Friday, February 23, 2024

China’s strongarm tactics in Taiwan will only redouble after historic election

Taiwanese voters have shrugged off warnings by China that the election of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te to the presidency would increase the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, including a potentially violent takeover of the island nation. 

China’s strong-arm tactics under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping, who has vowed that the island’s ‘reunification’ with the mainland is a historical inevitability, have failed for now. But that does not mean that these tactics will not continue or that regional geopolitics is any less precariously placed.  

Taiwan’s political dynamics are important to India, too, for several reasons. The principal one is India’s interest in Chinese actions and capabilities in the Taiwan Strait, and the implications these might have for its own boundary dispute with China. 

There is also growing interest in the potential for India-Taiwan economic cooperation, particularly in high-tech manufacturing sectors. There is increasing attention to whether or not Taiwanese companies will substantially shift their manufacturing capabilities out of China to India as Taiwan faces Chinese political interference and economic coercion.

The DPP, more than the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), has been a big votary of the shift to India. But there is a degree of disappointment in Indian government circles at the slow pace of this shift of Taiwanese manufacturing to India. The longer this shift takes, the stronger Chinese economic capacity becomes with Taiwanese help, with a cost not just to India and Taiwan but for all open-market systems and democracies.

Now that the DPP has returned to power, how can China be expected to respond politically, economically and militarily? 

The DPP under current president Tsai Ing-wen has tried to avoid hot button issues and tried to engage Beijing. But its efforts have been consistently rebuffed by Beijing unwilling to accept anything less than a complete acceptance by the Taiwanese political party of the principle of ‘one China’ and the idea of ‘reunification’.

The DPP, for its part, has been equally insistent on not going down that path and in scaling up its military preparations and expenditure. The length of conscription on the island has been increased after several years of reductions, and Taipei has actively sought arms from the US, seen as the island’s most significant guarantor of safety.

Not all such efforts have borne fruit, however, and there is regular news about Taiwanese military personnel caught spying for the Chinese. This is not just a matter of bribery by the Chinese but a legacy of decades of conditioning of the Taiwanese military–by the KMT that had fled the mainland in 1949 and ruled the island for decades–to believe in the idea of ‘one China’ and eventual ‘reunification’.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the KMT has been the preferred choice of Chinese communists in Taiwan’s electoral system–ironic, given their history of civil war on the mainland itself and subsequent tensions during the Cold War.  

Diplomatically, Beijing is going to redouble its efforts to wean away what few allies Taiwan has. The tiny Pacific island of Nauru has already switched to recognizing China in a clear signal to president-elect Lai, who should expect more such instances in his presidency unless he capitulates to China’s wishes. 

China will obviously not be waiting for him to do so, and will seek to sharpen tensions in local politics on the island–represented by the DPP losing its majority in the island’s legislature–by increasing disinformation campaigns and subverting of Taiwanese political, economic and intellectual elites.

The CCP will aim to convince Taiwanese as the Chinese foreign ministry has that attempts at independence are ‘doomed to failure and will lead nowhere’.

Economic coercion can also be expected to continue with Chinese threats to pull out of the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, and add pressure on big Taiwanese businesses that are heavily invested in China to work at Beijing’s behest.

It is just as possible that the Chinese will simultaneously offer greater incentives to Taiwanese companies and businessmen in order to integrate the Taiwanese economy more closely with the mainland economy, and to arrest efforts by the DPP government to decouple and to direct Taiwanese attention towards markets like India.

Militarily, the upswing in recent years of China’s military coercion around the island –crossings by the PLA Navy and Air Force of the median line in the Taiwan Strait–is likely to continue. 

A PLA military invasion of the island is, however, an extremely unlikely scenario for the foreseeable future–there are just too many uncertainties about victory including intervention by the US and its allies. Anything less than absolute success could well mean the end of Communist Party rule on China.

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