The most consequential election of 2020 may not come at the end of the year, when Donald Trump seeks a second term in the White House, but much earlier and closer to home for Australia, in Taiwan.
Taiwanese voters get their say on a new president in January next year, an election Beijing will be watching just as intently as the US poll in November, pitting Trump against a so-far undecided Democratic challenger.
Taiwan is off the radar for most Australians, and indeed much of the world, and not by accident. Beijing ensures the self-governed island of 24 million people is airbrushed from global affairs by excluding it from full participation in international bodies and picking off its few diplomatic partners.
Already this year, as Canberra watched on anxiously, Beijing has persuaded two Pacific nations, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, to switch recognition from Taiwan to China, in return for the promise of substantial economic benefits.
But beyond the boycotts, Taiwan plays an outsized role in hi-tech global value chains, as home to some of the world’s most advanced computer chip companies. It is also pivotal to Xi Jinping’s core political objectives: to unify China and make the country a wealthy superpower on par with the US.
If there is ever to be a showdown over Beijing’s territorial demands and US power in the region, it is likely to be in Taiwan, which sits in the heart of what is known as the “first island chain” that cuts off the Chinese navy’s direct access to the Pacific Ocean.
For Xi’s China, getting hold of Taiwan means nothing short of national redemption. For the US and Japan and other countries in Asia, including Australia, it would be a strategic game changer, definitively marking the end of Pax Americana in the region.
The US is committed by law to sell arms to enable Taiwan to defend itself against China. One of John Bolton’s last acts as national security adviser was to declassify a Reagan-era presidential memo directing future presidents to keep up Taiwan’s defensive capabilities through arms sales. It is an open question as to whether the US would go to the island’s defence if under attack but Taiwan could be the issue that finally puts to bed the notion that Australia doesn’t need to choose between its security and economic interests.
Scott Morrison repeated the “we don’t have to choose” mantra last month in a speech at the Lowy Institute. But, in truth, such choices happen frequently these days: recent foreign interference legislation and the exclusion of Huawei from Australia’s 5G network are just two examples.
In 2005 Alexander Downer, then foreign affairs minister, said Australia’s obligations under ANZUS would not necessarily apply in the case of a Taiwan contingency. Downer’s statement elicited a rebuke from Washington and a quick qualification from his prime minister, John Howard.
In the intervening years, Australia’s economic interdependence with China has only deepened, and the choices have become more difficult. Australia’s room to move is already limited by the fact Canberra acknowledges Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. Aside from the sovereignty issue, for Australians, many of Taiwan’s struggles will feel oddly familiar. How to manage China as your largest trading partner while Beijing demands more in exchange for its lucrative market. How to extract assistance from Washington when the US seems to be retreating from the region. How to defend your democracy from authoritarian regimes that intend to undermine it.
On one recent Thursday evening in Taipei, political aides, journalists, academics and strategists from Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party gathered together to talk strategy, huddled over bubble tea and beef noodles.
Holding translations of Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion, last year’s local bestseller about the Chinese party-state’s interference in Australian politics, they peppered their visitor with questions about Canberra’s foreign interference laws. Most focused on how Australia struck a balance between its democratic freedoms and national security.
In Taiwan, they say, any attempt at regulation — of media, of protests, of political donations — is seen as an attack on their hard-won freedoms. And Taiwan’s legislature is crippled by a constitution that enshrines the outdated belief that Taiwan will one day take back mainland China.
The paradox for Xi’s China is that despite Beijing’s rising economic and military power, Taiwan in many respects has never been so far out of reach. Only one in 10 Taiwanese supports unification, according to polls conducted by the National Chengchi University, and that is mostly accounted for by China-born residents of Taiwan. Most support the status quo.
Xi himself has not helped Beijing’s cause in the upcoming election. In a landmark speech in January this year, Xi lauded the “one country, two system” model used in Hong Kong for Taiwan, remarks that provoked a surge in support for a then unpopular President Tsai Ing-wen, who opposes unification. The “one country, two systems” model, though initially designed for Taiwan, has never been popular on the island, even when it was seemingly functioning in Hong Kong.
After months of increasingly violent unrest in the territory, the formula that had once sounded like an ingenious way to win over Hong Kongers and bring them gradually and willingly under Chinese rule now just looks like a model for neither place. The divergence of identity evident between people in Hong Kong and the mainland is not news to Taiwan.
The more that Beijing has represented the Taiwanese as being Chinese, the less the people of Taiwan have identified as such. Entwined with democratic elections and free speech, Taiwan’s own unique identity, which blends the island’s indigenous and colonial histories involving Japan, China, The Netherlands and Spain, has only strengthened. “The Taiwanese have been pursuing self-determination since the 1920s and those political aspirations are stronger now than ever,” says University of Tasmania lecturer Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert.
The Hong Kong protests have entrenched support for Tsai at the expense of candidates Beijing preferred. In January this year, Tsai’s approval rating was about 25 per cent. Now it is well over 50 per cent in a one-on-one contest with the Nationalist (Kuomintang) candidate, Han Kuo-yu.
The Nationalists were the former governing party of China until they lost the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists and set up a government in exile in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Many Taiwanese have always seen them as interlopers.
The Nationalists traditionally have supported closer relations with Beijing but Han was forced to hastily disavow the “one country, two systems” formula after the blow-up in Hong Kong. “Over my dead body,” Han told a rally, breaking into English to make his point.
The Nationalists have already started to engage in gallows humour as Tsai’s margin begins to look unassailable in the poll that is only a few months away. A senior party official joked: “Xi Jinping is the best thing to ever happen to Tsai Ing-wen.”
Beijing offered an economic package to Taiwan late last month but otherwise is not relenting. In recent days China has sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. Three Taiwanese nationals have been arrested in China on charges of endangering state security. Beijing also has reportedly asked Chinese students to leave Taiwan during the election.
Why has Tsai’s new popularity not prompted a rethink in Beijing? The answer lies not in Taiwan but in Xi’s China and the internal logic of domestic politics. Far from finessing its position to influence Taiwanese voters, all the incentives in Beijing pull in the opposite direction, to be as tough as possible.
Xi’s single-minded ruthlessness has been on display most clearly at home, where he has refused to name a successor and cowered all opponents with the most far-reaching anti-corruption campaign since the founding of the People’s Republic. Such firmness, however successful at home, doesn’t deliver dividends in Hong Kong and Taiwan. With a robust democracy now embedded in Taiwan’s political culture, China has had to look beyond the ballot box to acquire a new arsenal of tactics.
China has been taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook by overtly and covertly influencing local media and community groups, taking control of some newspapers and television stations, and seeding money to candidates through clan and temple associations that proliferate on the island.
In response to Beijing’s increasingly blatant interference, Taiwan’s legislature has been debating legislation to push back, including bans on direct funding from Chinese entities for news outlets and campaigns.
On the campaign trail last week, Tsai publicly accused China of “producing fake news and disseminating rumours to deceive and mislead Taiwanese”.
The battle also is being played out on the internet. Taiwan has been subjected to more cyber attacks than any other country, with Taiwan’s National Security Bureau reporting about 30 million attacks a month. About 60 per cent of those attacks come from China, according to the government.
The US held joint cyber exercises with Taiwan for the first time this week.
As it is with Washington, technology is another battleground in cross-straits rivalry. A senior Taiwanese national security official says the biggest threat the government faces is the attempted poaching by Chinese companies of its semiconductor engineers.
In Taiwan, political leaders worry that Xi wants to cement his legacy with a breakthrough on Taiwan. Once shy about revealing its strengths, Beijing under Xi has adopted a different approach, flaunting its wealth and power and equipping the People’s Liberation Army to deter any challengers.
But while the conventional balance in military power is tipping towards China, a full-scale invasion remains unlikely. The People’s Liberation Army would have to mount an amphibious invasion, which is risky. Even if Beijing were to take Taiwan militarily, that would hardly be the end of the issue. “This would only be the start of a much larger open-ended political and security crisis for China and the region in the face of Taiwanese resistance,” Harrison says.
“Mass refugees, capital flight and the mobilisation of Taiwanese diasporas would test national politics in many countries, especially Australia. On top of that, sustaining an occupation of Taiwan by the PLA for possibly years would test China’s military resources and the strength of its political institutions.” It is no wonder, then, that Beijing prefers its current strategy of multi-front hybrid warfare against the island to force an opening of talks.
Taiwanese leaders live on the edge, determinedly cultivating support in the US and Western democracies, which they see as their best bet to hold off Beijing. As Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu says: “We need to prepare ourselves for the worst.”