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.
China Continues Pushing the Envelope
on Entering Japanese Territory
China has begun 2018 in the same spirit it ended 2017, pushing the envelope on entering disputed Japanese territorial waters.
Its latest incursion occurred Jan. 7, when it sent four coast guard vessels into waters off the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own under the name Diaoyu, and Taiwan as the Diaoyutai.
According to Japan’s Kyodo News, the Chinese vessels remained in the area for about 90 minutes, before acceding to Japanese coast guard demands to leave. At least one of the Chinese vessels was armed, Kyodo said.
The last Chinese incursion into the area occurred on Dec. 30.
Since 2012, when the Japanese government purchased most of the Senkakus from a private owner, China has been increasing its aerial and maritime presence in the area to underscore its unhappiness with Japanese control of the uninhabited islets. It is part of an escalating policy aimed at trying to convince both Japan and South Korea that they have no choice but to accommodate themselves to China’s rising political and military power.
Taiwan has also been the object of the same policy, particularly since Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration in mid-2016, as more and more Chinese military assets have been holding drills in areas contiguous to Taipei’s maritime boundaries.
China’s more aggressive stance has intensified since the inauguration of Xi Jinping as China’s supreme leader in late 2012, not only vis à vis Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but also in the South and East China Sea. This reflects both China’s rising military power, and what now appears to be a reduced willingness on the part of the U.S. to try to stand up to it effectively.
China Inaugurates Four New Civilian Flight Paths
in the Taiwan Strait, Thumbing its Nose at Taipei
China has unilaterally opened four new civilian flight paths in the Taiwan Strait in another show of contempt for the Tsai administration.
The Chinese move on the flight paths on Jan. 4 stands in direct contravention to agreements made by Taiwanese and Chinese air transport associations in 2015. Under the terms of those agreements, any decision to amend or modify existing flight paths needs to receive the imprimatur of the counter-party before going into effect.
Over the past year and a half, China has consistently gone out of its way to show its displeasure with President Tsai, largely because of her refusal to adopt the “one China” framework, under which Taiwan acknowledges that it is part of Chinese territory. Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, accepted the framework, which allowed for the conclusion of some 20 agreements between the sides. Since then, however, China has said that it is no longer willing to countenance Ma’s insistence that Taipei and Beijing might have differing definitions of what constitutes China. Rather, it says, Taiwan must now wed itself to Beijing’s claim that the only valid China is the People’s Republic, and not the Republic of China, as Ma maintained.
Reflecting Beijing’s unhappiness with Tsai’s stance on “one China,” it has adopted a series of measures aimed at increasing Taiwan’s international isolation and intimidating its citizens into submission. These include stepping up aerial and maritime military patrols on the fringes of Taiwanese territory, cutting off all contacts with the Taiwanese government, and attempting to squeeze Taiwan’s already miniscule international space, largely by poaching its diplomatic allies, and freezing it out of international and regional organizations.
The new move on the four Taiwan Strait flight paths appears to be part of the intensifying Chinese approach.
The flight paths involved are the north-south M503 route, which China claims is meant to relieve congestion for flights traveling between Hong Kong and Shanghai, and three other paths that follow east-west trajectories.
While the new paths are unlikely to require major changes in flight patterns for most aircraft entering and exiting Taiwanese airspace, it is thought that some modifications may be needed on routes between the Taiwanese mainland and the outlying islands of Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu.
House Bills Could Give Trump Important China Bargaining Chips
Two Taiwan-related bills recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives appear to provide President Donald Trump with important bargaining chips as he considers the development of the U.S.’ relations with China.
One of the bills, the Taiwan Travel Act, is meant to upgrade official exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan. It allows American government officials to travel to Taiwan to meet with their counterparts there and also permits senior Taiwanese functionaries to come to the U.S. for discussions with senior American officials, including those in the State Department and the Pentagon.
Since the U.S. transferred its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, face to face meetings between American and Taiwanese officials have been kept at a relatively low level, in keeping with U.S. adherence to the “one China” policy.
The second of the new House bills aims to assist Taiwan in regaining observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. Taiwan was granted such status during the Ma presidency, but Beijing recently engineered its removal to show its displeasure over President Tsai Ing-wen’s continuing refusal to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory.
Both bills require Senate passage and a presidential signature to become law.
Beijing can be expected to rail against the two pieces of pending legislation as it is steadfastly opposed to any American measures that undermine its claim that Taiwan is part of its territory. It already expressed its strong displeasure when the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Taiwan Travel Act in October.
Should the two Taiwan-related bills pass the Senate — and should Trump sign them — he would then be able to determine how to implement them, if at all. This in turn could pressure Beijing into providing him with concessions he is seeking on trade policy and on turning up the heat on North Korea to halt its rapidly developing ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. These are two of the primary goals of his China policy.
The House’s passage of the two new bills follows Trump’s decision in December to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, which among other provisions, allows for an uptick in Taiwan-U.S. military relations, including Taiwan port calls for American warships.
China reacted to that measure in extremely harsh terms, with one senior official at the Chinese embassy in Washington going so far as to suggest that the first such port call would lead directly to a China’s long threatened invasion of Taiwan. This is among the harshest rhetoric that Beijing has ever employed regarding Taiwan-U.S. relations.
China Turns Up the Heat on Foreign Insinuations
About its Territorial Integrity
China has moved rapidly to snuff out what it sees as unacceptable insinuations on the part of foreign companies regarding its territorial integrity. Over the space of less than a week in early January, Chinese authorities demanded that at least three foreign firms modify their websites or public pronouncements to excise references to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong or Macau as independent countries. The last three are now under Chinese control, while Taiwan of course is not.
The three foreign companies are the U.S.-based hotel chain Marriot, U.S. airline Delta, and European clothes retailer Zara. All were subject to angry Chinese demands that they take immediate measures to expunge the offending material from their publications or websites. In the case of Marriott, police launched an investigation into possible violation of China’s cyber security law and blocked the company’s website and apps for a week, in a move that could severely harm its China business interests.
Arguably the most interesting aspect of the Chinese move against the three foreign companies was its timing. There is nothing new about foreign companies hosting material — almost always inadvertently — that offends official Chinese sensibilities. Much of the material pertains to Taiwan, whose political status remains very much up in the air. China of course considers Taiwan to be an integral part of its territory, despite its lack of control there, and the overwhelming opposition of the Taiwanese people to China’s imposition of sovereignty at some point in the future. So the question is: why did China strike out now on the Taiwanese question?
The answer, it appears, is connected to the failure of China’s longstanding policy to use Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) as a lever to bring Taiwan into the Chinese political fold. With the KMT still trying to regain its footing, Beijing is now employing a new strategy toward Taiwan. It is based on delegitimizing Taiwan as a de facto independent state, isolating it internationally, and intimidating its people.
Since President Tsai’s inauguration in May 2016, China has moved expeditiously in those areas, poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, keeping it out of international and regional organizations, and stepping up its military patrols on the fringes of Taiwanese territory.
The fact that is now hitting out at foreign corporate websites that inadvertently or otherwise show support for Taiwanese sovereignty is a clear indication that it is now putting renewed emphasis on de-legitimization as a preferred arrow in its anti-Taiwan quiver. While the move is mostly symbolic, it should still trouble the Taiwanese government, which for better or worse needs all the help in can get in its ongoing effort to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence.
Taiwan: China Military Challenge Requires
‘Asymmetric Warfare’ and ‘Layered Defense’
In their biennial national defense white paper, Taiwan’s military planners have said that “asymmetric warfare” and “layered defense” must be substantially beefed up in order to deal successfully with the growing security threat posed by China.
Minister of National Defense Feng Shih-kuan said the new priorities reflect Taiwan’s growing realization that it will never be able to keep pace with China’s frenetic military modernization program.
“We are cognizant that our nation cannot compare with the defense budget and military development in China, whose military’s pace of growth and strength have far exceeded expectations,” Feng said. “Consequently, we must employ vision and foresight in our adjustment of defense concepts and overall armament development.”
Elsewhere in the white paper, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said it remained committed to transitioning to an all-volunteer military force from the present system of conscription, and proceeding with the local production of warplanes and combat naval assets, including diesel submarines, notwithstanding the fact that Taiwan has encountered substantial difficulties in pursuing these goals.
According to the national defense white paper, China now has the ability to carry out long-range air and sea operations, and is nearing the point where it will be able to project its power west of the second island chain, which includes Japan’s Bonin and Volcano Islands, and the American-held Marianas.
On the basis of these developments, the white paper said, it is incumbent upon Taiwan to change its basic military doctrine from “strong defense and effective deterrence” — which has been in effect since 2009 — to “strong defense and layered deterrence.”
The white paper defines strong defense as achieving high levels of combat sustainability, deflecting cyber threats to command and control infrastructure, and improving strategic endurance. Layered deterrence, it said, involves employing “innovative and asymmetrical warfare” to stymie enemy threats.
The key to waging the kind of defensive war that Taiwan envisions with China, the white paper said, lies in achieving “force preservation, winning decisive battles in littoral waters and annihilating the enemy on the beachhead.” In order to help achieve this, it said, Taiwan should acquire more precision-guided munitions, electronic counter-measures, guided anti-tank missiles, man-portable air-defense systems, fast multi-role warships, unmanned aerial vehicles, and naval mine-laying capabilities.
In a related development, Taiwan’s military spokesman said that Taiwan will no longer give press briefings on ongoing Chinese military exercises near its territory. Those exercises, which in recent months have included a number of provocative overflights employing cutting-edge Chinese fighter jets, have become a regular feature of China’s escalating campaign to try to intimidate Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen into explicitly embracing China’s “one China” principle — the notion that Taiwan is part and parcel of Chinese territory.
Now however, the military spokesman said, Taiwan intends to ignore the provocations — at least rhetorically.
Said Major General Chen Chung-chi of the new Taiwanese policy: “When Chinese aircraft and ships are not posing any more threat to us than usual, we see no need to help them with their propaganda.”
Taiwan Survey Shows Slight Uptick in Support for Unification
A recent survey conducted by Taiwan’s CommonWealth Magazine has shown a slight uptick in support for eventual Taiwanese unification with China. While support for the “unification as soon as possible” option remained insignificant at 2.6 percent, support for “unification under certain conditions” came in at 13.8 percent, a 10-year high. Last year the comparable figure stood at only 8.2 percent.
The rise in support for the unification option may represent growing dissatisfaction with long-term Taiwanese economic trends and the inability of Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party government to inculcate optimism about the future among various groups of Taiwanese, particularly young people.
The CommonWealth survey showed that almost 60 percent of the population was pessimistic about Taiwan’s future and that almost 72 percent were disappointed with its economy. It also showed that 38 percent of Taiwanese are willing to work in China, the highest level in four years.
On the question of Taiwan’s political future, the most common response remained “maintaining the status quo,” followed by “Taiwan independence but still maintaining peaceful relations with China.” Both of those responses declined slightly over the previous year.
In keeping with the slight rise in support for unification with China, this year’s CommonWealth survey found a decrease to the lowest level since 2010 in the percentage of respondents identifying themselves as “Taiwanese,” rather than “both Chinese and Taiwanese,” or “Chinese” alone. Still, the “Taiwanese” alone option came in at 56.4 percent, well above the 34.1 percent who see themselves as “both Chinese and Taiwanese.” The Chinese alone option trailed far behind at only 6.7 percent.
The survey was conducted from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2017 and surveyed a total of 1,091 people aged 20 and over resident in Taiwan. It was conducted by land line, which sometimes results in conservatively-skewed results — this because people with cellphones are generally regarded as more progressive than their landline peers. It claimed a margin of error of plus or minus 2.97 percent.
While the CommonWealth survey may turn out to be an outlier, its results should still alarm anti-unification activists in Taiwan, who are battling hard against Chinese efforts to convince ordinary Taiwanese that the arc of history is moving inexorably against the continuation of the political “status quo.” Those efforts involve pushing the notion that Taiwan’s military stands no chance against the People’s Liberation Army, and at the same time, insisting that the Taiwanese economy is fatally vulnerable to Chinese pressure. The efforts have intensified in recent months, largely against the background of China’s continuing failure to help buttress Taiwan’s KMT, and to convince the Tsai government to accept the idea that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.