During a television interview, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said that no one can rule out the possibility of China attacking Taiwan and whether this attack happens depends on how rational Chinese decisionmakers are.
This is the stern reality that this vibrant, democratic and free nation confronts on a daily basis. What complicates the situation is that the threat of the fifth column is underestimated, which could critically weaken Taiwan’s security.
Since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Republic of China has never renounced the use of force to take over this “renegade province.”
During former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) presidency from 2008 to 2016, it was generally considered that cross-strait relations improved and tensions were reduced because of his conciliatory policy toward China, which was based on the “1992 consensus” — meaning that both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree on only “one China,” but each side has a different interpretation of what the term means.
China turned this rapprochement into a political and economic weapon to strangle Taiwan.
The number of Chinese tourists who visited Taiwan, for example, increased more than 1,200 percent, from 330,000 in 2008 to over 4 million in 2015, the latter figure accounting for 40 percent of all foreign visitors to Taiwan that year.
Last year, a year after Tsai’s inauguration, the number of Chinese tourists dropped by 22 percent compared with a year earlier.
There will be much more pressure when China decides to choke Taiwan’s economy and fulfill its political agenda, and Taiwanese businesspeople with deep economic interests in China once again become Beijing’s pawns.
The nation’s defense also suffered under this rapprochement.
The development of the Yun Feng (雲峰, “Cloud Peak”) missile, a medium-range cruise missile, was suspended by Ma as a goodwill gesture to China.
In response, China increased the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan from 1,000 to 1,500 during Ma’s presidency, official US and Taiwan reports show.
Beijing is a constant and increasing threat to its neighboring nations as well. Chinese fighter jets have flown over South Korea’s and Japan’s air defense identification zones twice in the past two months, prompting both nations to scramble fighter planes.
These provocative moves are Beijing’s way of showing its presence and domination.
China’s massive land reclamation, militarization and expansionist activities in the South China Sea have been a root cause of tensions in this region in recent years.
Likewise, the unease along its southwest border is worsening. In June last year, Chinese construction in the disputed Doklam region was met with a firm response from India, causing an almost three-month-long intense military standoff between the two nations. Although the incident ended peacefully after negotiation, both sides have since deployed more forces and advanced weapons to the area.
An increasingly wealthy and powerful China is becoming more assertive and ambitious.
Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has said that its behavior is far from becoming liberal, ruled-based and democratic at home and a “responsible stakeholder” abroad, which the US had expected.
The US’ National Security Strategy clearly says that the US’ China policy over the past two decades has failed: The premise that “policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners, for the most part, turned out to be false.”
More noticeably, China’s ambition reaches beyond its borders. It has been aggressively reshaping the rules of global engagement, the ones formed by the US and Western Europe.
Beijing is wielding its “sharp power,” an authoritarian influence, to interfere with other countries’ domestic affairs by subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship, as observed in a cover article in The Economist.
China, for example, punished South Korea economically for deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system by banning Chinese tourists from South Korea. Last year, Chinese arrivals in South Korea were down by 48.3 percent from the previous year.
Facing sanctions from China, the Lotte Group, South Korea’s largest retailer, which provided the land for the THAAD system, was forced to shut down 87 of its 112 stores in China. It finally decided to sell everything and withdraw from China.
Australia, Britain, Germany and New Zealand have raised the alarm over Beijing’s use of money, cultural exchange and other means to infiltrate and influence their government officials, politicians and think tanks.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking at the University of Texas this month, also warned nations in the Western hemisphere to beware of China, claiming its predatory economic activities are colonialism redux.
Fully aware of the fast and substantial changes in the security environment, US President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address branded China a direct threat to the US on all fronts, including security, economics and values. This reference to China by a US president is unprecedented.
Moreover, the US’ latest National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, three top US security documents, unanimously identify China as one of its greatest threats — the other one is Russia.
For Taiwan, the security situation it confronts is becoming even more forbidding. China dispatched military planes to fly around Taiwan eight times in 2016, the inaugural year of Tsai’s presidency, and 19 times last year, compared with six times in 2015, the final year of Ma’s presidency.
During the past three years, China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has traveled through the Taiwan Strait five times, including on its maiden blue-water journey when it circled Taiwan in late 2016.
China’s war against Taiwan is being reinforced on the political front as well. It has colluded with Taiwan’s pro-unification party members to help organize its fifth column in the military and the general public to destabilize Taiwanese society.
Last year, a Chinese spy was arrested and convicted of attempting to develop a spy network. The investigation revealed that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office had given financial support to Taiwanese collaborators and was allegedly promising to offer half a million US dollars annually.
Although the influence of those who are pro-unification is still peripheral, Taiwan’s government should keep an eye on the forces that have been consistently plotting to divide the Taiwanese people and conquer Taiwan.
Most importantly, Taiwan should strengthen its military capabilities and seek cooperation with the US and regional countries to deter China.
A quote from the recent acclaimed movie Darkest Hour, detailing how former British prime minister Winston Churchill resisted appeasement during World War II, adequately reflects the situation that the world and Taiwan are now facing and reminds us what to do: “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
Tu Ho-ting is a journalist and international political analyst based in Taiwan.
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