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Illustration: Davies Christian Surya

‘The Taiwan card’: island’s growing strategic value is testing Beijing’s diplomacy tactics

  • Taiwan is increasingly an international issue and the election outcome may reshape its future ties with the world
  • As Beijing seeks to influence other countries’ ties with the island, it has the means to ‘make them pay for their decisions’, expert says
While mainland China ramps up efforts to squeeze and isolate Taiwan ahead of a high-stakes presidential election this weekend, the self-ruled island has gained increased international prominence amid heightened cross-strait tensions and the US-China superpower rivalry.

Many countries in Asia, Europe and beyond have stepped up their rhetoric, voicing concerns on the worsening situation in the Taiwan Strait. Over recent months, some have followed Washington’s lead to circumvent Beijing’s opposition and pursue substantive economic and political ties with the island’s independence-leaning government.

While most countries, including the United States, have been sensitive to China’s red lines over the one-China policy, and have largely refrained from seeking official relations with the island, pundits say Beijing faces a bigger challenge – the island’s fate has increasingly become an international issue.

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The election on Saturday has attracted global attention and its outcome may tilt the fragile balance between mainland China, Taiwan and the US. And according to all three, the results may also affect the island’s future ties with the rest of the world.

“There has been a clear trend that the Taiwan issue has become more internationalised,” said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Taiwan has done a great public relations job in selling its democracy vis-à-vis an authoritarian China
Zhiqun Zhu, international relations expert

Beijing has often touted its success in persuading nine countries to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan – most recently Honduras in March last year – since the island’s outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, took power in 2016. Thanks to Beijing’s pressure tactics and chequebook diplomacy, the number of countries that have formal ties with the island has dropped from 51 in 1971, when the United Nations recognised Beijing and expelled Taipei, to 13 at present.

Despite the declining number of countries officially recognising Taiwan, the island has developed substantive political and economic relations with many countries, especially its main backers, namely the US and Japan, according to Zhu.

“Taiwan has done a great public relations job in selling its democracy vis-à-vis an authoritarian China,” he said.

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In a world being shaped by a US-China Cold War-style confrontation, observers have pointed to growing signs of a shift in international attitudes towards Taiwan as evidence it has become increasingly difficult for Beijing to prevent Washington and others from playing “the Taiwan card”.

“As the US-China rivalry intensifies, the strategic value of Taiwan has increased. Undoubtedly, Washington will continue to play the Taiwan card against Beijing. For decades this has been a low-cost, high-return game to play,” Zhu said.

The trend looked set to continue because of Taiwan’s critical importance to the chip industry and global supply chains amid elevated tensions reminiscent of the Cold War.

“The increasing attention that countries in Asia and Europe have been paying to Taiwan is a reflection of their growing discomfort both with the heightened risk of armed conflict on the island specifically as well as with China’s perceived growing assertiveness in the region and beyond,” said Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an international affairs specialist at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.


What Taiwan’s presidential election will mean for China, the US and the world

What Taiwan’s presidential election will mean for China, the US and the world
The present tensions in the South China Sea, particularly between China and the Philippines, and the deepening China-Russia partnership helped to explain the spotlight on the Taiwan issue, he added.
Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary. While most countries, including the US and Japan, do not recognise the island as an independent state, Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to arm Taiwan. US President Joe Biden has said a few times that Washington would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack by mainland China.

Sourabh Gupta, a senior policy specialist with the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, agreed that the great power rivalry between Beijing and Washington was a key factor driving the change of attitudes towards Taiwan.

“Great power competition is fundamentally geostrategic competition, with the Indo-Pacific theatre and the Taiwan question being at the forefront. This has incentivised and forced the US’ Asia-Pacific allies including Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines, which depend on Washington to guarantee their security as well as the US’ Nato allies, to a lesser extent, to follow Washington’s lead on the Taiwan issue,” he said.

Following former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to the island and subsequent military drills by the People’s Liberation Army, Japan has embarked on a controversial military build-up, during which it has billed China as “the greatest strategic challenge”. South Korea also expressed concern with President Yoon Suk-yeol claiming last year that the Taiwan issue, like North Korea, was “a global issue”.
Washington needs to mobilise the assets of its allies and like-minded states to strengthen ‘collective deterrence’
Takashi Hosoda, University of Defence, Czech Republic

Takashi Hosoda, an assistant professor at the Institute of Intelligence Studies at the University of Defence in the Czech Republic, attributed the increased attention on the Taiwan question to the need for “collective deterrence” as a result of China’s rise and the US’ relative decline.

“Another major structural change is that it has become difficult for the US alone, with its domestic politics in disarray, to respond to China’s material national power, and Washington needs to mobilise the assets of its allies and like-minded states to strengthen ‘collective deterrence’,” he said.

Countries have taken steps to improve their unofficial and economic ties with Taiwan.

Canada signed a bilateral investment agreement with the island late last month. In July, Taiwan’s foreign ministry announced it would set up its third representative office in Mumbai, India’s financial hub, signalling New Delhi’s booming trade ties.

Such moves to increase trade and signify support for the island would be deemed provocative to Beijing but less likely to incur significant consequences, according to Hardy-Chartrand with Temple University.

Taiwan’s presidential election risks war, ex-Beijing official says

Taiwan’s relations with European countries, especially those in Eastern and Central Europe, have also seen marked progress over the past three years, with a de facto embassy opening in Vilnius in late 2021. The move infuriated Beijing which downgraded diplomatic ties with Lithuania.

Other European countries, including Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia, have also edged closer to Taiwan. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last year called on European navies to patrol the Taiwan Strait to “show Europe’s commitment” to the region.

But to avoid antagonising Beijing, countries have tried to carefully state their stance on the tension in the Taiwan Strait rather than on Taiwan as a de facto independent, self-ruled democracy, according to Ming-Sung Kuo, a legal expert at the University of Warwick’s school of law.


Taiwan election exposes generational rift over potential reunification with mainland China

Taiwan election exposes generational rift over potential reunification with mainland China

“In various communiques or joint statements emerging from international [forums] or leader summits, it is the Taiwan Strait, not Taiwan, that has been listed among core concerns of the attending parties,” Kuo said.

Among countries in the Global South, China might not face such headwinds as they were likely to “be unmoved and unwilling to risk their China relations over Taiwan”, according to George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre.

“The degree to which states will allow their entire China relations to wither for the sake of supporting Taiwan still hangs in the balance in my view. Many nations may remain profoundly China-sceptic, but be unwilling to risk trade and other relations by overplaying their Taiwan card,” he said.

Washington watchful of ‘unpredictable’ Beijing response to Taiwan election

“Beijing knows this too, and so I’d expect China to capitalise on this where it can. In other words, call the bluff of governments that make noise over Taiwan to be quiet or else. And this might work in some cases.”

Chinese leaders have deemed the Taiwan question as China’s core interest, a bottom line not to be breached. However, the issue is not as important to other countries, according to Li Fei, a researcher at Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute, who dismissed concerns about the challenges Beijing faces in countering international support for the island.

We have the means and ability to counter their anti-China attempts and make them pay for their decisions
Li Fei, Taiwan Research Institute

“We need to stay vigilant that countries may use the Taiwan card when ties with China are not in good shape or blindly follow the US lead to become the vanguard in countering China and Russia. But I don’t think they can achieve much, as we have the means and ability to counter their anti-China attempts and make them pay for their decisions,” Li said.

Shelley Rigger, a political-science professor at Davidson College in the US state of North Carolina, said there was little need for Beijing to worry about the increased international spotlight on Taiwan.

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“Beijing is in a very strong position vis-à-vis Taiwan. Taiwan’s leaders have very few options and very little room for manoeuvring,” she said.

But Seong-hyon Lee, a senior fellow at George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations, said countries that aligned with China on the Taiwan issue often anticipated economic compensation in return. As China placed greater emphasis on the Taiwan issue, it may need to offer increased economic incentives to maintain these nations.

“Conversely, nations that cannot be swayed solely by financial incentives and align more closely with the US on the Taiwan issue are likely to accelerate the process of economic decoupling from China by strengthening their own economic cooperation bloc eventually,” he said.