The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States must help Taiwan resist Chinese dominance

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 21. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

During a Hawaiian “transit stop” Wednesday, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen praised the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as “stronger than ever.” But here in Taiwan, it’s China that dominates every discussion. Beijing’s malign influence is apparent everywhere, while the United States is seen as largely absent. Washington must wake up to the danger of China’s massive effort to infiltrate, undermine and eventually abolish Taiwan’s democracy.

Tsai called for Washington’s help to confront Beijing’s comprehensive campaign to exert control over Taiwanese politics and society, which is steadily eroding a 40-year status quo that has kept a shaky peace. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which governs the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, stipulates that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

In 2019, those words ring hollow. Xi Jinping’s government brazenly uses economic and political pressure to interfere in Taiwan — an attempt to turn the Taiwanese people and their leaders toward Beijing and against the West. Xi himself smashed the status quo in January when he publicly called for Taiwan to rejoin China under the “One Country, Two Systems” model. One look at Hong Kong should be enough for any Taiwanese citizen to realize that means a steady erosion of their freedoms and sovereignty.

During interviews with Taiwanese politicians, officials and national security experts, our delegation in Taiwan, organized by the East West Center, heard grave warnings. Following its successful interference effort in last November’s local elections, Beijing is now focused intensely on ousting Tsai and her Democratic People’s Party in next January’s presidential contest.

“Next year’s election might be the last meaningful election in Taiwan. After that, it will be a Hong Kong-style election,” said Chen Ming-Chi, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. If China succeeds in returning the Beijing-sympathetic Nationalist Party (KMT) to power, that could be the tipping point after which Taiwan can never again exert its own sovereignty, he said. “2020 would be the beginning of the reunification.”

In other words, a Chinese military invasion is no longer the scenario Taiwanese fear most. China’s strategy to take over Taiwan is focused now on the hybrid warfare tactics authoritarian regimes increasingly deploy in free societies. Pro-Beijing interests have bought up a huge portion of Taiwanese media and coordinate with Beijing to spread propaganda and fake news and manipulate social media.

The Chinese government uses economic coercion to both recruit and punish Taiwanese leaders. Meanwhile, China is working overtime to strip Taiwan of its diplomatic allies and keep it out of multilateral institutions. Beijing is literally trying to erase the country from the map.

Taiwan is the testing ground for these methods, but China is now exporting them to other places, including the United States. That’s a threat not just to Taiwan but also to democracies worldwide, said Deputy Foreign Minister Hsu Szu-chien.

“Taiwan is only the beginning,” he said. “They want their new civilization to become a new global order. That’s what they are thinking. And together with an expansion of their physical power, now they are putting their dreams into reality.”

Several KMT officials and former officials told our delegation fears of China were overblown and seeking accommodation with Beijing was the only reasonable approach. Former deputy foreign minister Bruce Linghu said the KMT is not “pro-China” but rather “pro-peace.”

“Taiwan has to play it smart,” he said. “Why should we be provocative with China?”

KMT officials insist they support the U.S.-China relationship and are not trying to appease Beijing. But actions speak louder than words. While Tsai was speaking to Americans, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, a rising KMT leader and presidential prospect, was holding controversial meetings with Chinese Communist Party officials in Hong Kong and Macau. It’s clear which relationship the KMT prioritizes.

The U.S. interest in helping the current Taiwanese government defend its democracy from Chinese interference and aggression is understood — but our will is under question. The Trump administration, despite being full of pro-Taiwan officials, has been inconsistent. There’s progress on arms sales but no progress on what Tsai wants most, a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement. There’s not enough U.S. support for Taiwan’s fight against China’s hybrid warfare approach.

In reality, accommodation with Beijing likely won’t work and China’s appetite in Taiwan will only grow with the eating. Taiwan proves that democracy and Chinese culture can work together and that prosperity need not require repression. This is an example that Beijing, for obvious reasons, cannot tolerate. Taiwan’s very existence plays into the Chinese Communist Party’s deep insecurity.

But time is running out fast for the United States to show the Taiwanese people they have international support for refusing to acquiesce to Beijing’s dominance over their politics, economy and society.

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Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen: Beijing must respect our democratic will