A Dangerous and Ineffective Strategy

A British East Asian specialist appears to be less than confident in Taiwan island’s strategic approach to remaining de facto independent of the mainland.

Taiwan is pursuing a strategy against China that I term “provocation diplomacy.” That is, seeking to deliberately provoke China by driving wedges in Beijing’s relationships with other countries with the aim of procuring support for itself. It’s a strategy that is premised on a public relations blitz. Taipei is seeking to get as many anti-China politicians to visit it, which have included various legislators, most prominently former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott; encouraging direct violations of the One-China policy to forcibly downgrade China’s ties with countries, as has happened with Lithuania; giving direct access to mass media, such as CNN this week, and aggressive social media strategies, all with the goal of gaining more support in provoking Beijing into a response.

That subsequent response from China then often appears threatening or, how the US likes to describe it, “coercive,” which then subsequently rallies more support in Taipei’s favour. The ultimate goal is to undermine China’s red line, or “salami slice” it and make it more politically difficult for Xi Jinping to make the island capitulate on his terms.

However, it also rests on two fundamental assumptions, both of which are dangerous gambles. Firstly, the belief that China will not seriously contemplate military action against Taiwan due to the potential devastating consequences that would flow from it. And secondly, that in such a scenario, the United States would come militarily to Taiwan’s support, meaning the first is less likely to happen. This latter assumption appears to have been encouraged by what appeared to be an ambiguous statement, or gaffe, from Joe Biden last week when he said the US has a “commitment” to defending Taiwan. Media commentary, however, was split on how exactly to interpret this.

As of now, Beijing’s reactions have consisted of blustering a lot and making angry responses towards the countries associated with Taipei’s stunts. China talks a lot about its “red lines” and about enforcing its One-China policy. It also carries out military exercises in the Strait between it and Taiwan but, so far, it has not made any decisive move which will discourage Taipei from its current course.

But that doesn’t mean China will do nothing. Xi Jinping’s confidence in the idea of reunification, as expressed in his keynote speech two weeks ago, comes across as firm, unwavering and unfazed, a different depiction altogether to the fiery state media rhetoric. He did not threaten military action, nor did he give the impression Taiwan was “slipping away” from Beijing, so it might have to resort to desperate measures. Instead, he expressed hope in an inevitable, peaceful, reunification. Yet this all poses more questions than what it answers: how exactly will this happen? How can China achieve this? When?

One thing that should be noted about China is that it invariably chooses the right time to “strike” and has a potency for taking swift and often calculated risks in accordance with its national interests. As one example, Beijing used the West’s distraction over the Covid-19 pandemic, and the social distancing measures that were in place, to impose the national security law in Hong Kong. Previously, the scale of the protests and violence would have made that impossible.

A year on, the protest movement was effectively over, with the leading figures in jail or exiled, and most of the opposition disbanded.

Many of the strategies used by protest leaders in Hong Kong are similar to what Taiwan is doing now. They sought to gain publicity through provoking Beijing, and appealing to the world and the mainstream media to help. Their calculus? That China would institute a violent crackdown to stop them, which would be costly and result in Beijing’s isolation and more US intervention, similar to what Taipei assumes now.

This gives us some clues, if not concrete evidence, of where things will go next.

The contrast between the strategy of the Taiwanese leadership and the strategy of Lee Kwan Yew in guiding Singapore to independence could hardly be more stark. Granted, Yew wanted Singapore to be a part of Malaysia while the ruling DPP does not want Taiwan to be a part of China, but that significant difference notwithstanding, Yew’s wise strategy was guided by a fundamental understanding of the military and demographic weakness of his own position.

The DPP’s strategy appears to be guided, instead, by a delusional pair of false assumptions. This is a preposterous mistake, especially given that Xi Jinping is almost certainly the most friendly Chinese leader with whom the Taiwanese will ever have the chance to negotiate reunification. The empire, divided in 1945, will unite, the only serious questions concern the timing and the terms.