Lowy Institute: China has lost the battle for public opinion in Taiwan.


The most consequential election of 2020 might not come at the end of the year, when US President Donald Trump seeks a second term in the White House, but much earlier and closer to home for Australia, in Taiwan this weekend.

On Saturday 11 January, the Taiwanese people will vote for their next president and legislature. Beijing will be watching this election as intently as the US poll in November.

Taiwan has long been seen as important as a proxy for the battle for hegemony between China and the United States in the region.[1] The geo-strategic implications of China gaining control of Taiwan are nothing less than transformational, as such an event would signal the definitive end of the US-dominated post-war system in what is now the world’s most dynamic economic region.

Equally significant are the possible means by which China wins — either through a military victory, which, no matter how quickly it was achieved, would be disruptive to the global economy — or by undermining the island’s now well-established democracy, which would mark a significant advance in the rise of authoritarian global governance and undermine other democracies in Asia.

But Taiwan is significant for its own sake: as a thriving democracy, an indispensable link in global supply chains and the world’s 21st largest economy.[2] Six months of protests in Hong Kong have only amplified the significance of Taiwan as an autonomous political entity holding out in the face of China’s authoritarianism.

Taiwan is little known by most Australians, and indeed much of the world, and not by accident. Beijing ensures the democratic island of 24 million people is airbrushed out of global affairs by demanding conformity with China’s narrative about the inevitability of Taiwan’s fate, to be unified with the mainland.

China has added pressure in recent years. It has intensified its military presence in the waters around Taiwan.[3] China has long obstructed Taiwan’s international participation, but has taken further steps to block it from the World Health Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organization,[4] as well as seemingly petty moves to prevent Taiwan from hosting events such as international ice-skating competitions and film festivals.[5] It has lured away seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners.[6] It has forced foreign companies, including Qantas, to adopt the nomenclature ‘Taiwan, Province of China’ in selling their services to the public around the world.[7]

Last year, Beijing persuaded two Pacific nations, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, to switch recognition from Taiwan to China, apparently in return for promises of substantial economic benefits.[8]

Beyond the boycotts, Taiwan plays an outsized role in high-tech global value chains, as home to some of the world’s most advanced computer chip companies. It is also pivotal to Xi Jinping’s core political objectives of unifying China and making the country a wealthy superpower on par with the United States.

If there is ever to be a showdown over Beijing’s territorial demands and US power in the region, it is likely to be in Taiwan, which sits in the heart of what is known as the ‘first island chain’, which cuts off the Chinese navy’s direct access to the Pacific Ocean.

For Xi’s China, annexing Taiwan is core to achieving national redemption and the ‘Chinese dream’ — Xi’s agenda for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era”.[9] In theory, China has time on its side, as the deadline set by Xi for achieving the Chinese dream is 2049; in reality, Xi’s China is becoming more and more impatient to regain control over the island.

For the United States and Japan, and other countries in Asia including Australia, Beijing’s wresting of control over Taiwan would be a strategic game-changer, definitively marking the end of Pax Americana in the region. Xi himself has potentially set the clock ticking on unification, stating in a speech early in 2019 that the Taiwan problem could not be passed down from “generation to generation”.[10]

Taiwan offers China many other benefits. Annexing Taiwan would give Beijing effective control over some of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies, contained inside private companies built over many years by Taiwan’s entrepreneurs. Annexing the island would also allow Beijing to project force over sea lines of communication, threatening existing routes for oil shipments to Japan and South Korea, in turn providing it with leverage to demand, for example, closure of US military bases in East Asia that have long angered China.

That’s just the introduction, view full report here:


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