The past two months have been eventful ones for Taiwan in ways that are still unfolding, with developments shifting the international community’s perception of Taiwan and its place in the world, and also its view of the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Some developments were born of a clear shift in Taiwan-US-China dynamics and others exacerbated by an outbreak of COVID-19 in China. All are the result of the CCP’s domineering approach to governance and international relations.
One example is the official US attitude toward Taiwan, as seen through the words and actions of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He congratulated President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) after her resounding victory in last month’s presidential election, diverging from the congratulatory messages of previous US administrations by congratulating Taiwan — not just the “Taiwanese people”— by name, with wording suggesting that Taiwan is a nation. He also explicitly recognized Tsai’s efforts at resisting “unrelenting” pressure from Beijing, rather than suggesting that Taiwan is in some way an obstruction to the resolution of cross-strait tensions.
On Saturday, Pompeo addressed increasing awareness within the US government of Beijing’s “united front” efforts during an event at the National Governors Association in Washington. He stressed the importance of avoiding individual deals and agreements with China that undermine US national policy. Pompeo explicitly urged the governors to be vigilant against China’s efforts to shun Taiwan, warning that Beijing is increasingly shifting its diplomatic battle to the local level, and that its approach shows “depth, systemization and intent.”
Another sign of Washington’s shift in its willingness to stand up to Beijing concerning relations with Taiwan was the presence of vice president-elect William Lai (賴清德) at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, an event attended by US President Donald Trump. This came at the end of a visit to the US capital, which saw Lai become the highest-ranking official to visit since 1979.
This more explicit recognition by Washington of its ties to Taiwan has seemingly emboldened Taipei to offer a robust response to Beijing’s shenanigans, something that it had been reluctant to do until relatively recently.
In addition to Tsai’s own comments about the strength of her election mandate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) took a markedly confrontational tone on Twitter over the WHO’s praise of China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, saying: “@WHO, what’s wrong with you?” and, hours later: “Are you going to stand by your statements or retract them? Hello?”
It is China’s handling of the outbreak and its refusal to allow Taiwan to participate in the WHO’s response that have focused international attention on Taiwan’s existence and sovereign status, as well as the unreasonable treatment it receives from the CCP.
Perhaps a more serious threat for the CCP are questions within China concerning its governance style, and therefore its very legitimacy.
There are already tensions concerning Xi’s handling of the outbreak. This all seemed to come to a head on Friday last week with the death of Li Wenliang (李文亮), a 34-year-old doctor who had originally raised concerns about the new virus, only to be suppressed by the authorities. This was met with a domestic outcry that suggests a new level of frustration among Chinese.
Of all the things that the CCP fears most, beyond trade disputes and challenges to its attempts to rise to the level of local — and perhaps eventually global — domination, is the bedrock of its legitimacy at home. Without that, its very survival is in jeopardy and Taiwan’s is thereby given more assurance.
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