The visit was seen as a signal that Taiwan is not alone

Foto: Ceng Shou Yi /​ Imago Images

China reacted to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with military exercises. Christina Sadeler spoke to I‑Chung Lai, a senior adviser to the Taiwan Thinktank about Taiwanese perspec­tives on the visit and the efforts to repel Chinese coercive diplomacy.

The interview was conducted for LibMod by Christina Sadeler

Debates inside Taiwan

Let´s start with the debates inside Taiwan. It was notice­able that local media in Taiwan had started very late with its reporting, while inter­na­tion­ally the debates have already started and heated long in advance. How has this visit been perceived and debated in Taiwan among the public, within expert circles, and among politi­cians? And has the focus or assess­ments changed by now?

The discus­sions regarding Nancy Pelosi´s visit to Taiwan should be seen in the context of the timing of China´s military threats. In the beginning, the debates about the potential visit have basically followed the discus­sions in the United States. Because there were some voices within the U.S. saying the visit is unnec­es­sary, or the timing is not good. Biden himself even said that the U.S. military does not recommend the trip.

Later, when China started to react furiously, the whole debate within the U.S. changed regarding whether Pelosi really should continue or rather delay her visit. And also how this decision then will be viewed by China as whether the U.S. is compro­mising or yielding to pressure from China.

So the domestic discus­sions here were not so much focused on those questions in the beginning. Only later on, when Pelosi´s visit started to become a possible reality, news­pa­pers began to pick up the Western debate regarding the timing and the potential conse­quences for Taiwan.

As for the general public, most people basically welcomed that another important U.S. politi­cian is visiting Taiwan. They viewed it as a strong signal that the U.S. is not aban­doning Taiwan.

The experts, however, were mostly talking about the conse­quences, about what the aftermath of China´s reaction will be. They were divided mainly into two camps: One was trying to alert people to be cautious and to avoid unnec­es­sary provoca­tive actions that could endanger Taiwan.

The other camp basically held the view that China wants to stop Taiwan from its inter­na­tional engage­ment and that we should not give in to this pressure. We should refuse to link Pelosi´s visit with potential reactions by China. We believed that Pelosi´s visit to Taiwan is the right of the U.S. and it is the right of Taiwan to receive her. If we would allow other parties to veto those kinds of visits, we won´t be able to receive more inter­na­tional parlia­men­tary dele­ga­tions later. So we believed Pelosi´s visit would actually also bring benefits, including the evidence about U.S.´ commit­ment as well as inter­na­tional support, although those were rather gestural. So we were in the position that we needed to support this.

Are the main political parties inter­nally divided about this?

The DPP is not divided, it is all supportive of this visit. But there could be a split within the KMT. There are some people within the KMT, who believe Taiwan should unite together now because Nancy Pelosi´s visit is not for the DPP. She is here for the whole of Taiwan. But there are also some other voices saying that it is really bad timing now and who were against the visit. So within the KMT the opinions are more evenly distributed.

China´s immediate reactions

Could you briefly describe with which measures China has reacted and how you assess this?

There were of course the strong military actions. Rockets and missiles were fired into the restricted zones on the first day of the announced exercises. And we also saw many fighters and other aircrafts in the north- and south-west entering Taiwan´s air defense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone (ADIZ) and some of them even crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

On the second day, we no longer saw the firing of missiles, but China dispatched their vessels surrounding Taiwan. And the aircrafts started to concen­trate on the north-western side of Taiwan, espe­cially in the zone close to Taoyuan, a city in the north-west.

Also on the third day, we saw a high concen­tra­tion of aircrafts and vessels in the north-west of Taiwan and a regular entering into ADIZ and some crossing of the median line.

Of course, this is only a rough summary and not a compre­hen­sive list of all the oper­a­tions. Also, the exercises continued even beyond the initially announced timeframe.

In addition to the military exercises, there were many cyber-attacks against Taiwan, which already started before Nancy Pelosi arrived. Further­more, we faced a strong disin­for­ma­tion and narrative campaign, as well as heavy economic sanctions.

China reacted with military exercises that included the firing of missiles and the dispatching of warships and ‑planes. How has Taiwan´s govern­ment responded to this so far?

Taiwan´s govern­ment is sending vessels and aircraft in order to repel China’s assets back and to try to maintain the median line. The primary actions were meant to prevent China from claiming that they have already estab­lished a new status quo.

With regard to the disin­for­ma­tion campaign, various ministries and other orga­ni­za­tions tried to quickly publish alerts, warning people about fake news. However, concerning the economic sanctions, the govern­ment has not fully discussed any coun­ter­mea­sures at this point. The primary focus was on how to respond to military threats.

A couple of days after China’s military exercises started, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of National Defense became more active in their commu­ni­ca­tion, not only to the Taiwanese public but also internationally.

Yes, because we saw that the situation changed dramat­i­cally. China initially announced to conduct military exercises from August 4th to August 7th, later extended to August 8th. But because China then continued exercises beyond that schedule and because we have already witnessed over 150 cancel­la­tions of inter­na­tional flights and a good number of commer­cial ships that tried to bypass Taiwan, the ministries decided to go public about these issues and to express their hope for support from the inter­na­tional community.

Potential impli­ca­tions and inter­na­tional support

From your perspec­tive what will be the potential impli­ca­tions for Taiwan, for Cross-Strait relations, and the region?

There are several dimen­sions of course.

Concerning Cross-Strait relations, China’s show of force showed the whole world, including the Taiwanese people, that Xi Jinping no longer has an interest in “peaceful reuni­fi­ca­tion”. China´s Taiwan Affairs Office yesterday published a new White Paper saying that “peaceful reuni­fi­ca­tion is still the ultimate goal”, but it also says “the use of force will not be renounced”. The strong military reaction shows that China is willing to either coerce Taiwan into submis­sion or to take it mili­tarily, should the Taiwanese people opt not to “unify”. This seems to be Xi Jinping´s message and signal toward Cross-Strait relations.

The previous assess­ment that a Chinese military attack against Taiwan will not happen anytime soon, needs to be read­justed. To us, China´s military exercises looked as if they have used this oppor­tu­nity to practice a blockade scenario. Our past judgment about the possi­bility of peace, right now, has been totally shattered. The issue is now, how long it will take and how we can repel the coercive diplomacy set up by China to restore the status quo.

In terms of the military exercises, it also seems the U.S. has not been fully attentive to what has been happening here this time. For example, in 1995/​1996 the US sent warships and two aircraft carriers much closer than today´s position. They were able to effec­tively push back. This time the US only has one aircraft carrier and in a more distant position. So this time the US hasn´t really been able to present a very strong signal to China.

China wanted to utilize the oppor­tu­nity to show other countries, including Taiwan, that it is not afraid of the US anymore. China-US dynamics have changed. In the past, China and the US still had a lot of possi­bil­i­ties to manage their rela­tion­ship. Whereas right now it seems China forces US-China relations into one that is very openly compet­i­tive and even mili­tarily hostile to each other. So the military dimension will increase dramatically.

And of course, there are also major impli­ca­tions for Japan-China relations. Those missiles fired into Japan´s exclusive economic zone, have been an acute warning for Japan. It showed Japan that anything that happens with Taiwan, will also endanger Japan´s security.

As you can see, these military exercises and the show of force will have major impli­ca­tions for political devel­op­ments in the region. And I haven´t even mentioned the broader geopo­lit­ical shifts yet.

Against the back­ground of these very concerning devel­op­ments, what is your opinion on how the inter­na­tional community and espe­cially the EU could or should contribute to de-esca­la­tion and support Taiwan?

Instead of thinking about de-esca­la­tion, the EU should think about how to help Taiwan to restore the status quo, as it was before the Chinese military exercises. Because right now China wants to eliminate the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which in our view is extremely provoca­tive and very dangerous for Taiwan. To restore the status quo, Taiwan needs help from the U.S., EU, U.K., and others.

The second thing is, the EU really needs to help Lithuania to fight against pressure from China. Because we are antic­i­pating that China will place similar types of sanctions against Taiwan. Because of Lithuania´s support of Taiwan, China started to boycott every­thing that is “Made in Lithuania” and also pressured companies not to use parts and supplies from Lithuania. Probably in the future, China might employ similar measures for Taiwan. I believe, first of all, that the EU of course needs to support Lithuania with all available measures. And at the same time, it is important to antic­i­pate similar moves toward Taiwan, to develop precau­tionary measures, and prepare for scenarios on how to react if China decides to use a similar type of sanction.

Third, the EU´s economic engage­ment with Taiwan could be strength­ened. Although we have seen an upgrade in exchanges between the EU and Taiwan, but economic and trade relations could be further boosted.

In addition, I would say the EU should inter­nally discuss “aid-to-Taiwan-packages” for the future, including protec­tion of supply lines, supply of material and resources as well as guarding assets to help protect shipments. Because we are going to expect that China will probably have an isolation campaign against Taiwan and could try to send shipments away from Taiwan. So the support and escort of shipments might need to be conducted through the EU itself. And in terms of non-lethal military support sharing intel­li­gence infor­ma­tion for example would help Taiwan.

Lastly, from my point of view, polit­i­cally the EU should counter Beijing´s claim that Taiwan is part of China. You should artic­u­late that you have your one-China-policy, but not support China´s claim of Taiwan being part of the People’s Republic, like what we see within the UN. This would establish the back­ground for better posi­tioning yourself, if the EU later wants to be involved in inter­na­tional missions.

Dr. I‑Chung Lai is a senior adviser to the “Taiwan Thinktank”, a public policy think tank based in Taiwan.


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