Tsai Ing-wen in 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen commenced her second term in office on May 20th by delivering a 25-minute inauguration speech at the Taipei Guest House. Typical of the COVID-19 era, her guests sat at arm’s length of each other, many wearing masks. After a ceremony “swearing out” Taiwan’s former vice president and swearing-in Tsai and her new vice president, officials played a video montage depicting messages of praise and support from Taiwan’s various partners and supporters.
American representatives, including Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), made a virtual appearance; a statement written by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was read aloud after the video. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the upcoming presidential election, even sent out a tweet, expressing his warm wishes for Tsai’s inauguration. While fewer people attended the inauguration due to space limitations imposed by the pandemic, the ceremony conveyed a message of global cooperation and support for Taiwan’s democratic values.
Recently, Taiwan has been lauded by many members of the international community for its swift response in detecting the virus before it was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). But Taiwan’s achievements have not been universally recognized by all members, as the island’s global standing remains contested by international organizations and nations alike—most notably China—for geopolitical reasons. As we illustrated in our recent article, Taipei, under Tsai’s administration, remains unyielding in promoting itself as a responsible stakeholder in this global health crisis that knows no borders. But Tsai’s stance on certain issues—Taiwan’s desire to work with the World Health Organization, as well as deepening military ties with Western countries—is certain to irk Beijing, if not prompt outright military action. To date, Beijing has never ruled out the threat of force as a means of subduing Taiwan, if necessary.
Nonetheless, while Tsai has publicly expressed the notion that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is an “independent country,” some analysts warn that classifying Tsai as “pro-independence” is a dangerous oversimplification. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) believes the island, as the Republic of China (Taiwan) is already independent under the current status quo and “does not pursue any sort of formal change to Taiwan’s status.” It goes without saying that the DPP’s stance is certainly more independence-leaning than that of the China-leaning Kuomintang (KMT), and Tsai herself seems loath to declare the brand of formal independence that could prompt mainland Chinese military action.
Though the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act suggests the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, past scholars have questioned both Washington’s commitment to Taipei and vice versa. Under the Trump administration—which has never failed to challenge Beijing—relations between Washington and Taipei have experienced a season of renewal. Tsai, for her part, seems to favor strong relations with the U.S., and a recent Pew Research Center survey demonstrates that “by a nearly two-to-one margin, people in Taiwan rate the U.S. more favorably than mainland China.” While he was president-elect in December 2016, Trump made an unprecedented foreign policy move by speaking to Tsai over the phone for at least 10 minutes, which the Council on Foreign Relations called “the first time a U.S. president or president-elect spoke directly with a Taiwanese leader since at least 1979.” And 2018 saw the dedication of a new complex in the American Institute in Taiwan, a “de facto embassy,” amidst disapproval from China.
Even this past year, Trump and his administration seem to lean towards warming relations with Taipei. In a move that infuriated the mainland, Tsai made two separate, high-profile trips to the U.S., as part of her “Journey of Freedom, Democracy, and Sustainability” tour and even participated in a discussion at Columbia University on July 13th, 2019. Moreover, in the same month, the United States promised the sale of Stinger missiles and 108 M1A2T tanks to Taiwan; it seems committed to defending Taiwan remotely at the very least. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that U.S. military aid to the island peaked in 2008 under Bush, totaling over $6 billion; aid continued sporadically throughout the Obama administration, and Trump supplied aid in 2017 and 2018. Interestingly enough, other countries have drawn Beijing’s ire through arms sales. More recently, France has elicited Beijing’s criticism by continuing an arms deal with Taiwan, maintaining that the deal had been in place since 1994.
Washington’s recent policies toward Taiwan fall in line with the Asia Reassurance Initiative (ARIA) Act of late 2018, which called for “increased engagement across the Indo-Pacific” as well as arms sales to Taiwan “on a regular basis.” Shortly before talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping over the phone about the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. This act grants the U.S. government the authority “to increase economic, diplomatic, and security engagements with nations upgrading relations with Taiwan, or to reduce such engagements with nations taking actions that seriously undermine Taiwan.” Beijing will likely perceive this as a slap-in-the-face by Washington.
A military police officer stands alert in Taiwan’s Presidential Building
Tsai’s Upcoming Challenges
Just as Tsai and her administration will remain relentless in promoting democratic values and expanding Taiwan’s role in the international arena, Beijing will not waste a moment undermining Taipei’s authority through its use of “dollar diplomacy”—this, of course, is Beijing’s modus operandi. Tsai will need to remain vigilant over Beijing’s tactics of poaching diplomatic partners from Taipei in an attempt to exert its political influence abroad at the cost of delegitimizing Taiwan’s status as a self-governing democracy. Since Tsai took office in 2016, Taiwan has lost 7 diplomatic partners to Beijing. And just a few months before her re-election in January 2020, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, two small Pacific island-nations, switched their diplomatic allegiances from Taipei to Beijing.
These small countries that have officially severed ties with Taipei share a common incentive to formalize relations with Beijing: self-preservation by economic means. This mentality will inevitably become even more endemic among partners, considering the pandemic has already taken a devastating toll on each state’s domestic economy and health infrastructure. Beijing may take this opportunity to volunteer itself as a reliable economic partner capable of reigniting economic activity by providing commercial investments. However, it may only do this on the condition that Taiwan’s partners abandon their official ties to Taipei.
Until recently, Americas Quarterly reports, Paraguay was one beneficiary of Taiwanese “mask diplomacy.” April 17th, however, saw the Paraguayan Senate vote to decide if the country should renounce its recognition of Taipei in favor of Beijing. As the article puts it, “the bill’s proponents argued that China could better aid Paraguay’s fight against COVID-19 by providing medical equipment and expertise.” Ultimately, lawmakers did not vote for this legislation. Vis-a-vis Paraguay, Taipei can breathe a sigh of relief—for now. This may be a small victory for Tsai, but this issue is far from resolved for her and the DPP. Beijing remains resolute in maintaining its campaign to isolate Taiwan, and COVID-19 could provide the perfect cover for coercive dollar diplomacy.
During her inauguration speech, Tsai said that she wants to “reiterate the words peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue.” Notably, these are the same four words she recited during her victory speech on January 11th, when she stressed the great need for dialogue and long-lasting cooperation between Taipei and Beijing. Once again, Tsai made herself quite clear that Taiwan refuses to adhere to the mainland’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework under which Hong Kong operates. Assuming that Beijing maintains its firm stance, this suggests that challenges in cross-strait relations have yet to reach their crescendo.