s speech represented a wholesale departure from the China-friendly tone adopted by her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, whose administration was based on the premise that Taiwan should move expeditiously to create ever tighter economic and political bonds with Beijing.
In a clear effort to marshal all forces in Taiwanese society, Tsai conspicuously thanked Ma (as well as Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui) for public service on behalf of the state. She also acknowledged the presence of incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Wu Den-yih and People First Party Chairman James Soong at the Double Ten Day event, making it clear that Taiwan needs to present as much of a united front as possible to effectively counter Chinese threats.
In the end though, it was Tsai’s emphasis on military development that most stood out. Not only did she repeatedly praise the sacrifices made by Taiwan’s armed forces in defending freedom and democracy — a notable departure for previous Democratic Progressive Party leaders — but she also tied making progress in a number of critical areas, including cybersecurity, counter-espionage, and protecting national infrastructure, to enhancing national defense.
“The military must be able to carry out joint operations and effectively coordinate missions across different service branches,” she said. “It must also strengthen its defensive capabilities and layered deterrence, in order to protect the safety of our 23 million people.”
Tsai’s remarks came in the context of continuing American criticisms that it is not doing enough to create a viable deterrent. The DPP is on record of favoring the expenditure of 3 percent of GDP on national defense (the current rate is a bit more than two percent), but that seems unlikely to happen at least until the end of Tsai’s (first) four-year term.
In parallel with her calls for military development, Tsai was also careful to hold out an olive branch to China, though without in any way compromising her refusal to accept Beijing’s demand that she adopt the “one China” principle.
“Our goodwill will not change, our commitments will not change,” Tsai said. “We will not revert to the old path of confrontation, and we will not bow to pressure.”
But olive branch or not, China showed no signs of responding positively to Tsai’s offer. This was underscored on Oct. 8 when Wang Zaixi, the former deputy director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office told the country’s Global Times newspaper that Tsai’s appointment of William Lai as Taiwan’s new premier was likely to raise tensions across the Taiwan Strait, largely because of Lai’s strong support for Taiwan independence.
“Lai is highly ambitious and is known for his hardcore pro-independence stand among younger members of the Democratic Progressive Party,” Wang said. He added — somewhat speciously — that Lai is touting his pro-independence credentials in a transparent effort to replace Tsai as Taiwan’s president.
China’s United Nations Ambassador Named
Deputy Head of State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office
An experienced Chinese diplomat with a long pedigree in international organization work has been named the deputy head of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), putting him in line to run the body when the current chief leaves.
Liu Jieyi moves to the Taiwan Affairs Office job directly from the United Nations, where he had served as China’s ambassador since 2013. He was previously the director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Organizations and Conferences, and also ran its Department of North American and Oceanic Affairs.
The appointment of Liu to the TAO post underscores the great importance Beijing attaches to managing its relations with Taiwan. Those relations took a big hit in January of 2016 with the election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president and the eclipse of the China-friendly KMT as the majority faction in the legislature. Since then China has come to understand the essential bankruptcy of its longtime policy of relying on the Nationalists to deliver Taiwan to its control, amid feverish efforts to develop an alternative. Its current policy — trying to isolate the Tsai government internationally and using marginal elements in society in an attempt to undermine its domestic standing — has not been successful in convincing most Taiwanese to come out in favor of unification with China. On the contrary, support for that view is now at an all-time low.
Zhang Zhijun, the current head of the TAO, got the job in 2013 after replacing Wang Yi, who then went on to become foreign minister. Analysts believe that Zhang may himself soon be moving on, opening the door for Liu to take his place. Liu is officially one of the four deputy heads the organization boasts, though given his rich bureaucratic experience and his Communist Party pedigree it is clear that he is first among equals.
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