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.
Trump Bromance with Xi Fades Amid North Korea Worries
Xi Jinping’s budding friendship with Donald Trump has run into heavy weather, with the U.S. president publicly disparaging his Chinese counterpart over his inability to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, which remain a massive American concern. Indications of the changed American position are almost everywhere. Over the past several weeks, the Trump administration has not only authorized a US$1.4 billion weapons package for Taiwan, it has also imposed secondary sanctions on a Chinese bank and shipping company, labelled China a major actor in global human trafficking, conducted a freedom of navigation exercise near a Chinese-held island in the South China Sea, and threatened Beijing with a series of still unspecified trade penalties.
The new American attitude stands in marked contrast to the positive messages Trump was sending out on China in the immediate wake of Xi’s effusive meeting with Trump in Mar-a-Lago, Florida in April. At the time Trump left little doubt that he saw the Chinese leader as a key ally in standing up to North Korea’s increasingly active attempts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental United States. Helping Trump along in his pro-China thinking were potentially lucrative China business activities involving his daughter and son-in-law, and his own penchant for embracing authoritarian leaders.
But particularly in the wake of North Korea’s July 4 testing of an ICBM capable of reaching Alaska, China has entered the Trumpian dog house in a big way. Not only did Trump send out a number of tweets expressing his profound disappointment over China’s inability to rein in its supposed North Korean ally, he also dispatched U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to the Security Council to threaten Beijing with a series of deliberately vague trade sanctions.
All of this should probably be music to the ears of Taiwan, which obviously profits from any sign of friction between China and the United States, particularly when it leads to the release of a long-stalled billion dollar plus weapons package from Washington. The problem is that Trump’s policies toward Taiwan, China and Asia in general have been so flagrantly inconsistent that it is virtually impossible not to fear that everything could revert to the status quo ante at the proverbial drop of a hat. After all, it was only several months ago that pundits were talking about a new and vastly approved era in U.S.-Taiwan relations following Trump’s December telephone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his subsequent comments casting aspersions on the “one China” policy. Obviously, that has now been forgotten.
With all of this in mind, Taiwanese leaders would do well to curb whatever enthusiasm they might be feeling about the recent U-Turn in ties between Washington and Beijing. Trump has only been president for a bit more than five months, but he has already reversed himself on China policy twice. There is surely no guarantee that he will not do so again — and in a way that hurts Taiwan.
More of the Same: China Blasts U.S. Arms Sale to Taiwan as Taiwan Deterrent Withers
With all of the inevitability of mushrooms after a spring rain, China has greeted news of the latest American arms sale to Taiwan with its typical bombast, saying it is “outraged” by the US$1.4 billion deal, which provides the Taiwan military with technical support for early warning radar, high speed anti-radiation missiles, torpedoes and missile components. Most of the package was originally put together by the Obama administration. It delayed releasing it in the final months of its term in order to allow the Trump administration to make up its own mind on providing weapons systems to Taiwan.
In one sense the sale is positive news for Taiwan, in that it reaffirms some measure of American defense support, which is permitted under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. That this particular package is a relatively modest one is probably less important than the American decision to move forward on it at all, particularly in the face of unremitting Chinese opposition to any U.S. military transfers to Taiwan.
In a larger sense though, its importance is undermined by the overall state of military imbalance between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. A large part of this derives from Taiwan’s inability to match anything approximating China’s spending levels on weapons procurement and development, and its failure to convince putative suppliers around the world to provide it with state of the art defense equipment. Thus, for example, the United States turned down Taiwan’s bid to acquire 66 F-16C/D fighter aircraft, offering instead only upgrades for the much less advanced A/B model. In a similar vein it is virtually certain to turn down Taiwan’s bid to acquire the F-35A jet fighter, to say nothing of the F-35B, which is probably better suited to Taiwanese defense needs.
A reluctant acceptance of these American defense sales constraints is almost certainly the major reason behind the decision by the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen to try to build an independent defense production capability, particularly in the areas of jet fighters and diesel submarines. But even these indigenous development programs will still depend to a certain extent on Taiwan’s ability to acquire foreign technologies, which unfortunately, is much easier said than done.
In addition to the question of weaponry, the Sino-Taiwanese military imbalance is also being exacerbated by the rapidly deteriorating condition of the Taiwanese military, which has been badly undermined by its signal failure to morph from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force. When the all-volunteer force concept was first unveiled by then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the Ministry of National Defense said that its major purpose was to create a deterrent so robust that the cost to China of an invasion would ultimately prove prohibitive. In point of fact, however, this has not happened. Rather, with only four-month stints for mandatory military service, and a reserve component altogether unworthy of the name, the military readiness of the Taiwan armed forces has deteriorated even further.
To be sure, there are any number of good reasons why large numbers of young Taiwanese are not volunteering for full-time military service, among them the rigidity of the professional officer corps and baleful historical memories associated with the wretched excesses of the Taiwan Garrison Command.
But at the end of the day the Taiwan armed forces are the only thing really standing between a Chinese invasion of the island and the open-ended continuation of its hard-won democratic freedoms. It’s a tragedy that more Taiwanese young people do not understand that simple truth. If they did they’d be signing up for military service in much greater numbers — and thus doing something positive to preserve the precious Taiwanese political identity they claim to embrace.
Liu Xiaobo, Xi Jinping and Taiwan
On July 13 Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in a hospital room in the northeast Chinese city of Shenyang, still a prisoner of the state despite having been released from the jail cell he had been held in since 2009. One of the principal authors of the Charter 08 human rights manifesto, the 61-year-old Liu won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Peace, and is widely recognized as one of China’s leading democratic voices.
Liu was examined in hospital by two foreign physicians — an American and a German — who said he would have been able to travel abroad for treatment, a course of action that both Liu and wife Liu Xia had been pushing for. But the Chinese authorities rejected the request, setting the stage for Liu to become the first Nobel laureate to die in government custody since Carl von Ossietzky, the German pacifist and anti-Nazi, in 1938.
The Chinese decision is an interesting one, not least because it appeared to fly in the face of the past Chinese practice of granting medical parole to prominent political prisoners and allowing them to leave for the West. Probably the most well-known example of this is Wei Jingsheng, the hero of the 1979 Democracy Wall and the most prominent dissident of his generation, who arrived in the United States in 1997 after President Bill Clinton asked Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to authorize his release.
But Xi Jinping appears to be made from far sterner stuff than Jiang. In rejecting Liu’s bid to go abroad — albeit in a kind of roundabout way — Chinese authorities appeared to be taking precautions against the possibility that in his final days Liu might have been tempted to say things that could embarrass their leadership and undermine Xi’s much vaunted “China Dream.” Even more to the point they felt confident that they can get away with keeping him in China, despite the extremely poor optics involved in doing so. More than anything else, this reflects the craven lack of pushback from world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who delegated comment on Liu’s case to a relatively anonymous State Department official.
All of which brings us to the question of Taiwan, particularly in the wake of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is scheduled to convene in the autumn of this year. As the Liu case shows, Xi Jinping is clearly feeling his oats, bolstered by strong support from the military, and by the public at large — a public that has been much impressed by his anti-corruption campaign, even if it chafes at his generally repressive policies.
Almost all analysts agree that Xi is likely to come out of the 19th CCP Congress with his substantial powers even further enhanced — particularly if, as seems likely, he can shore up support in the Party Politburo. Xi has already said he is not willing for the “Taiwan Problem” to be passed along from generation to generation — a stance that he has underscored by his continuing willingness to punish Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for her refusal to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China. Particularly against the backdrop of the confused state of the play in the United States as a result of President Trump’s ongoing Russian difficulties, it is not inconceivable that Xi could see an opening to ratchet up pressure on Taiwan in the immediate wake of the Congress, including new diplomatic and military initiatives.
China Holds United Front Event Amid Growing Taiwanese Support for Independence
Far be it from the Chinese Communist Party to try to develop new ways of appealing to Taiwanese public opinion on the crucial question of unification with China. Thus it was the Chinese authorities reverted to textbook form and convened the 9th Straits Forum in the Fujian province city of Xiamen on June 17-23 — a classic United Front event that in this year’s iteration boasted some 8,000 Taiwanese participants.
The major message of the Xiamen forum was wall-to-wall support for the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which holds that China and Taiwan belong to one and the same China. Former Taiwanese President Ma used adherence to the consensus as the ideological springboard for his continuing efforts to bring China and Taiwan ever closer economically, and to try to build support for some sort of political convergence between the sides. In sharp contrast to Ma, President Tsai has steadfastly refused to accept the consensus’s main provision, infuriating the Chinese leadership and causing it to break off all formal communication with the Taiwanese side.
By any objective measure Taiwanese attendees at the Xiamen event represented the extreme reaches of Taiwanese opinion on the unification issue. Probably the best known names were outgoing KMT chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu and Alliance for the Reunification of China Chairman Chi Jia-lin. Opinion polls conducted by Taiwan’s Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council consistently show support for unification to running at very low levels — never higher than 15 percent. By contrast, support for formal independence appears to be growing among Taiwanese young people, who clearly resent China’s attempts to pressure Tsai Ing-wen to yield on the consensus issue, which include constricting Taiwan’s international space and conducting a series of provocative military exercises around its maritime perimeter. According to a poll conducted by Taiwan Thinktank in late June, 43.3 percent of Taiwanese in the 20-29 age bracket think Taiwan should “go its own way” — that is, opt for formal independence — whereas 34.3 percent support the “de facto independence” status quo. That represents significant growth in pro-independence sentiment.
The bottom line in all of this is that Taiwanese political trends appear to be increasingly at odds with the unwavering Chinese demand that Taiwan unite with China. This in turn suggests that a peaceful solution to the Taiwanese issue is looking more and more unlikely, despite United Front events like the Xiamen forum.
Taiwan Indicts Chinese Student on Espionage Charges — Raising the Stakes on Lee?
Taipei prosecutors have formally indicted a former Chinese student on espionage charges, in a possible attempt to pressure Beijing into releasing a Taiwanese national it is holding for subversion.
The July 6 move against a man identified in the Taiwanese media as Zhou Hongxu comes amid growing Taiwanese concern over the fate of Lee Ming-che, the Taiwanese community college employee who has been in Chinese custody since March 19.
The indictment against Zhou alleges that he was tasked by a Chinese espionage handler with building a Chinese spy network in Taiwan during his stint as a graduate student at Taipei’s National Chengchi University, which ended in 2016.
Zhou was allegedly told by the handler to “introduce politicians, officials in the military, police, intelligence and diplomacy units and other influential people in society to Chinese local officials in destinations abroad,” Taiwanese prosecutors said.
The prosecutors said that Zhou tried unsuccessfully to recruit a Taiwanese official on multiple occasions between August 2016 and March this year. The official — who may have been employed by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — was reportedly told that he could earn as much as US$40,000 per year if he agreed to cooperate.
With Zhou’s indictment, Taiwanese officials may hoping that their Chinese counterparts could be inveigled into cutting a deal for Lee’s release as part of a one-for-one trade. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office revealed Lee’s arrest in late May, alleging that over a five year period he had “colluded with relevant individuals in China, laying down an operational program, establishing an illegal organization and planning and implementing activities to subvert state power.”
People familiar with Lee described him as a strong advocate of Chinese democratization who frequently used social media app WeChat to discuss with Chinese friends Taiwan’s experiences in ending martial law and transitioning to a fully functioning democracy. In addition to his community college job, he also served as a volunteer for an alliance of Taiwanese human rights groups, and had previously been employed by Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.
Top photo courtesy of the Freedom for Liu Xiaobo Action Group 自由刘晓波工作组