Taiwan: Military Exercises and Mutual Interest

While Taiwan’s new President-elect Tsai Ing-wen faced the invasion of her Facebook page this week, China’s state media broadcast footage of live-fire landing drills in the Taiwan Strait. Both incidents reflect Chinese skepticism over her assurances that she will seek to maintain the peaceful status quo instead of pushing for independence. Tsai won 56% of the vote in last week’s presidential race, while her Democratic Progressive Party won 68 of 113 seats in the legislature: commanding leads over the rival Kuomintang’s 31% and 35 seats, respectively. From Minnie Chan and Reuters at South China Morning Post:

In a report late on Wednesday, the China Central Television’s military channel said the 31st Group Army, based in southeastern Xiamen, had carried out the drills in “recent days”, although it did not give an exact location.

It showed amphibious armoured vehicles ploughing through the sea towards a landing spot, helicopters firing missiles at locations on shore and soldiers parachuting down from helicopters.

[…] “All military drills have simulated enemies,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, said.

“The drill not only shows off the 31st army group’s progressive combat power in joint operations, but is also a warning to Tsai’s future administration that the PLA is ready to use its non-peaceful means, including military force, to solve cross-strait problems.”

Arthur Ding Shu-fan, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said the PLA’s drills were being used as a “political warning” to make Tsai recognise the “1992 consensus” – an understanding the mainland was using to test whether she would abide by the “one China” principle. [Source]

Reuters’ Faith Hung and Ben Blanchard reported Taiwanese reactions:

Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed China’s military recently carried out “winter exercises”, but said that the pictures that accompanied the broadcast were archive video clips spliced together of drills conducted in 2015.

“It exaggerates false reporting,” the island’s defense ministry said on its website.

[…] “This is very bad news,” said Steve Lin, first deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the ministry in charge of China affairs.

“…We’ll raise our military deployment, and at the same time we’ll deal with it via reasonable dialogue with the Chinese side. After all, it’s both sides’ responsibility to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait.” [Source]

China’s Defense Ministry dismissed the broadcast in a subsequent two-sentence statement to Reuters, saying that “the relevant media report is a summary of training maneuvers organized last year by troops. There is no need to over-interpret them.”

The timing of the broadcast is unlikely to be a coincidence, but it does contrast with the overall response from state media to the election, which—despite warnings against “hallucinations” of independence and the “poison” of pursuing it—was generally muted. Authorities also took steps to prevent commercial media from getting carried away, as Yaqiu Wang reported for the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Several mainland Chinese news websites, including Phoenix, Sina, and Sohu, sent reporters to Taiwan to cover the election, but reporters told CPJ that their organizations ordered them to keep mum about it.

“The [Chinese] Cyberspace Administration has repeatedly ordered all online media outlets not to send reporters to Taiwan, but we did it anyway,” said one of the reporters who went to Taiwan and who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “It also prohibited us from doing live coverage on our website, so as a way to go around this censorship directive, we reported live by constantly updating the homepage of our mobile app.”

[…] “The positions and policies of the as well as other pro-independence parties in Taiwan have always been under the Chinese government’s more stringent censorship than the Kuomintang and other pro-Beijing entities,” said Jia Jia, a Beijing-based freelance journalist and former editor of Tencent’s online magazine Dajia.

During the 2012 presidential election in which the Kuomintang candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, won, major online media portals including Tencent, Sohu, Sina, and Netease all did “special subject coverage” with lively graphs and maps. The commercial online media’s coverage of the latest election is scant by comparison, with most of the content being reposts of articles from state media. [Source]

Information controls extended to social media: searches for (蔡英文), Taiwan (台湾), Taiwan election (台湾大选), and presidential election (总统大选) were all blocked as of Saturday, but unblocked by Tuesday.

Such a blunt signal as broadcasting military exercises may seem ill-advised given the tendency of saber-rattling to backfire in the past. But as The Economist argues, China may have now few good options if it feels the need to exert pressure:

China may feel it has to start punishing Taiwan for its recalcitrance. It has plenty of levers without having to resort to crude military menaces—as it did in 1996, when it lobbed shells across the strait. Diplomatically, for example, only 21 countries (and the Holy See) recognise Taiwan rather than the government in Beijing. Most are small and poor. Recent years have seen a truce in the war of diplomatic attrition, in which countries were induced to switch in return for aid. If China breaks the truce, a number of countries might swiftly abandon Taiwan. […]

China will also do its best to continue to thwart Taiwan’s attempts to join multilateral organisations and sign free-trade agreements. It did allow Taiwan under Mr Ma to sign FTAs with two countries that have diplomatic relations with China, New Zealand and Singapore, but not to join multilateral talks. It has excluded Taiwan from its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and could probably exert enough pressure to keep it out of the American-led free-trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though China itself is not a party.

It could also apply direct economic pressure. The mainland is the market for 25% of Taiwan’s exports and the destination for most of its foreign direct investment. Taiwan, on the other hand, accounts for just 4% of China’s total trade. An easy economic sanction would be to cut the quotas for mainland Chinese tourists. More than 4m visited in 2014 (up from 280,000 in 2008), about 40% of all visitors to Taiwan; but numbers fell sharply during the election campaign, perhaps because the authorities did not want people to get a taste for that sort of thing.

Yet China knows that turning from suitor to bully is likely to prove counter-productive in winning over public opinion in Taiwan. Increased contacts with the mainland seem to have only heightened a sense among ordinary Taiwanese of their distinct identity. Punishing them for this will hardly help. At least, unlike Mr Chen, Ms Tsai seems determined to try not to raise mainland hackles. So the hope is that both sides get on with improving cross-strait relations, while pretending that they do not have wholly opposed visions of where they are leading. For Mr Xi, however, with a dream to realise, pretending may not be good enough. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, Nectar Gan wrote that the “deep economic embrace” with which Beijing had hoped to reel the island in had proved “stifling,” sparking backlashes like the 2014 Sunflower protests. Tsai has pledged to loosen the grip by diversifying Taiwan’s foreign trade, particularly towards Southeast Asia and India.

According to surveys conducted by CommonWealth magazine, the percentage of Taiwanese who support unification halved, to 11 per cent, between 2000 to 2015, while those supporting independence doubled, to 35 per cent.

[…] Taiwanese were also upset by the fact that the benefits of closer economic ties had fallen to big business and a wealthy few, rather than ordinary people.

[…] Amid growing economic ties, many Taiwanese feel threatened by Beijing’s increasing economic leverage over Taipei, which they fear will translate into stronger political leverage.

According to the CommonWealth survey, three in five Taiwanese polled last December said they worried that the island’s economy relied too heavily on the mainland, while two in five said cross-strait economic and trade cooperation should be bound by certain conditions.

“The concern now is that … if Taiwan becomes overly dependent on the Chinese market, it might risk becoming Beijing’s political hostage,” [George Tsai Wei, a professor of political science at Chinese Culture University in Taipei] said. [Source]

Eric Fish examined “the ‘failure’ of China’s Cross-Strait strategy” at Asia Society:

For Jerome Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University (NYU), this outcome isn’t necessarily a shock.

“Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt,” he said, “Just because you have more people from another place visit you doesn’t mean they’re going to love you. They may find more reason to vindicate their prejudice against you.”

[…] Cohen says that these exchanges have by-and-large endeared Taiwan to mainland Chinese people, but the feeling hasn’t been mutual. While Chinese visitors to Taiwan tend to admire the self-governing democracy’s political freedoms, legal system, and level of economic development, Cohen explains, Taiwanese encountering the mainland are less impressed by its social system and one-party rule. “Although you have almost a million Taiwanese people living on the mainland long-term and successfully doing business, they’re clearly aware of the big differences between the way the mainland is run and the way Taiwan is run,” Cohen said. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Daniel Blumenthal argues that changes on Taiwan are making the existing framework of cross-Strait relations unsustainable:

2) Political Demography is changing Taiwan. It is notable that first-time Taiwanese voters were born in 1996, 47 years after the “mainlander” Chinese came to the island as refugees from the civil war. In the ensuing decades the distinction between mainlander and “native” — those of Chinese descent who had been on the island for hundreds of years — has all but disappeared. There are thus very few citizens from the Republic of China who have any emotional dedication to the idea the Taiwan and China are part of One China. Instead, the Taiwan-China relationship is developing some parallels to the “Anglosphere,” in which people recognize a common heritage but not a unified sovereign.

3) The “One China” construct is in ever greater conflict with reality. The Sino-U.S. “acknowledgement” that there is “one China” of which both peoples across the Strait are a part was a useful diplomatic fiction that helped hasten the U.S.-China rapprochement in 1979. This fiction allowed for great strides in Sino-U.S. relations and has helped avoid conflict across the Strait. But now that the vast majority of Taiwanese are rejecting the idea, it is time for all parties to conceive of more realistic and enduring formulations. [Source]

These trends could pose difficulties for Tsai herself, who must maintain a working relationship with Beijing if she is to fulfill the economic pledges on which she campaigned. As Ankit Panda writes in a discussion of burgeoning Taiwanese identity at The Diplomat, “Tsai herself has said she won’t rock the status quo boat. But eventually, this may prove untenable given the realities of domestic politics in Taiwan.” One of these realities is the rise of the New Power Party, which grew out of the Sunflower Movement and won five legislative seats with 6% of the vote last week. According to Lin Cheng-yi at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, the party will be “a key minority group deciding legislative bills.” Furthermore, it has not ruled out the use of less conventional means.

One way Tsai hopes to navigate between Beijing and the more Sino-skeptical Taiwanese is with greater transparency. From Idrees Ali at Reuters:

“We will, in a new session of the legislature, put forward the Cross-Strait Agreement Oversight legislation as a priority to highlight our interest in peaceful and stable relations with China,” Joseph Wu, the DPP’s secretary general, said in a speech at a Washington think tank.

[…] Wu said in order for people in Taiwan to understand any engagement with mainland China, “we need to handle it in a more transparent way and we also need to have some guiding principles or rules and norms.”

[…] Wu added that building trust between mainland China and Taiwan would be a “step by step” process. [Source]

The Economist comments:

Not least, China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. Ms Tsai has promised transparency in trade and investment deals with China. The ’s secrecy sparked protests two years ago that greatly undermined Ma Ying-jeou, the outgoing president. His successor must find ways to explain to autocrats, who themselves rule opaquely, why more scrutiny of agreements will lead to their greater acceptance in Taiwan. And when it comes to her promise to seek membership of the American-led free-trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she should urge China to join the club in tandem, as the two countries did when they entered the World Trade Organisation in 2002.

Sooner or later China will press Ms Tsai to affirm the formula that has guided cross-strait relations: that there is but “one China”, even if both sides disagree as to quite what that means. This will be hard for her, given that such a fudge does not reflect the changing view of compatriots increasingly inclined to think of themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Yet she must continue the reconciliation across the strait that began under Mr Ma. Even before her inauguration in May, she should offer to meet Mr Xi for a meeting of no preconditions. Throughout, her watchword should be patience. Real, de jure sovereignty for Taiwan can probably come only if a thuggish China, today persecuting rights activists, evolves into a more liberal state. Impossible? Taiwan has done it. [Source]

The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer reports that some Chinese experts already favor a more flexible approach, if not abandoning then at least relaxing “bottom lines” like the 1992 Consensus. But as he also notes, the Xi administration seems in little mood to bend.

Tsai’s speech showed that she has switched her role from being a party leader to a ruler,” said Zhang Nianchi, a scholar at the Shanghai Institute for East Asia Studies. “If she is on this track, we should accept and encourage her. We shouldn’t be unsatisfied with her not accepting the 1992 consensus. Tsai was chosen by Taiwanese people, and that is a reality we have to face, too.”

[…] Another leading Chinese scholar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to foreign media, said China had taken a hard line with Taiwan in previous elections only for that to backfire and alienate the Taiwanese people. This time, the mainland should be patient, he said.

“The Beijing government might not be satisfied, but they must learn the lessons from previous mistakes,” he said. “Maintaining the current relationship is what really matters, not the 1992 consensus.”

[…] The wild card is Xi. The Chinese leader has engineered a dramatic centralization of power since taking office in 2013 and shown a firmly nationalist approach to issues of sovereignty, including in the South China Sea.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there was considerable uncertainty within China about how Xi would react. Leading experts who used to provide policy advice are now scared to offer suggestions, she said.

“Part of the Taiwan policy community appears to be completely shut out. The system is broken, and even more broken on Taiwan than other issues,” she said. [Source]

Recent months have seen rising concern over the effects of a ban on “improper discussion” of the central leadership’s decisions and Xi’s repeated declarations that the Party must unite behind it. The University of Nottingham’s Steve Tsang warned last month that this would “significantly increase the party’s risk of making a major policy error [as] mistakes are more likely when dissenting views are silenced.” Also last month, Denyer reported at the Post on mounting concerns about the implications and possible effects of shutting down internal debate:

“[Xi] is scared, but he is comforting himself by ignoring problems and criticism,” said Zhang Lifan, a party historian and political commentator. “That is very dangerous for a head of state, because it could lead to more mistakes.”

[…] Zhang says Xi sees mounting anger on all sides: party members unhappy about the anti-corruption drive, the military threatened by Xi’s reforms there, ­entrepreneurs suffering from a slowing economy and academics angry at the tightening of ideological controls. Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says Xi is facing “passive resistance” from inside the party by those who dare not oppose him publicly but, “in terms of execution, just go through the motions.”

Both Zhang and Lam, as well as law professor He Weifang in Beijing, hear echoes of the atmosphere that prevailed during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

[…] “Xi is conceited and refuses to listen to second opinions,” He said. “He has chosen to live in an isolated space, surrounded by flatterers. He has no idea what is going on in the real world.” [Source]

One consequence, Denyer writes, has been the unnecessary aggravation of tensions with Japan and rival territorial claimants in the South China Sea. Another now unfolding may be the government’s fumbling of the economy. At Sinocism, Bill Bishop wondered if “the policy-making process [has] broken down under the centralization of decision-making under Xi Jinping,” while The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne blamed this trend for some of the government’s “almost comical ineptitude”:

Part of the problem, it seems, is a policy-making bottleneck. Mr. Xi has reversed a collective-type leadership process inherited from Mr. Deng and concentrated decision-making authority in his own hands.

But he’s thinly stretched. On his plate already: reorganizing the armed forces, leading the charge against endemic corruption (while defining a new Confucian-style morality to chasten his bureaucracy,) confronting America in the South China Sea and worrying about Taiwan elections coming up next week.

He personally chairs all the committees and commissions directly responsible for these areas.

[…] If he wants to stop the economy from running away from him, Mr. Xi may have to learn to give up control. [Source]

At the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog, though, Michael Reilly takes a more optimistic view of prospects for cross-Strait relations and Xi’s handling of them:

Much has changed in the relationship since 2008, however and while the rhetoric may continue, a return to historic tensions is less likely, even less a repeat of 1996 when China fired live missiles into the seas around Taiwan. In 2000 the DPP came to power never having previously held office. Their experience was gained in opposing the excesses and restrictions of martial law and authoritarian rule, not in handling often complex and delicate international relations. They got no help from the Chinese for whom under then leader Jiang Zemin their very success was an affront to party doctrine on ‘reunification’ of Taiwan with China. Nor did matters improve under his successor, the cautious and conservative Hu Jintao. Indeed, they worsened after Hu, under pressure from the PLA, agreed in 2005 to the passing of the Anti-Secession Law whereby China asserted the right to invade Taiwan should the latter move towards formal independence. Even so, despite the hostile atmosphere, the two sides of the strait engaged in regular, albeit discreet discussions and co-operation grew.

In 2016 the personalities are very different. Unlike Chen, Tsai has studied overseas, in both the US and UK and has had eight years’ senior government experience in the last DPP administration. She can also call on a similarly experienced foreign policy team. And in contrast to Hu Jintao, is assured, self-confident and very much in control of the party. He very likely ignored Taiwan Affairs Office concerns and objections when he held his historic meeting with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou in Singapore last November. His willingness to take such a gamble was unprecedented in China’s dealings with Taiwan.

[…] But above all, the two sides of the strait need one another. [Source]

Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, argued similarly at International Affairs that preserving the status quo is a matter of strong mutual interest:

So while things won’t be easy between Beijing and Taipei, neither will they be impossible. The Mainland is hitting its toughest period for over forty years, with growth stagnating and a real economic crisis looming. That might mean leaders in Beijing ratchet up nationalism and start to forge domestic consensus by tearing into Taiwan. But the bottom line is that Taiwan as a viable, useful economic and intellectual partner is far more useful than a Taiwan under military threat, or a Taiwan devastated by attack. The worst case scenario of all out war can never be discounted but we have to remember that in the end, at least in Washington and in capitals around the region and world, a strike on Taiwan is a strike against democracy. It would offer conclusive proof that China was indeed a threat, a revisionist power: in effect, an enemy. China would lose far, far more than it would gain from such drastic moves. That is truer now than it has been at any time since 1949 and the start of the current division because, unlike any time before, China truly has the possibility of being a wealthy, developed country within its grasp. Achieving that is an immeasurably bigger prize than regaining Taiwan. [Source]