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Dispatch from Taiwan: After the 20th National Congress

November 17, 2022
James Lee

Talking Policy Podcast

In our second dispatch from Taipei, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan talks with Taiwan expert James Lee about his recent article in Global Asia, “The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is Here”, why a Chinese invasion is unlikely, and what a Republican sweep in the U.S. midterms would mean for U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. This interview was recorded on November 2, 2022. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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U.S. officials seem to think that China will invade Taiwan soon, with varying predictions about when. In contrast, others including our colleague, Tai Ming Cheung, disagree. Tai recently wrote in a Foreign Policy article that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine probably set any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan back by a decade. So, why are U.S. officials so worried?

When U.S. officials say they’re concerned that China may resort to non-peaceful means, I think that may not necessarily mean they’re talking about an invasion. The United States defines “peaceful” as the absence of force or coercion. What they’re probably thinking of is a scenario in which China uses coercion against Taiwan to try to unilaterally change the status quo, be it through a potential blockade or sealing off the Taiwan Strait to international transit, continuing to challenge the median line in the Taiwan Strait.

In the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China has shown increasing willingness to cross over the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which used to be a de facto informal boundary between Taiwan and mainland China. U.S. officials believe that China was using Pelosi’s visit as a pretext for advancing the agenda it had before. I don’t think this necessarily means we should be worried about an invasion, per se, but China does seem to be ratcheting up the pressure against Taiwan with campaigns involving psychological warfare to increase the pressure on Taiwan to bring it to the negotiating table. That is what U.S. officials are primarily concerned about. But I would agree with Tai Ming Cheung in that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to delay China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo.

In a recent article in Global Asia, you and your co-authors wrote a piece titled “The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is Here.” You wrote, “it is hard to read how the United States, Europe, and other countries might actually respond to military action, but many signals of support are being sent.” Are those signals of support to Taiwan credible in response to military action or other coercive measures?

It’s hard to say because they don’t promise very much in terms of what each of these countries will do to support Taiwan, except for Biden’s remarks saying that the United States will intervene in Taiwan’s defense. Most of these other statements in support of Taiwan demonstrate solidarity and reaffirm the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but they haven’t spelled out concrete support for Taiwan in very much detail. So, it’s hard to say how credible other countries are because there’s not much of an initial offer or promise to start with. Biden’s assurances to Taiwan have had an effect, but haven’t tilted the balance in terms of U.S. assurances being credible or not credible. It’s just created a great deal of confusion about what the United States’ policy is, given that the White House says there’s been no change in policy. People in Taiwan are just as confused as people in the United States.

You mentioned Biden’s comment that the United States would defend Taiwan, while his administration has actually sought to drop the written provision in the Taiwan Policy Act that would commit the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense. Why is there this discrepancy within the administration?

There are two plausible interpretations. One is that the administration has this policy, but Biden personally disagrees with it. Another could be in terms of just an international relations perspective the administration may feel that a written assurance would be too provocative, but potentially, if the U.S. provided a verbal assurance, that wouldn’t lead China to think that the United States was pursuing a defensive relationship with Taiwan.

Another way to look at it is how the United States tries to achieve dual deterrence—the United States is not only trying to deter China from using military force, but also trying to deter Taiwan from taking actions that would trigger China to use military force. There could be a strategy in which the United States is not willing to commit to defending Taiwan in writing, but doing so verbally may give Taiwan some degree of assurance while creating uncertainty about whether the United States will continue to maintain this policy if Taiwan takes actions on the independence issue that the United States disagrees with.

There isn’t concrete evidence to favor one interpretation over the other. But another interpretation is there could have been a deal or a trade between the administration and Congress in which the administration pressured Congress to drop that provision in the Taiwan Policy Act. On the other hand, just a few days later, Biden said that the United States would defend Taiwan. So, there may have been a trade in which the administration got what it wanted, but also had to make concessions to Congress in return because Congress had been much more assertive in its support for Taiwan than the administration has been in recent years.

There has been concern heading into the upcoming U.S. midterm elections about what a Republican-controlled House or Congress would mean for U.S. support to Ukraine, which is often seen as an analogous situation to Taiwan. Some Republicans have been openly questioning U.S. support to Ukraine. What do you think a Republican sweep might mean for Taiwan? Or is Taiwan totally different from the Ukraine-Russia situation?

I wouldn’t say Taiwan is totally different, but there’s an important difference in that there’s much more of a bipartisan consensus on a generally hawkish line toward China. The potential scenario we’ll be looking at if the Republicans sweep Congress is that the administration may come under more pressure to take an even more hawkish line on China and particularly on Taiwan. There is a bipartisan consensus in support of Taiwan generally, but relatively speaking, Republicans are much more hawkish than Democrats are on China and much more supportive of Taiwan. There is an asymmetry between how Republican members of Congress view China versus how they view Russia—there’s generally a consensus that China is the United States’ main great power competitor.

What is the mood like in Taipei in the policy community, in the academic community, and on the street?

In terms of the policy community and the Taiwanese government, I think there is a growing concern about China using a coercive campaign against Taiwan. People aren’t preparing for an imminent invasion of Taiwan, but there’s a fear that China could pressure and try to isolate Taiwan internationally. During the 20th Party Congress in China, it became clear that Taiwan was becoming the central issue for China. A lot of the rhetoric coming from China is similar to what we’ve seen in the past. But given that Xi Jinping has an unprecedented third term, and he’s really defined Taiwan as a central issue for his rule, and the fact that opposition to Taiwan’s independence is now enshrined in the Communist Party Constitution, there is a general concern in Taipei that China may ratchet up the pressure soon. Again, that doesn’t mean that there are fears of an imminent invasion, but there is growing interest in extending the period of conscription from four months to one year.

Among the general public, there is also growing concern that China may try to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in the coming years, but there’s still a disconnect. People talk about it a lot but then they still go about their day-to-day lives. People aren’t actively planning for it in the sense that they aren’t stockpiling food. They talk about their plans for the future without really thinking about what happens across the Strait. If you were to talk to someone about the future and ask, well what if China invades and it becomes this apocalyptic kind of scenario that people refer to in a way that’s just so out of people’s active consciousness. It just sounds a little bit like saying, “what if the world ends tomorrow?”

What are you going to be watching closely over the next few months as important clues for how things are going to progress between China and Taiwan in the United States?

I’m going to be following what happens with the Taiwan Policy Act. With the first version of the Taiwan Policy Act that was introduced, China warned of unspecified severe consequences if the United States actually passed the Taiwan Policy Act. Then the administration and Congress toned down the language in the Taiwan Policy Act, but it still was not clear what China would do if the United States passed the Taiwan Policy Act. So, there’s potential for China to repeat the kind of military exercises that we saw in August. When my co-authors and I refer to the “fourth Taiwan Strait” prior to this, we were thinking about the possibility that this may not just be a single incident, but a series of episodes that continue into the future.

Thanks for being with us, James. We’ll check in with you again in a couple of months to see how things develop.

Thanks very much for having me.

Thumbnail credit: Remko Tanis

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