Category Archives: China-Taiwan

Plain Talk On Taiwan Overshadows Wooliness of IPEF

NOT FOR THE first time, US President Joe Biden has said that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of China using force to take control of the island. Nor is it the first time that his diplomats have had to walk back his comments, even before the inevitable condemnation from Beijing. 

At the same time, Biden, who was responding to a question during a press conference during his visit to Tokyo, said there had been no change in US policy towards Taiwan. The US One China policy holds that Washington maintains formal diplomatic relations only with Beijing and none with Taiwan and exercises’ strategic ambiguity’ over Beijing’s One China principle that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China to be reunified one day. Part of that ambiguity is not to say publicly that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily.

It has always been an illusionary fudge. The same year that Washington and Beijing established formal diplomatic ties (1979), setting the intractable Taiwan issue to one side, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. The act guarantees US support for the island and specifies that the US must help Taiwan defend itself. It has been the basis on which the United States has continued arms sales to Taipei.

As regional leaders watch China build up its armed forces and demonstrate prowess in the skies around Taiwan and the waters of the East and South China Seas, concern about military action against Taiwan has increased. Pressure has been quietly mounting for the United States to be explicit about its military support for Taiwan in such an event. 

Recently, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was time for the United States to state clearly that it would defend Taiwan. Our man in Tokyo tells us that the incumbent, Fumio Kishida, has passed on the same view. 

Opinion in Washington splits between officials and politicians taking a more assertive posture towards Beijing and those who fear provoking Beijing into advancing its plans for reunification. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the question of whether something similar could happen in Taiwan more prominent in Washington discussions.

Beijing’s view, repeated after Biden’s latest remarks, is that the Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue are fundamentally different. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that to compare the two is absurd. 

Biden was speaking a truth hiding in plain sight as his administration seeks haltingly to mould a China policy that incorporates the direction set by his predecessor Donald Trump, but without the idiosyncratic rhetorical toxicity and disregard for diplomatic process. 

His comments on Taiwan overshadowed the announcement of his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The IPEF aims to fill the vacuum of US economic engagement in the region left by Trump’s withdrawal from the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 and cold-shouldering of its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

At this point, the IPEF is little more than a bare framework and far from a conventional trade agreement that most of the 13 US allies that have signed up for it would prefer. The trade-agreement adverse Biden administration may cast it as a trade arrangement for the 21st century. However, it reflects domestic US political realities, including needing to satisfy Biden’s organised labour constituents and the groundswell of anti-China economic nationalism in Washington, as it does the promotion of regional economic integration.

Many of the South and Southeast Asian participant countries will be uneasy about the way the IPEF is being portrayed within the United States and among Washington’s closest regional security allies as a way of containing China’s growing economic sway over the region. China’s closest neighbours want deeper economic relationships with both powers.

The IPEF has four pillars:

  • fair and resilient trade, encompassing seven subtopics, including labour, environmental, and digital standards; 
  • supply chain resilience; 
  • infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and 
  • tax and anti-bribery and anti-corruption.

Participants in the IPEF can pick and choose from that menu as they wish. Even though this should eliminate some of the horsetrading that so often stalls conventional trade deals, negotiating agreements for each IPEF pillar will neither be quick nor easy.

The target deadline is likely the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in November 2023, which the United States will be hosting.


Filed under China-Southeast Asia, China-Taiwan, China-U.S., Trade

More Military Muscle Around Taiwan Raises Risks

TAIWAN’S MILITARY IS seeking — and will almost certainly get — extra budget of $8.6 billion over the next five years for naval weapons, saying that the threat from China was worse than ever. The additional spending would top up the $16.85 military budget already approved for 2022.

According to Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, military tensions between China and Taiwan are at their worst in more than 40 years. Chiu was responding to a question during the parliamentary session on the supplementary budget request on Tuesday.

The day before, Taiwan’s defence ministry said that a record 56 PLA Air Force (PLAAF) warplanes, including twelve nuclear-capable bombers, had entered the island’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). More PLAAF aircraft entered the ADIZ in the first four days of this month than in September.

Beijing has regularly sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ for more than a year, flights that have been variously interpreted as intimidatory, provocative and attritional, as well as signals to Taipei and other US allies in the region about China’s growing military power.

However, two-thirds of the extra money that Taiwan’s military seeks will go towards naval weapons, including anti-ship missiles and warships.

Chiu also told parliament that China could already invade Taiwan and would be capable of mounting a full-scale invasion by 2025. In June, Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the US Congress that Beijing wants the ability to invade and hold Taiwan within the next six years.

Milley based that assessment on a speech by President Xi Jinping earlier this year that challenged the PLA to advance the date by which it will have developed the capability to seize Taiwan to 2027 from 2035. Reunification, by force if necessary, is one of the highest long-term priorities for Beijing.

However, for all its modernisation, the PLA has been untested in battle for over 40 years (the costly invasion of Vietnam in 1979). Both the PLA and warfare has changed massively since. Yet, Beijing would be highly cautious at this point about risking its first military campaign of the 21st century on such a high-value target, especially as an invasion of Taiwan carries the likelihood of drawing in US military forces.

The United States, Taiwan’s main ally and military supplier, has confirmed its ‘rock-solid’ commitment to the island.

Beijing blames current tensions on Washington’s shows of support for Taiwan with arms sales and sending warships through the Taiwan Strait. Of late, warships from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands have been carrying out drills in waters between Taiwan and Okinawa.

This follows the announcement of the AUKUS agreement to provide Australia with the technology to build long-range nuclear-powered naval submarines, seen in Beijing as yet one more move by the West and Japan to constrain its military power.

In addition, Japan has strengthened its bilateral ties with Taipei in recent months, albeit on a ‘party-to-party’ basis, as Tokyo does not recognise Taiwan as sovereign. In Beijing, this looks like growing coordination with Washington to show more robust support for Taiwan — and it most certainly is, given the Biden administration’s desire to create a united front of allies.

Beijing may consider its recent shows of force a proportionate response to what it will see as a repeated and aggressive combination of efforts to contain it and support Taiwanese autonomy. It will continue to bide its time. However, flexing military muscle always risks an unintended incident that can escalate and, more dangerously, a political misjudgement of the point at which ‘aggressive’ moves against China are seen as sufficiently provocative to justify a pre-emptive effort to seize Taiwan.

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Beijing-Taipei Relations Get Prickly

Pineapple plantation in Minhsiung, Taiwan, 2017. Photo credit: FredN, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

WORD ARRIVES FROM our man in fruit and veg that Taipei is not taking the rough end of the pineapple, as the Australians say, when it comes to Beijing’s ban on Taiwanese exports of the large juicy tropical fruit to the mainland.

At the start of this month, the General Administration of Customs started refusing entry to Taiwanese pineapples, citing pests. Taiwanese pineapples are susceptible to some forms of mealybugs and thrips. However, Taipei’s view is that the incidence is minimal and that China is indulging in fake biosafety by banning all pineapples, and that the action is political.

Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, counters that calling the move political smears the mainland, which does not get either side anywhere.

Taiwan consumes around 90% of the pineapples it grows, exporting the remaining 10%, overwhelmingly to the mainland. Our man tells us that Taiwan is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of pineapples with a 3% share of the global market, a trade worth some $65 million in 2019 and growing fast. China buys around four-fifths of Taiwan’s fresh and frozen fruit exports in normal times.

Taiwanese have responded to the pineapple ban by clearing grocery shelves and market stalls of local pineapples, while restauranteurs are doing their bit by adding pineapple to their recipes. Japanese and Canadian diplomats have been photographed next to pineapples in support. It was a Canadian who first thought of putting pineapple on pizza, apparently. Who knew?

The hashtag #FreedomPineapples has appeared on social media, echoing the #FreedomWine hashtag that emerged in Australia during that country’s recent contretemps with China. It is also a more distant echo of Freedom fries, as some Americans re-branded French fries in the wake of some perceived slight by Paris after 9/11.

China’s main fruit exports to Taiwan are apples, but it was a small trade worth barely $6m in 2019, so tit for tat retaliation seems unlikely. After pineapples, sugar apples are next largest fruit export to the mainland from Taiwan, which has developed a pineapple-flavoured hybrid as if the knobby, custard-flavoured fruit is not sweet enough in the first place.

If Beijing chooses to escalate from prickly to knobby, this could get very sticky indeed.

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Filed under Agriculture, China-Taiwan, Trade

China And US Risk Crossed Lines Over Taiwan

WHEN MAO ZEDONG and US President Richard Nixon were normalising China-US relations nearly half a century ago, one implicit trade-off was that in return for recognition by the United States that Taiwan was part of China, Beijing would put off reuniting the island and the mainland sine die. That formulation of what would become the ‘One China’ policy allowed the Taiwan issue to be parked to one side regardless of the state of the relationship.

The understanding had been a dependable pillar of the US-China relationship until the Trump administration. The current US administration has shown more willingness than any that preceded it to lump Taiwan in with all the other issues that concern it about China — trade, technology, cybersecurity, Covid-19 and values. This is dangerous. It enhances the risk of miscalculation on both sides, and the frequency of the opportunities for doing so.

The issue of routinisation again arises with Taiwanese press reports that Keith Krach, a US Under Secretary of State, is to visit the island shortly for high-level economic talks. Last month, US Health Secretary, Alex Azar, became the highest-level US Cabinet official to visit Taiwan since the ‘One China’ severance of formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Taipei in 1979.

Beijing takes such visits as an afront. Today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was blunt:

China firmly opposes official exchanges between the US and Taiwan. This position is consistent and clear. I would like to stress once again that the Taiwan question bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and concerns China’s core interests. It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations. The one-China principle is the political foundation of China-US relations. We urge the US side to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiques, and to stop all forms of official ties between the US and Taiwan so as to avoid serious damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

The language is, however, pro forma. Weighing all the factors, especially China’s growing economic and military power, Beijing should continue to play a long game and let history run its course. President Xi Jinping has shown many indications that that would be his preference, even while necessarily maintaining a rhetorical commitment to eventual reunification.

However, the unpredictability that the Trump administration has injected into the relationship may strengthen the case that a pre-emptive attack may be worth the risk. The calculation around the status quo will change if Beijing perceives the US administration’s support of Taiwanese independence to be both ending the One China policy and matched by wavering in the US commitment to put its forces in harm’s way in defence of Taiwan.

President Tsai Ing-wen is more pro-independence than to Beijing’s liking, and it was miffed by her re-election earlier this year. Since then, there has been an intensification of PLA activity around the island. Beijing has also upped its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally, both diplomatically and by pressuring multinational companies that do business in China not to label Taiwan as a country.

However, the Trump administration’s abandonment of many of the institutional dialogues between the two countries built up in the Bush and Obama administrations, remove the channels that can communicate countervailing narratives of Beijing’s real intent. That leaves Washington closer to Beijing’s red lines, which would be crossed by any or all of it instigating de facto independence through formal diplomatic recognition or military alliance, or arms sales that would ensure Taiwan could ensure perpetual autonomy.

Beijing can see a United States repeatedly seeking means to demonstrate its support for Taiwan’s autonomy in ways that are deliberately confrontational without breaching Beijing’s redlines. However, Beijing is uncertain how far the US administration intends to approach. As this Bystander noted before, the margin of error is small, and getting smaller. That is where the danger of a miscalculation lies.


Filed under China-Taiwan, China-U.S., Taiwan

Tsai Sweeps To Second-Term And Beijing Is Bothered

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen seen in 2015. Photo credit: Voice of America. Public domain.

TSAI ING-WEN won a sweeping re-election victory in Taiwan’s presidential election on January 11.

She received a record 8.2 million votes, 1.3 million more than she won first time round in 2016. That translates into a 57% vote share, giving her a secure mandate for the next four years for her firmly China-sceptic stance.

Preliminary results in the legislative election held at the same time give her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 61 of the 113 seats in parliament. (Update: The DPP lost seven of its 68 seats in the legislature. The Kuomintang gained three, to take it to 38. The remaining 14 seats went to independents and small parties.)

The relationship with China dominated the campaign. In her victory speech, Tsai called on China to abandon its threat to reunify the island by force.

That may fall on deaf ears.

Mainland state media have already dismissed the result as a ‘temporary counter-current‘ and the result of anti-Chinese Western powers (i.e., the United States) intervening to contain China. “The historical trend toward a stronger China, national rejuvenation, and reunification cannot be stopped by any force or anyone,” thundered Xinhua in a commentary. The Party’s ever belligerently nationalist Global Times headlined one election report, ‘Mainland experts urge expediting reunification after Tsai’s win‘.

Beijing has been publicly rebuffed. How much its bluster turns into action — and how much it becomes part of the broader US-China conflict — will be Tsai’s preoccupation for the next four years.

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Filed under China-Taiwan, Taiwan

Taiwan’s Tsai Looks Set For Unpredictable Second Term

resident Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, seen in 2016. Photo credit: Voice of America. Public domain.TAIWAN GOES TO the polls on January 11 to elect a president and legislature after a campaign in which China’s social media influence and what the protests in Hong Kong might foreshadow for the island have taken the spotlight.

President Tsai Ing-wen looks set for re-election, her China-sceptic stance aligning well with the two dominant issues of the campaign. Since the protests in Hong Kong have begun, her poll numbers have risen as those for the pro-China opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu have fallen.

Her victory would do little to ease cross-Strait tensions. However, Beijing will likely restrict itself to political bluster over reunification and military posturing, such as further aircraft carrier group passages through the Taiwan Strait, at least until the endgame in Hong Kong becomes clear.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s international diplomatic standing will continue to erode and its economy will struggle to escape its long-term sluggishness.

The wild card is the US-China relationship.

As part of its confrontation with Beijing, the Trump administration has been more supportive of Taipei than its immediate predecessors. The newly elected US president controversially took a congratulatory call from Tsai in December 2016, throwing into doubt US commitment to the ‘One China’ policy it has pursued since 1979.  More recently, he approved sales to Taiwan of US military equipment including critical fighter jets, and by starting to draw it into US-led regional security arrangements.

Closer alignment with Washington is a two-edged sword. It will leave a re-elected Tsai hostage to the state of US-China relations, relations that under Trump, who faces his re-election in November, will continue to be unpredictable.


Filed under China-Taiwan, China-U.S., Taiwan

A Rare Rebuff For Beijing In The Pacific

Aerial view of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, 2011. Tuvalu is a remote country of low lying atolls, making it vulnerable to climate change. Photo: Lily-Anne Homasi / DFAT

BEIJING’S LONG-RUNNING CAMPAIGN to strip Taipei of its international allies has suffered a rare setback.

The Pacific nation of Tuvalu (seen above), which is little more than a collection of coral atolls, has rebuffed overtures from state-backed Chinese companies to build artificial islands that would mitigate the threat it faces from rising sea levels.

There is plenty of room for such construction. Tuvalu, one of the smallest independent nations with a population of barely 11,000, has a land areas of 26 square kilometres but it is dispersed over 1.3 million square kilometres of the central Pacific.

Tuvalu would have been expected to cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in return for Chinese support. Kiribati and the Solomon Islands did so in September, following offers from Beijing of financing and aircraft, leaving just four Pacific island nations in Taipei’s camp.

Tuvalu has been thought a possibility to follow suit following elections in September that led to the replacement of its Taiwan-friendly prime minister Enele Sopoaga by Kausea Natano. Fears of becoming debt-dependent in Beijing and of Chinese military bases appearing in the region weighed heavily in the new government’s decision.

Tuvalu’s new foreign minister, Simon Kofe, had previously told Australian radio that he did not expect any change in Tuvalu’s relationship with Taiwan. He now says he is looking to form a common front with Taipei’s other three allies in the region, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru, to counter Beijing’s expansion in the Pacific.

More support from the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to the same end is likely, including naval patrols.

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US Sale Of F-16s To Taiwan Would Up Ante

THE US GOVERNMENT’S approval of Taipei’s long-sought $8 billion purchase of 66 F-16 warplanes and ancillary kit has drawn the predictable condemnation from Beijing.

The notice that Washington would go ahead with the sale was contained in a mandatory notification to the US Congress issued on Tuesday by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.  It follows the agency’s announcement of a $2.2 billion intended sale to Taipei of 108 Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger missiles and related equipment.

Taiwan’s air force currently flies ageing F-16s bought in 1992, although upgraded several times since. The US Congress still needs to approve the latest sale.

China says the sale of the fighter jets would be a violation of international law and international relations and of the One China policy, under which Washington formally recognises Beijing, not Taipei. It deployed similar language regarding the One China policy against the sale of the tanks.

This time, however, It has also threatened sanctions against US firms involved with the sale, which would most prominently be Lockheed Martin and General Electric.

Hitherto, the Trump administration has been relative restrained in its arms deals with Taiwan. Its two predecessors (the Obama and Bush administrations) both made bigger sales in aggregate.

However, this latest proposed sale ups the ante, and would be favoured in Washington by both those who will see it as a way to apply pressure on Beijing over the US-China trade talks and those who are security hawks on China.


Filed under China-Taiwan, China-U.S., Defence

Trump Ups The Ante, But What Is The Game?

WHAT HAD SEEMED to be a passing storm in a teacup has blown up into a tempest.

Taking a telephone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was one thing, especially when the US president-elect’s entourage subsequently played down the potential consequences. It did not signal a change of US policy towards China, they insisted.

But then the man himself upped the ante. He suggested that unless Beijing makes concessions on trade, America will consider abandoning the One China policy, the foundation of Sino-American relations since 1979 and which has allowed the world’s sole superpower to develop a working relationship with the world’s aspirant one.

What had been a restrained response on Beijing’s part hitherto, interrupted into anger, albeit channelled through the state-run Global Times, a publication that never misses the opportunity to blow hard about Chinese nationalism.

It has a reason, though, to suspect that there is an organised campaign to restore Taiwan’s a diplomatic status in the United States. Beyond the telephone call from Tsai, John Bolton, likely to be Trump’s assistant Secretary of State, is known as a China hawk, especially over the issue of Taiwan. Our man in New York sends word that Trump and Bolton met shortly before Trump dropped his hint that the One China policy was in jeopardy.

The extent to which Trump understands the ramifications of the United States abandoning the one China policy is unclear. Less so his advisers. They will know that Taiwan is a red line for Beijing. Trump, on the other hand, possibly regards his comments as no more than an opening bid in a trade negotiation.

In this scenario, Taiwan is no more than a bargaining chip. Beijing, however, sees Taiwan as a first domino that must not be allowed to fall.

Its default position is that the Americans are playing a long game, just as it would. If Taiwan goes, then Hong Kong might also be at risk, especially as there would be support from within the former British colony for any advocacy of Hong Kong independence.

More importantly, Tibet might be next; then possibly Xinjiang. America, this theory goes, is trying to pick apart China one province at a time and thus must be resisted from the outset.

What, though, can Beijing do, and especially against a man who isn’t yet president?

Its easiest option would be to stop supporting the yuan, making Chinese imports into the United States cheaper. That would skewer Trump’s accusations that China is a currency manipulator, at least in the eyes of economists, if not, perhaps, in those of the blue-collar Americans who supported him, in large numbers in the rust belt, in the election campaign.

It could also make life a lot harder in China for those American direct investors, particularly high-tech companies, who manufacture there to export back to the United States or to pursue the market share in China itself of which they dream.  China could also go after big-ticket US exporters to China, such as Boeing, by cancelling orders.

The hope that would be on both scores that US companies would apply pressure on Trump at home not to endanger the trade and investment relationship with China by insisting one following the reckless path of abandoning One China policy.

What Beijing has to do first, however, is to figure out Trump’s true intentions. That may be the hardest part of all.


Filed under China-Taiwan, China-U.S.

A Kenyan One-China Lesson

WORD REACHES US from Nairobi of two curious incidents involving Kenyan authorities deporting groups of Taiwanese to China.

Last Friday, eight Taiwanese were forcibly sent to China in what Taiwan’s foreign ministry called an ‘extrajudicial abduction’. Although the eight had been on trial in Nairobi on fraud charges, they had all been acquitted and told to leave the country under their own steam within 21 days. However, police handed them over to Chinese officials who put them on a flight to Guangzhou.

Today, at least a further 15 and possibly as many as 37 Taiwanese, who appear to have been involved in the fraud case but details are confused, were also forcibly enplaned by police following a scuffle involving tear gas and flown to China. Kenya does not recognize Taiwan diplomatically so can argue that it was deporting Chinese nationals to China.

Beijing has, not surprisingly, praised Nairobi’s adherence to its ‘One China’ policy.

We have no idea of the details of the individual cases, said to involve a telemarketing scam of people in China perpetrated by a ring comprising nationals from both the mainland and Taiwan. (Update: The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement that China had legal rights of jurisdiction over 77 telecom fraud suspects being ‘repatriated’ from Kenya, including 45 Taiwanese.)

This may also be a case of Beijing throwing its weight about less than a month before a new, less-China-friendly government takes office in Taipei. The question is whether this is a warning shot at President Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-Taiwan independence party, or a harbinger of a more lasting chill in cross-strait relations.

Meanwhile, we understand that a further 31 people are awaiting verdicts in connection with the alleged telecoms scam that are not expected to be handed down until June. At least five are Taiwanese and the rest from the mainland.

One report says China has been talking to Kenya since the start of the year about extraditing all the suspects in the case to face charges in China. However, China and Taiwan have an agreement not to extradite each other’s citizens, so there may well be much more to come in this story.


Filed under China-Africa, China-Taiwan