January 11, 2024
NEW DELHI – Xi Jinping in his annual New Year’s Day address stated, “China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose.” Earlier, in his summit with President Joe Biden, Xi bluntly stated that Taiwan will reunify with China, though the timing has not been decided. For China, Taiwanese independence is unacceptable. China is aware that the West desires an independent, democratic Taiwan. While US presidents have mentioned supporting Taiwan, none has directly committed to military intervention in case of Chinese aggression. Simultaneously, the US continues to provide arms to Taiwan.
While Taiwan has not been given the status of a recognized state, requisite honour is accorded to its President while transiting through the US. Visits by US political leaders to Taipei have resulted in tensions with Beijing. For China, any interaction with or visit to Taiwan is a red line. As Taiwanese elections, due on 13 January, draw close, Chinese forays into the Taiwan Straits are on the rise. There are reports of Chinese ships and aircraft threatening the Island nation with an invasion, in case the pro-independence party comes to power. In end December, the Chinese military spokesperson, Colonel Wu Qian, in a briefing mentioned that China will, “take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard our national sovereignty and territorial integrity (implying regaining Taiwan).” Within Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate, Lai Ching-te, holds the lead, though small, in most internal surveys. The DPP advocates independence, though Lai has stated that he will maintain the status quo. Lai is considered as a hardline splittist, hence immensely disliked by Beijing.
On the contrary, the Opposition Nationalist Party’s representative, Hou You-Yi, is appealing to voters that a conflict could emerge in case the DPP comes to power. It would draw in the US, as also lead to massive disruptions in the global supply chain. Hou has affirmed his opposition to Taiwan’s independence and corroborates Beijing’s views of Taiwan being a part of China. Under present President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan has enhanced capabilities of its armed forces and is banking on US intervention in case of a Chinese assault. She is not contesting after having run the country for eight years. Japan, which has elevated its ties with Taiwan, is possibly likely to intervene, alongside the US, only in case of an unprovoked attack by China. None may intervene in case Taiwan declares independence, prompting a Chinese attack, as they have regularly accepted adhering to the status quo.
There are media reports that China is going to great lengths to influence Taiwanese elections to thwart the victory of the ruling DPP. China believes that the best approach to influence voters is through military coercion, though it continues to employ economic threats, information warfare and cyberattacks. Its disinformation campaign employing social media is fairly sophisticated. Facebook and X (formerly twitter) have deleted thousands of accounts linked to Beijing, spreading fake news on DPP candidates.
To push its agenda, China also exploits non-government organisations including religious groups, influencers, business leaders and pop stars. It attempted to pressurize Mayday, a Taiwanese rock band, which is popular in both Taiwan and China, to issue pro-China comments. To push its message, Chinese authorities also launched investigations into the band’s supposed lip synching during a performance on the mainland. Many non-resident Taiwanese have received threatening messages on social media from Chinese handles, warning of war in case the DPP is re-elected. In March last year, Taiwan’s exPresident Ma Ying-jeou, visited Beijing accompanied by university students, hoping to gain Chinese support for his Nationalist Party candidate, which he did. The visit was played up by Beijing, projecting a positive image of reunification with China. Currently, the Chinese navy regularly broadcasts on Taiwanese frequencies.
It says, “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of China,” implying military intimidation. For most Taiwanese, such threats have been common since their first presidential election in 1996. Chinese intimidation failed in 2020 when Tsai Ing-wen emerged with a landslide victory. In 2020, apart from military forays into Taiwanese air and sea space as currently, China arrested many Taiwanese nationals on the mainland. Beijing avoids projecting that uniting with China would be beneficial to Taiwan, aware that such a campaign is likely to fail. However, within Taiwan, elections are being fought on local issues including low wages and high cost of living. Enhanced threats from China thus far appear secondary.
China has been known to interfere in elections of nations. While the US has accused it of interference, Canada has ordered a public enquiry into Beijing’s interventions. In India, China is known to favour certain political parties. With growing global ambitions, China will seek to create an environment favourable to it, at least in nations where it matters. However, outright attempts to influence, including excessive military threats, have not been witnessed in recent times. For China, this is a big gamble.
If despite the intimidation, the DPP comes to power, then it would signal that the national mindset of Taiwanese is anti-China and pro-independence. It would also send a message that the nation does not fear Chinese military power and believes it is capable of defending itself. This would compel China to enhance its forays into the Taiwan Straits, making the region a potential conflict zone. It would lead to China adopting a harder stance against western military and diplomatic support to Taiwan. The election of Lai would also mark a diplomatic defeat for China, which would be hard for Xi Jinping to swallow.
It would encourage other nations, where China has and will attempt to interfere, to ignore Beijing’s subtle messaging. In case the Opposition candidate, Hou You-Yi, emerges victorious, China would heave a sigh of relief. It would then shift its attention towards other conflict zones, whether it be India or the Philippines. This would also signal that Xi Jinping’s hardline stance is the right approach and would open doors for China to directly interfere in other nations, to bring pro-China governments to power. The true picture would only emerge on 13 January. Till then it is wait and watch.