In the months since its effective response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has gained a greater appreciation of Taiwan’s capacity for confronting problems. Previously known for its exacting standards in producing the world’s most sophisticated semiconductor chips, Taiwan now also is known for its technocratic competence in protecting its own people. Taiwan is led by competent and trusted leaders who use science to inform their decisions.
We all know, though, that an effective response to COVID-19 is not inoculation against other strategic challenges. Taiwan likely will face more times of testing in the months to come, even if the exact time and place of those tests is not yet knowable.
It is little secret that Chinese officials nurture grievances about Taiwan’s early decision to halt shipments of medical supplies and refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.” It also should not come as a surprise that officials in Beijing harbor jealousy about the acclaim that Taiwan is receiving from the rest of the world for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. They also have been smarting over Taiwan voters’ indifference to Beijing’s political preferences.
Chinese officials grumble about President Tsai’s (蔡英文) vision for looking beyond China to develop Taiwan. Instead of pursuing the commercial benefits of closer economic integration with the mainland, Tsai is seeking to reduce reliance by pushing forward her New Southbound Policy and working to develop closer trade ties with the United States, Japan, the EU, and other major economies. She is not seeking Beijing’s permission for greater international space. She is not clamoring for opportunities to interact with President Xi (習近平). As one leading Chinese analyst I spoke with recently summed up her inauguration speech, Tsai’s message to Beijing was “leave Taiwan alone.”
Beijing has itself to blame for the diminishing influence of its bullying posture and its refusal to engage with Tsai since her first inauguration in 2016. Since self-reflection is not a strength of the current crop of leaders in China, though, there is little cause for optimism that Beijing in the near term will pursue a course correction.
The Chinese National People’s Congress’ May 27 vote to empower its standing committee to draft national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region could be a foreboding leading indicator for cross-Strait relations. Beijing’s announcement triggered a swift response from Washington, with President Trump vowing to respond strongly to Beijing’s anticipated efforts to place curbs on personal freedoms of Hong Kong residents. Now that Trump has announced a course, his administration will need to follow through.
Few inside the Trump administration expect Beijing to back off plans to enact national security legislation to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. They do intend, however, for the US response to be robust enough to give Beijing pause before considering future infringements on Hong Kong, and to deter Chinese activism against Taiwan.
As President Xi enters the home stretch of his second term and begins mounting his case for a third, he will have a story to tell about asserting greater control over Hong Kong. At the moment, he does not have a similar narrative to point to for discussing directional progress toward China’s objectives on Taiwan. The closer the calendar comes to the 20th Party Congress, the more that an absence of achievement on Taiwan will become a liability for China’s leaders.
As Brookings scholar Richard Bush has observed, in recent years Beijing already has been shifting from persuasion to coercion without violence in its approach to Taiwan. This policy playbook is likely to remain operative for the foreseeable future.
If Beijing decides to further toughen its approach toward Taiwan, it has a range of options to choose from. It could exert growing pressure on Taiwan’s international space. Beijing could decide, for example, to strong-arm some of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners into switching recognition. Pressure could come in the form of disinformation or influence operations to seek to create confusion and place stress on Taiwan’s social cohesion. Beijing could register its frustration about American efforts to enlist a Taiwan chipmaking company to limit its technological progress by going after Taiwan companies with presences on the mainland. Beijing also could signal its frustrations on Taiwan more bluntly, including through shows of military force, more threatening military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan, more aggressive incursions of Taiwan’s air space, or worse.
To be clear, I am not predicting that Beijing will attempt to impose its will on Taiwan with military force. The historic record of China’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan with military threats should give Beijing pause before embarking down such a path. Whether by shelling off-shore islands in the 1950s or conducting live-fire missile demonstrations before elections in the 1990s, such actions typically have done more to fortify the Taiwan people’s determination to protect their way of life than to compel calls for moving closer to the mainland.
Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has revealed its resilience and capacity for unity of purpose. These same traits may need to be summoned again. If they are, I am confident the Taiwan people will rise to the challenge.
Ryan Hass is Fellow and Michael H. Armacost Chair in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
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