In their meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco on Wednesday last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) tried to deny reports about a possible invasion of Taiwan by 2027 or 2035, while US President Joe Biden reiterated Washington’s determination to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait. He also told Xi directly that Beijing should respect the electoral process in Taiwan, a warning to China not to interfere in January’s elections.
In their closed-door meeting, the leaders reportedly agreed to cooperate on limiting traffic of fentanyl from China to the US, work together on climate change and resume military communication, a crucial, but modest, step toward reducing tensions amid long-term competition and antagonism between the world powers. However, it was Biden’s and Xi’s comments about Taiwan that grabbed headlines.
Written statements and briefings from each side showed that Xi repeatedly underscored that Taiwan is the biggest and most dangerous issue in US-China relations. While trying to indicate that China is not preparing for an invasion in the near term, Xi said that Beijing prefers “peaceful reunification.” His comments hint at a fear of tensions escalating over Taiwan, forcing him into a difficult corner, while he faces economic predicaments at home.
Xi maintained that China would use force against Taiwan under certain conditions, showing the true colors of a “dictator,” as Biden has described him, which could also apply to Xi’s ambition to unilaterally domineer cross-strait relations and annex Taiwan. Intriguingly, Biden responded by assuring Xi that Washington was determined to pursue peace and stability in the Strait, but the US would continue to help Taiwan build its self-defense capability. That clearly dashed Xi’s hopes of Biden halting arm sales to Taiwan and saying he opposed Taiwanese independence, as he did at the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali last year.
More importantly, Biden warned Xi not to interfere in Taiwan’s elections, stressing that Beijing should respect the electoral process, while expressing his belief in the value of Taiwan’s democracy, which US National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell has confirmed to Taiwanese media.
China has a long history of meddling in Taiwan. Manipulating elections to favor pro-China candidates would surely be less costly and more efficient way for Beijing to “peacefully unify with Taiwan” than starting a war. The National Security Council has alerted that China has many ways of interfering in Taiwan’s elections, including using military threats, economic pressure, spreading misinformation and manipulating polling data.
Such as China’s tax probe into Hon Hai Precision Industry Co is intended to scare company founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) from running for president and splitting the opposition vote. Beijing wants to keep the opposition unified to keep the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, Vice President William Lai (賴清德), who China considers to be pro-Taiwanese independence, from winning.
Banning Taiwanese imports is also a tactic to influence elections. Hong Kong news reports recently quoted a Shanghai Taiwan Affairs Office official as telling Taiwanese businesspeople in China that if Lai is elected president, China would impose more tariffs on Taiwanese imports and accelerate the process of annexing Taiwan. Some lawmakers have said that China invited Taiwanese commentators and polling officers to visit China for election-related meetings, while the National Security Bureau is tracking illicit financial flows between China and Taiwanese polling companies suspected to be working with Beijing to influence survey data.
Right after the Biden-Xi meeting, China again ramped up its military activities around Taiwan, contradicting Xi’s remark about pursuing a peaceful resolution to cross-strait issues. China’s election interference poses a critical challenge. Taiwanese must defend the nation’s democracy by voting wisely.
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