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