Taiwan National Day on 10 October marks an apt turnaround of strategic pushback against China’s sustained encirclement of both soft and hard power pressures on both Taiwan and regional players in its drive to cement its reunification goal.
As Beijing seeks to uphold the “one China” principle and the “1992 consensus” to oppose the secession of Taiwan, it outlines a series of strategic manouvres to both test the responses and to galvanise its message of readiness and intent.
By proposing the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems,” this political formula pushed for cross straits unity is based on a two-pronged intent.
Firstly, to create a moral high cause for both the internal and external audiences in taking the perceived non-forceful option of unification in testing the water with the responses and challenges. Secondly, it serves as a trap for pro Taiwan independence groups and the West where too forceful of a downright rejection and condemnation will serve as a backfire on their perceived agenda of anti China goals. It also gives the fence sitters and pro China quarters more voices and openings for greater and sincere moral alignment with Beijing’s dovish push which will help its sympathetic judgment and cause.
America’s approach must constantly be a step ahead in this game that is increasingly dictated by Beijing. The strategic ambiguity approach has long been dead, where both sides realise that Washington will support Taiwan militarily in the event of a forceful move by Beijing. Trust has been lost, and deterrence impact has steadily eroded amidst increasing public and national needs for the ultimate goal of reunification and the West’s do or die containment effort in denying its dominance to crumble. Washington’s new approach of strategic clarity must be to ensure that the deterrence scope and intensity must be clear, consistent and overwhelming, while at the same time providing enough opening for Beijing to have a face-saving exit with new incentives for either a peaceful reunification with mutual acknowledgment and agreement or the preservation of the status quo with an end to the coercive tactics against Taipei.
The question is to what extent China is willing to sacrifice for Taiwan, at its expense of an already slowing economy and the potential pariah status that will ensue. Beijing realises that the world is not necessarily crippled without it, the West can regroup and pool resources with its combined weight both in capital, economic tools and ability to enforce and limit economic openings for Beijing. The West can also count on the other players, capitalising on their fear of Beijing’s bellicose tactics in reinforcing the effectiveness of squeezing China further. Supply chains can be recalibrated as a gradual pivot away from China centric, and the most crucial factor will be oil supply. For this, the West will need to repair the broken ties with OPEC and in solving the entrenched influence by both Moscow and Beijing in using OPEC as the effective counterbalance to the West’s economic measures. The recent rift with OPEC’S decision to continue to limit production against Washington’s wishes reflects the extensive vulnerability that the West needs to grapple with.
Taiwan’s future rests on ensuring the willingness, readiness and support from its people to fight for its rights and to wisely exploit and secure the future based on key resilience parameters. For this, Taipei will need to deepen its narrative and higher cause at the larger global level, not only at the regional sphere. Washington will need to reorient its approach in not only increasing the speed and intensity of the key arms transfer but to effectively capitalise on maximising food and resource security and economic openings that can jettison the conventional reliance on Beijing in its economic order and dictate. Taipei will need to provide a viable anti access/area denial A2/AD capacity in firstly preventing a Chinese blockade to take place, and secondly to seamlessly work in unison with Washington and other powers to break the blockade and resume its economic lifeline once Beijing is able to impose one. Taipei will need to wisely and strategically capitalise on its niche strength and key areas as both a quid pro quo and deterrence platforms, especially its semiconductor and chips dominance. In preparing for that, smart partnership with the West in elevating its semiconductor independence and exclusivity remains vital, by making the world more dependent than ever on its critical chips and technological advantage. By increasing this global dependence level, both costs and backfiring impact will be raised for any escalation of Beijing’s military standoff.
Taipei needs full regional support for its survival and in its efforts to repel a Chinese invasion, it cannot afford to be distracted by other distracting and lingering issues with other neighbours including Japan in which Beijing is happy to exploit to its advantage. This integrated regional readiness and support are crucial in ensuring its open trade oriented economy remains flowing even during this security crisis and in getting regional defence support and involvement in its deterring efforts.
Taiwan must realise that most of the countries have no choice but to either support China or be neutral to this reunification dilemma, all because of the ingrained Chinese grip regionally and in most parts of the world. For this, Taipei needs to be realistic and strategic in its future orientation to use its strength to its biggest advantage and to keep the chips and the cards close to its heart. This will involve upping the ante on its critical resource cloud, deepening the entanglement and reliance, and expanding the moral cause and victim card. For the latter, a targeted and more resonant capturing of both the people and nations’ sentiments and affiliation to the stakes involved, with freedom, survival and livelihood implications. To rely on conventional broad thematic causes of defending democracy, human rights and values will miss the general resonance and importance of a narrative to the common masses. President Biden’s ambitious broad narration on amplifying the message of defending democracy and casting this as a battle between autocracy and democracy remains lost in opportunity as a strategic mistake. Beijing is given a more credible ammunition to frame that to solicit greater moral justification and bigger victim card, while knowing that the message will not provide meaningful call for action for as long as the root causes are not addressed.
This will need to be wisely reoriented and cast in a way that is different from the age old narrative by China which states that this issue is its internal affair where other nations are refrained from interfering, whether by force or moral support. The reality on the ground and the truth remain that this issue is no longer an internal Chinese affair, and Taiwan needs to be wise in formulating such a compelling and urgent case that if Taiwan falls by force, China will be more emboldened in its regional and global ambition. This truly is the last stand for democracy, freedom, values and the long adhered to rules based global order. The question remains whether the rest of the world is ready and able to supersede their short term interests and reliance on the China factor to pivot their strategic alignment for the long term greater returns to their own national survival and global stability? Taiwan and the West have a long but a rosier road ahead in awakening the global realisation, depending on Beijing’s own moves and intent. Contrary to popular perception, China really remains its own worst enemy and the ball is in its court in determining the outcome of the Cross Strait future and regional peace.
By Collins Chong Yew Keat / UNIVERSITY OF MALAYA