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Boao Forum, Belt & Road and East Asian Politics

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The Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), which was formed in 2001, and manages to draw top world leaders, heads of multilateral institutions, and academics has been dubbed by many as ‘Summer Davos’ and has begun to understandably draw attention with China’s increasing economic clout and heft on the global stage.  For this year’s forum held at Boao, a coastal town in Hainan province, Chinese President, Xi Jinping who was travelling to Europe, was absent, and many other senior Chinese officials were in Beijing in connection with the trade negotiations with the US. Last year there were a number of other high profile attendees including IMF Chief, Christine Lagarde.

There was a general perception, that last year’s Forum was given more importance, apart from the presence of President Xi and other senior Chinese officials, the event received greater coverage. Significantly, President Xi’s address last year was covered on Chinese Television, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s key note address was not televised.

The Chinese PM reiterated Beijing’s support for multilateral trading system, while pitching for reforms in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  The Chinese Premier also outlined some of the key reforms China is undertaking and flagged some of the steps being taken for encouraging Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Li also said that Beijing would take specific steps for opening up sectors such as  transport, infrastructure, telecommunications, medical care and education, ..

Ever since US President has adopted insular policies, China has been trying to send an impression that unlike Washington it is in favour of globalization and Free Trade. This was evident during last year’s World Economic Forum held at Davos and even at the Boao Forum last year, President Xi Jinping had said:

“We will never threaten anyone, nor overthrow the existing international system”

Xi had also dispelled the notion that China was seeking to build spheres of influence. On the other hand, the Chinese President stated that he will contribute to world peace and that Beijing would seek to be ‘… a contributor to global development and a defender of international order,”

 Boao Forum, BRI and East Asian Politics

The Forum was important, not just from the standpoint of Beijing highlighting some of its key economic policies, but also in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the future of the Japan-China relationship.

Importantly, Sri Lanka spoke in favour of the BRI.  The Hambantota Port project, which has been handed over by Sri Lanka to Chinese companies for a period of 99 years, has contributed to Sri Lanka’s rising debt to China and has been cited as an instance of China’s Debt Trap Diplomacy.

The South Asian nation was represented by Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon,Governor of Southern Province. Chinese media highlighted this aspect of the Forum

With regard to closer cooperation between Japan and China in third countries, Hiroshi Nakaso, chairman of the Daiwa Institute of Research and former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) said that the currency swap of October 2018 would promote third party cooperation between private sectors of both countries.

The second development is particularly interesting, because on the one hand, Tokyo is seeking to provide an alternative to BRI, through the PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure), but on the other it is also willing to cooperate where necessary.

Increasing relevance of Hainan Region

The forum was also used to strengthen ties between China’s Hainan region and neighbouring countries, but also to send a clear message, that it is a key player within the BRI.

Hainan, which was declared as China’s 12th Free Trade Zone in 2018, is important for a number of reasons. It is strategically located, and is an important component of the BRI as was emphasized by senior officials during the recent forum. Between November-2018 and March 2019 it has received over 27 Billion USD.

Hainan’s role in BRI and ties with ASEAN countries

If one were to look at Hainan-ASEAN ties. An ASEAN-China Governors/Mayors’ Dialogue has played a key role in bolstering links between Hainan and South East Asian Countries. Trade between Hainan and ASEAN was estimated at over 12.5 Billion USD for the year 2018 (ASEAN bloc  was Hainan’s single largest trading partner). Apart from economic linkages, Hainan has strong connectivity with ASEAN.

Only recently, the Hainan-Singapore ASEAN liner route was begun. The launch of this route was co-hosted by the provincial government of Hainan and China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) SHIPPING .As a result of this, the Yangpu Port in Hainan has become a gateway between China’s Western Regions and Singapore.  Hainan province has thus emerged as an important pivot of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor (ILSTC) (also known as Chongqing Connectivity Initiative).

There are a number of cruises from Hainan to ASEAN countries – such as Vietnam and Phillipines. To harness its crucial geographic location, there is likely to be an emphasis on air connectivity between Hainan with not just Asian countries in the neighbourhood, but also Africa, Europe and Oceania. During this year’s Boao forum the theme of the ASEAN-China Governors/Mayors Dialogue was “ASEAN-China Connectivity and Hainan Free Trade Port,” ..

Hainan off course seeks to expand its cooperation with ASEAN countries, and not restrict it to just the economic sphere or connectivity.

Wang Sheng, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan province,  said that Hainan would explore greater collaboration in areas such as; ‘health, blue economy, tourism, culture, education, technology, tropical agriculture and seed production,’

Seed cooperation for instance, has been another area in which Hainan’s cooperation with neighbouring countries in ASEAN has witnessed a rise. Hybrid rice seeds cultivated by scientists at the Nanfan Scientific and Research Breeding Base in Hainan are being introduced not just in ASEAN countries, but South Asia as well (5,50,000 hectares of hybrid rice have been cultivated in countries in Philippines, Indonesia Vietnam and India).

The overall aim of this Local officials from both sides, signed an agreement to strengthen the strategic partnership between ASEAN and China.

Conclusion

 Beijing obviously uses the Boao Forum as a tool for furthering its views on global economic and foreign policy issues. It has been receiving all the more attention in recent years due to Trump’s isolationist policies. China by appointing a high profile individual like Ban Ki Moon, Former Secretary General of UN as President of the Boao Forum for Asia in April 2018 has further enhanced the prestige of this event.

Second, it is interesting to see that international events and forums are not restricted to either Shanghai or Beijing. A large number of events such as G20, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are organised outside the big cities, this helps in raising the profile of these cities. Recent examples include the 2016 G20 Summit held in Hangzhou (Zhenjiang), Brazil Russia, India, China Summit (BRICS) Summit of 2017 at Xiamen (Fujian Province), SCO Summit 2018 held at Qingdao.

Even if one were to look beyond the symbolic aspect, a number of other points emerge.

First, that Chinese Provinces conduct their external outreach in a well thought out manner based on geographical location and synergies. For instance, while Hainan is seeking to build links across the world, its thrust has been on neighbouring countries within ASEAN, this is evident from its trade and connectivity initiatives. The fact, that each Province has been empowered to strengthen not just commercial linkages, but enhance people to people ties, and has designated provincial officials to facilitate outreach is also beneficial.

Second, linkages between Chinese provinces and other countries are not restricted to economics and connectivity, so as to send out a message, that Chinese provinces want to build links by effectively utilising ‘Soft Power’. This helps in blunting, to some extent, the perception that China is only interested in furthering its economic goals at any cost.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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East Asia

“Disease Diplomacy” – Post 2019-nCoV,Call to action for Pakistan

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After decade of neglect, infectious diseases (IDs) have re-emerged as a field of inquiry in the area of international public health and international health security. Gradually, the world is realizing the threat of emerging IDs after the 2019-nCoV outbreak in China. However, human history is abundant with stories of epidemic infections. Epidemiologically, IDs tend to follow a cyclical pattern, since they often produce immunity in survivors, and microbes await a new generation of hosts to infect. On the other hand, the disease-causing viruses or microorganisms migrate to geographically distant and immunologically vulnerable inhabitants, producing a pandemic, or regional and global outbreak. The historical relationship between the humanity and IDs is fascinating and noteworthy. IDs plagued civilizations long before the development of territorial states during the European Renaissance. Subsequently, epidemic diseases shaped human history, generally, and military conflict, in particular. During the Peloponnesian Wars, disease demoralized the Athenian people, weakened the army, and undermined the political leadership. Subsequently, more than 2,500 years later, the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 25 million people, including 500,000 Americans. The Spanish flu struck 294,000 allied troops in the fall of 1918.By the time Spanish flu, the pandemic had infected more than a quarter of the world’s population. Moreover, the 1918 flu pandemic killed 50-100 million, which is more than the combined total casualties of World War I and II.

Until the early twentieth century, plague, smallpox, influenza, and other scourges decimated human populations around the world. Despite exceptional improvement in pandemic control, IDs remain a major threat to global public health. In 1998, 13.3 of the 53.9 million deaths worldwide, or 25 percent of all death, resulted from IDs. Historically, some major disease outbreaks in China, including the 1957 Asian flu, the 1968 Hong Kong flu, and the 2002/03 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic, have triggered epidemics elsewhere in the world, killed approximately800 people around the world. In total, SARS infected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries. As demonstrated in the SARS epidemic, the new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which causes a type of pneumonia that has not previously been identified in humans, resulting spillover of disease outbreaks in China and around the world.

The 2019/20 novel coronavirus outbreak, also known as the Chinese pneumonia outbreak or the Wuhan coronavirus, is a viral outbreak that was initially identified during mid-December 2019. Chinese authorities identified the new coronavirus has resulted approximately3000 confirmed cases in 17 provincial-level regions in country, and additional cases being identified in a growing number of countries internationally. On January 21, and 25, 2020, the first cases in the United States and Canada were also announced, respectively. Confirmed cases have also been reported in 11 countries, including, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore. As of January 27, 2020, around 80 deaths have occurred all in China and 92 patients were also recovered. Conversely, ID threats, and the fear and panic that may accompany them, leads to various economic and social risks. With respect to outbreaks and epidemics, there are obvious costs to the health system in terms of medical treatment and outbreak control. ID outbreaks pose additional social risks beyond economic threats. IDs outbreaks have the potential to induce geopolitical instability. Thus, 2019-nCoV may not only have serious implications on stability, prosperity, and health security at the regional, but also global level.

The fact that ID outbreaks have more reach in our increasingly globalized world. In the age of globalized trade and air travel, diseases that once took months or even years to spread beyond their regions of origin can now migrate or travel around the globe in a matter of hours. With growing concerns about such IDs, “Disease Diplomacy” has emerged as a key foreign and health security policy concern. The term relates in particular to IDs issues and determinants that cross national boundaries. As the 21st century continues to emphasize the need for synchronized health actions between nations, the significance of disease diplomacy should be an important component within the foreign policy of Pakistan. Pakistan’s location at the cusp of Central Asia and South Asia makes it ideally suited for inter-regional connections. Moreover, geostrategic location makes Pakistan a nexus for the Eurasian Silk Road Economic Belt, and Southeast Asian Maritime Road.

Apparently, relationship between Pakistan and China may further cemented into higher level of strategic partnership with a unified vision of shared future for the regional peace, progress and stability, if both countries will have bilateral health treaties and agreements. With particular emphasis on health system development, regional and international public health, infectious disease detection and control, and international health security. Similarly, after the 2019-nCoV outbreak, Pakistan is also at high risk of epidemics due to communicable diseases because of poor socioeconomic conditions, low health awareness, inadequate sanitation, unsafe drinking-water, and overcrowded cities. In Pakistan, as a matter of fact, due to socioeconomic, environmental, corruption and bad health governance, communicable diseases still remain a major public health concern and prime cause of morbidity and mortality. Pakistan also bears a significant portion of the regional burden of many communicable diseases that pose a significant threat to regional and international health security.

The recent 2019-nCoV outbreak necessitate the regional collaboration is of paramount importance. Many diseases with epidemic potential may be transmitted rapidly, within and across both countries. The effectiveness of future policies to deal with IDs in the region will only be assured if policies are based on evidence. In Pakistan, there is a great desire to know what the future of IDs will bring, and also to know how we should behave in the future. Now is the high time to realize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light. Nevertheless, the following recommendations are put forwarded for CPEC Authority, primarily, Government of Pakistan (GoP), health and foreign policy planners, principally.

Integrate a health and infectious diseases perspective into traditional foreign policy and create information platform for disease diplomacy.

Establish the coordinating office for disease diplomacy to highlight the connection between health, well-being and socioeconomic development.

Harmonize general foreign policy to highlight the health issues for diplomacy, and utilize the disease diplomacy for regional and international health security.

Utilize science and technology, and health personnel in diplomatic activities/missions and produce policy papers on subjects arising in disease diplomacy and strengthen diplomatic proficiency,

Government must get its own house in order, continue its efforts to strengthen good governance with emphasis on merit-based institutional development and rule of law.

And, exhibit good moral character; exceptionally give priority to fight against nepotism and corruption throughout not only CPEC development but also, society as-a-whole. Eventually, CPEC Authority must be chaired by an honorable civilian (maybe economist) rather than retired military general. However, a separate security domain may be constitute under CPEC Authority that may be headed by military general.

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East Asia

Chinese pneumonia outbreak (2019-nCoV): An emerging threat to global public health?

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“People’s live and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed”. President Xi Jinping

After decade of neglect, infectious diseases (IDs) have re-emerged as a field of inquiry in the area of global public health and health security. Gradually, the world has come to realize the threat of emerging IDs. Human history is abundant with stories of epidemic infections. Epidemiologically, IDs tend to follow a cyclical pattern, since they often produce immunity in survivors, and microbes await a new generation of hosts to infect. On the other hand, the disease-causing viruses or microorganisms migrate to geographically distant and immunologically vulnerable inhabitants, producing a pandemic, or regional and global outbreak. The historical relationship between the humanity and IDs is fascinating and noteworthy. IDs plagued civilizations long before the development of territorial states during the European Renaissance. Subsequently, epidemic diseases shaped human history, generally, and military conflict, in particular. During the Peloponnesian Wars, disease demoralized the Athenian people, weakened the army, and undermined the political leadership. Subsequently, more than 2,500 years later, the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 25 million people, including 500,000 Americans. The Spanish flu struck 294,000 allied troops in the fall of 1918.Moreover, the 1918 flu pandemic killed 50-100 million, which is more than the combined total casualties of World War I and II.

Until the early twentieth century, plague, smallpox, influenza, and other scourges decimated human populations around the world. Despite exceptional improvement in pandemic control, IDs remain a major threat to global public health. In 1998, 13.3 of the 53.9 million deaths worldwide, or 25 percent of all death, resulted from IDs. Historically, some major disease outbreaks in China, including the 1957 Asian flu, the 1968 Hong Kong flu, and the 2002/03 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic, have triggered epidemics elsewhere in the world, killed approximately800 people around the world. In total, SARS infected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries. As demonstrated in the SARS epidemic, the new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which causes a type of pneumonia that has not previously been identified in humans, resulting spillover of disease outbreaks in China and neighboring countries.

The 2019/20 novel coronavirus outbreak, also known as the Chinese pneumonia outbreak or the Wuhan corona virus, is a viral outbreak that was initially identified during mid-December 2019. Chinese authorities identified the new corona virus has resulted approximately500 confirmed cases in 13 provincial-level regions in country, and additional cases being identified in a growing number of countries internationally. On January 21, 2020, the first case in the United States was also announced. Confirmed cases have also been reported in Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Nepal. As of January 22, 2020, nine deaths have occurred all in China. Thus, 2019-nCoV may have serious implications on stability, prosperity, and health security at the global level. Factually, we have now entered in a new era characterized by the dreadful consequences of decade of negligence of IDs at the global level. There is a great desire to know what the future of IDs will bring, and also to know how we should behave in the future to minimize the IDs outbreaks and casualties. Now is the high time to realize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light.

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East Asia

Tsai’s re-election Poses New Challenge to China

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Taiwan is never out of news. Taiwan-China ties is now a part of popular folklore with Beijing expressing its resolve a number of times to integrate the island nation with the mainland by all means and if necessary by the use of force and Taiwan defying the might of China’s growing military muscle. The political pendulum in Taiwan has swung between parties which are fiercely independent and those which take a softer stance towards Beijing. The latest in this narrative is the resounding landslide victory by the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when elections were held on January 11. The landslide victory that the voters delivered is also a stunning rebuke of Beijing’s campaign to isolate the self-ruled island, handing over its first female leader a second term. It was only in November 2019 that Tsai’s DPP suffered a huge defeat in Taiwan’s local elections but the political pendulum swung quickly in her favour, with the political resurgence ensuring her victory and another term at the helm to carve out a course for Taiwan’ future.

Tsai’s victory would surely infuriate China. Soon after her victory, Tsai told the cheering crowd: “Today we have defended our democracy and freedom, tomorrow let us stand united to overcome all challenges and difficulties”. Tsai secured 57 percent of the popular vote with a record-breaking 8.2 million ballots, 1.3 million more than her 2016 victory. Her main rival Han Kuo-yu, from the China-friendly Kuomintang, racked up 39 per cent and conceded defeat. The DPP managed to retain its majority in the island’s unicameral parliament with 61 out of 113 seats, while the KMT took 38 seats. The result is a blow for Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of China and has made no secret of wanting to see Tsai turfed out.

Over the last four years, Beijing had ramped up economic, military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island, hoping it would scare voters into supporting Tsai’s opposition. But the strong arm tactics backfired and voters flocked to Tsai’s DPP, fuelled in part by China’s hard-line response to months of huge and violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The US, the main backer of Taiwan and bound by the Taiwan Relations Act and therefore main military ally, rejoiced Tsai’s re-election as it felt that it would contribute to maintaining cross-Strait stability.

What is that came in Tsai’s favour that led to her victory? She pitched herself as a defender of liberal democratic values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by China under President Xi Jinping. As said, Beijing has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary and loathed Tsai because she refuses to acknowledge the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”. Though Tsai is committed to dialogue with Beijing and wants peace, she is not shy to urge Beijing to halt its sabre-rattling towards Taiwan. She expects that Beijing respects the idea that only the island’s 23 million inhabitants can decide its future.

There is yet another angle to Taiwan-China relationship. As with many other Asian countries, China has successfully increased Taiwan’s dependence on it economically making the latter as its largest trading partner, thereby increasing Taiwan’s vulnerability. Beijing lost no time in reacting that it continues to stand by its policy of opposing any form of Taiwanese independence and its spillitist attempts and that it  “uphold(s) the basic principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ and the one-China principle.”

Taiwan’s election results showed that Beijing’s carrot and stick policy utterly failed. This was the second major electoral setback for Beijing in recent weeks. In November, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide win over pro-Beijing parties in district elections as the city convulses with months of anti-government protests. Tsai’s landslide victory was indeed a slap in the face to Beijing as Taiwanese voters rejected to its intimidation. In the coming months it is to be seen if Beijing’s hardline position towards Tsai shall continue or if Beijing adopts a more ‘soft sell’ approach that is more carrot and less stick from now on. That is unlikely to happen, though.

For record, Beijing hoped that it could replicate the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan with the hope that it can apply the same model on Taiwan if the island ever came to be controlled by Beijing. But as the election outcome demonstrated Taiwanese voters are wary of such a proposal.

What is indeed Tsai’s doctrine? As can be discerned from her address on May 20, 2016 after her victory for the first time as President, her international policy vision clearly intended to drive the country away from its reliance on China and toward the rest of the world. In her speech, Tsai articulated Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which implied that Taiwan shall engage with South and Southeast Asian states and share its expertise and democratic values with an international community.

Beijing has successfully worked for Taiwan’s isolation by economic doles to countries that maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving only 15 countries now with diplomatic ties from the 22 nations that had diplomatic relations with Taipei when Tsai became President in 2016. Between 2016 and now Beijing successfully campaigned to poach Taipei’s allies and pressured international organizations and corporations to exclude Taiwan, from the World Health Assembly to Marriott and American Airlines. Owing to China’s pressure, the United Nations, which does not recognize Taiwan, has stopped allowing Republic of China passport holders into its New York headquarters.

The DPP does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” considered by Beijing to be indispensable for cross-strait exchanges. While Beijing interprets the consensus as the self-governing island and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation, Tsai refuses to acknowledge it as the “consensus” limits Taiwan’s international space and severs the official cross-strait communications that had thrived under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai has successfully rebuffed the Chinese pressure and bolstered Taiwan’s international presence. Her New Southbound Policy received a boost from the US-China trade war. She realised that by befriending the US, she can garner global support so that she can keep a hostile Beijing at bay and preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty. Thus, Tsai hoped that Taiwan can present itself as a more humane, democratic alternative at the international stage.

From its part, Taiwan has worked hard to retain its remaining diplomatic allies despite Beijing’s attempts to woo them away from Taiwan to China. For example, in May 2018, Taiwan agreed to assist Haiti in securing a $150 million infrastructure loan from Taiwanese banks. Also in May 2019, Taiwan agreed to extend a $100 million loan to Nicaragua and its embattled President Daniel Ortega. Though both Haiti and Nicaragua are serial rights violators, both states are among Taipei’s 15 remaining formal allies. Though the deal is still active, Nicaragua has not yet received its loan as Taiwan has not found a domestic bank to transfer the funds due to fears of US sanctions.   

Though Tsai has spoken of creating an ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’ to stand in opposition to an increasingly overbearing China, some of her diplomatic moves are questionable. This is because Tsai has “rewarded” rights violators like Nicaragua, Haiti, and eSwatini, an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s least free states. King Mswati III rules all branches of national government, and critics of the king are subject to imprisonment. In 2018, the king received an honorary degree from a Taipei university, where Tsai thanked eSwatini “for speaking up for Taiwan and always being by our side.” Such conduct on the part of Tsai can have few supporters. While continuing her fight to keep Taiwan’s remaining allies, Tsai might toy with the idea of replacing Republic of China (ROC) with a “Republic of Taiwan” in preparation to a future declaration of Taiwan independence. Beijing has warned that any such move could trigger a use of force against Taiwan. 

Instead, it could be more desirable if Tsai continues to pursue her New Southbound Policy, seen as deepening Taiwan’s ties with other Asian states and as a way to build more sustainable ties so that Taiwan could survive as a peaceful nation without worrying much about pressure from China. The New Southbound Policy has won praise for assisting Taiwanese businesses in China in returning to Taiwan. These companies have benefited from government incentives and for relocating to Southeast Asian states. Coming in the wake of the ongoing US-China trade dispute, the initiative announced in 2016 has motivated Taiwanese companies to leave China and avoid high export tariffs. With her re-election, Tsai is expected to continue with her engagement with neighbouring countries and drive Taiwan’s foreign policy and trade away from the cross-strait paradigm. What probably is lacking or weak is to inject the new dimension of ethics-based foreign policy in Tsai’s narrative. 

A lot was at stake for Tsai when she sought a second term. And, now with her win, the global impact of the result is going to be huge. Taiwan has played a key role in the global supply chain as a high-tech manufacturer, mostly notably as an Apple Inc supplier. Its strategic location just off the coast of China and on the edge of the Pacific is equally important. Taiwan is also a potential military flashpoint between the US and China as the former sells arms and provides other assistance to Taiwan. The island nation also lies on major shipping lanes between Southeast Asia and US allies Japan and South Korea, and on the disputed South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands and air bases. Taiwan is also close to a major US military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

Leading democratic nations honour Taiwan’s democratic credentials despite not maintaining official diplomatic ties. It is therefore for this reason when Tsai says it is up to Taiwan, not China, to decide the island’s future, and warns of the Chinese threat to democracy and liberty, the world listens. It was also a reason why her main opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party, which ruled China until 1949 when forced to flee to Taiwan after losing a civil war, lost as he favoured close ties with China and believed that it was the only way to ensure Taiwan’s security and prosperity. His double-speak was that he also claimed to defend the island’s freedom and democracy.

Though China was closely watching the elections and expected a Han victory, the people of Taiwan thought otherwise in reposing faith with Tsai. What China is likely to do now is that it would further ratchet pressure on Taiwan, perhaps even by conducting military drills close to the island to intimidate. China needs to be mindful that a conflict would hugely damage both China and Taiwan that it can ill afford. The real test/danger would come if Tsai declares formal independence and term Republic of Taiwan and if so, if Beijing would use force to reclaim the island as mandated by its 2005 law authorising the use of force against Taiwan if China judges it to have seceded.  

Positions of the US and China

As expected, the US rejoiced in Tsai’s victory, hailing it as a demonstration of the island’s “robust democratic system”. Although the US has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with means to defend itself. The US State Department issued a statement, saying that “under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people”.

The US saw the election results as a blow to China. Though it did not take any open position, it expressed concern at Chinese efforts at intimidation and influence. When Beijing successfully wooed some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America and the Pacific, the Trump administration was dismayed, which is why it approved billions in new arms sales to Taiwan so that it can defend its sovereignty when needed. The US is concerned that Beijing has been trying assiduously to wean away Taiwan’s remaining allies, trying to see that they stick with Taipei and not give Beijing further foothold.

Even when the US-China trade stand-off continues and elections in Taiwan over, the US transited one of its warships through the Taiwan Strait, a move that irked Beijing. The passage of the USS Shiloh guided-missile cruiser through the narrow waterway, separating the island from the Chinese mainland, was announced by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense and confirmed by the US Seventh Fleet as a “routine visit”, demonstrating the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Interestingly, the development came a day after President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sealed a “phase one” trade deal as part of a broader bid to reduce trade tensions that have stirred up global markets for more than a year. The deal, however, is unlikely to resolve persisting and much wider strategic tensions between the US and an increasingly powerful China.

Though Beijing did not react on the passage of the US warship through the Taiwan Strait, it said that it does not oppose “normal passage” of foreign vessels through the strait, though it censures trips aimed at sending a geopolitical signal. Beijing is paranoid that Tsai is getting cosy with Washington, accusing the latter as the main reason for sowing rising discord between the mainland and Taiwan. Beijing is further dismayed that diplomats from Britain and Japan congratulated Tai on her re-election.

Writing in Japan Forward, Robert Eldridge says that like the US, Japan should have its own Taiwan Relations Act. The administration of Abe Shinzo is openly cozy with the Tsai administration. He and his brother Nobuo Kishi are known to be highly pro-Taiwan. There have been a variety of formal and informal interactions between the two countries. In March 2017, Senior Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama travelled to Taipei for one day to promote tourism. He was the most senior Japanese official to visit Taiwan in 45 years. In response to criticism from China, Abe later responded that Taiwan is “an important partner that shares Japan’s values and interests.” In addition, Keisuke Suzuki, the director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s youth division and a member of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso’s faction, visited Taiwan. He again visited Taiwan to attend a Taiwan-US-Japan security-related conference at which he argued for a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

Japan, which chose diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, has no such TRA governing its relations with Taiwan, despite the historic, geographic, and socially close ties it has with Taiwan. However, while the US passed the TRA in a matter of weeks, Japan has been unable to do it over the course of decades.

Reactions in Hong Kong

Expectedly, Hong Kong protestors feted landslide election win for Tsai. They saw this as a fillip to their movement that puts pressure on China. The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises it would be granted a high degree of autonomy and eventual universal suffrage. But China’s tightening grip on the city and Beijing’s failure to live up to its promises have fed the unrest. This is one of the biggest popular challenges to the ruling Communist Party since the return.

There is a growing opinion within the DPP that Taiwan owes Hong Kong more concrete support. The election outcome demonstrates that it is a proof that Xi Jinping’s strategy of keeping Hong Kong and Taiwan under control is a total failure. The 23 million people of Taiwan are not willing to give up their sovereignty and subject to the authoritarian control of the Chinese leadership.   

Taiwan was part of Japan for 50 years before being handed back to the 1911 regime, and has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor has it formed part of the People’s Republic of China. Tsai argues that the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under China’s “one country, two systems” means that Taiwan should never take Beijing seriously when it talks about “unification.” Taipei expects Beijing should respect the popular will of the Taiwanese people as reflected in the election outcome. Viewed from all perspectives, Tsai’s re-election could prove to be a fundamental turning point for Taiwan. This does not mean to suggest that Beijing would soften its stance any time soon as Beijing made it clear that its position would not change even if Tsai is re-elected. China is committed to promoting “one country, two systems” for Taiwan, a model under which Beijing runs Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy. Tsai has openly rejected such a system. Given the divergence of positions by both sides, the future is full of complexities with no ready answer in sight. 

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