Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in an interview broadcast Monday that without military support from the United States, mainland China might consider retaking the island by force.
Wu told CNN that if Beijing sees the “vulnerability of Taiwan” without American support, they will begin “thinking about starting scenarios where they would be able to take Taiwan over.”
Wu pointed to a series of live-fire drills China is currently holding in the Taiwan Strait as the latest example of Beijing trying to “intimidate the Taiwanese people.”
The message China is sending with these drills is not exactly subtle, as Chinese media portrayed the exercise as “tailored for Taiwan separatists” and stressed that it was intended to “simulate real combat” against an area of the open sea precisely the same size as Taiwan. Chinese military analysts boasted that the operation simulated by these drills would simultaneously capture Taiwan and secure Chinese control of just about every island and shoal claimed by other countries.
“We are trying to maximize our cooperation with like-minded countries, try to engage security cooperation with the US to prevent China from thinking that they can take Taiwan over just overnight,” he said.
Wu said China’s actions belied its rhetoric about seeking better relations with Taipei and befriending the Taiwanese people. Instead, he warned Beijing’s aggressive posture and intimidating displays of military might will “create hatred among the regular Taiwanese people of the Chinese government” and push Taiwan “further and further away.”
This assertion is somewhat debatable, as the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday a poll that found support for independence in Taiwan has slipped from 51 percent in 2016 to just 38 percent today. The Taiwanese public now views mainland China favorably by a margin of 49 to 44 percent, thanks in part to imported goods, cultural exchanges, and “economic sweeteners” from China.
The caveat to the poll reported by the SCMP is that Taiwanese people, including the younger generation, continue to see themselves as distinctly Taiwanese and say they would be prepared to fight if China invaded. They apparently do not think such a conflict is likely, no matter how much saber-rattling Beijing does.
From this perspective, China’s military theatrics and diplomatic pressure campaign could be seen as an effort to “meddle” in Taiwanese internal politics, to use the term currently in vogue. The idea is to make Taiwanese wonder if the cost of keeping President Tsai and her party in power is too high.
Foreign Minister Wu said Taipei wants to “maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and will not push for a declaration of independence, a concern Beijing has voiced since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence DPP Party.
In one of his most interesting remarks, Wu acknowledged that China has been able to peel off some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies during the crusade to isolate Taiwan launched after President Tsai’s election. However, he said that some of the countries China lured away “are coming back to us and saying they didn’t get what China promised,” either financially or politically. He did not specify which countries he meant by this, instead focusing on Taiwan’s efforts to maintain good relations with the Vatican against Chinese pressure.
Wu praised President Donald Trump for maintaining “very good relations with Taiwan,” and said he was reassured by the Trump administration’s position that “Taiwan is not tradeable and democracy is not tradeable.”
Writing at the Washington Post on Monday, former Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret predicted Taiwan is likely to receive the support it desires from the Trump administration, in part because China’s heavy-handed tactics have alienated the younger generation of U.S. State Department officials more than they appear to have alienated the younger generation of Taiwanese.
Military measures shelved by the Obama administration in pursuit of better relations with Beijing have been reactivated. The sense that China can be dissuaded from invading by making Taiwan seem like more trouble than it’s worth has been replaced by serious preparations to repel an all-out naval and amphibious assault.
The National Interest argued last week that the old “porcupine” strategy of making Taiwan look like a meal the Chinese dragon would have trouble digesting is unraveling because China stands to gain so much by reclaiming Taiwan, given that it holds a strategic position that could significantly damage either Chinese or Japanese economic interests. That gives Beijing both defense and offensive reasons to take control of the island, as laid out in Chinese military documents.
China also sees Taiwan as an ideological threat, as can be seen from Beijing’s extreme anxiety about Taiwanese efforts to honor the late Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo. Taiwan has the political freedom Liu wanted for mainland Chinese, which is one reason China is so eager to chip away at the morale of Taiwanese youth and prevent Taiwan from receiving full international respect as a sovereign state.