Will Taiwan continue to be isolated amidst international conflicts?

The South China Sea region is experiencing unprecedented tensions, aimed at pressuring Beijing to change its stance on the war in Ukraine or exhaust it by replicating the Ukrainian model in Taiwan. While this tension warns against confrontation, it is not an inevitable option in light of Beijing’s efforts to avoid it and focus on time as a solid gain that works in its interest to restore Taiwan and unify the Chinese nation.

Contrary to media hype, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States was not the most important event. Instead, the most notable event was the visit of Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), to Beijing. While previous Taiwanese presidential visits to the United States numbered around 140, they were not official and were given the status of transit or stopover, diplomatic expressions intended to confirm the United States’ commitment to the one-China principle while pressuring Beijing.

What distinguished Tsai Ing-wen’s latest visit was its longer duration, indicating that the US authorities had granted her an entry visa, which increased Chinese anger. This consensus between the Chinese government under Biden (Democrat) and the House of Representatives led by McCarthy (Republican) reinforces Beijing’s fears and makes it appear more solid in its defense of the island, as it begins to lose hope in finding a diplomatic way out of the crisis with the United States.

All facts on the ground indicate that time is passing in Beijing’s favor, and retaking the island is no longer a far-fetched possibility, perhaps through non-military means.

Beijing is focusing on internal and external factors in its pursuit to restore Taiwan. On the internal level, it has taken several measures, including attempts to support the political opposition to Taiwan, especially the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang). From March 27th to April 7th, the leader of the Kuomintang Party visited Beijing, which was his first visit since the island’s secession. The visit took place away from the media, and it was said that he would visit several regions and cities in China. Beijing aims to seek the success of the KMT candidate in the elections that will take place in Taiwan at the end of next year. In the local election held in Taiwan last November, the Kuomintang won 13 municipalities, including the Taipei Metropolitan Municipality, out of 22 in Taiwan, while the Democratic Party led by Tsai only won 5 municipalities. As a result of these elections, Tsai resigned from the leadership of the party and was succeeded by Vice President Lai Ching-ti, who will be the next candidate for the presidency of Taiwan in the elections that will take place in January 2024. Beijing also works to influence and attract young people in Taiwan through scholarships, job opportunities, or by sending a large number of Chinese students to study or work in Taiwan. Furthermore, there are huge companies in China for businessmen from Taiwan, and it is estimated that there are one million people living in China.

On the external level, Beijing seeks to restore the island by working to “zero the number of countries that recognize Taiwan.” This requires establishing diplomatic relations with any country that severs its relations with Taiwan. For example, the number of countries that recognized Taiwan in 1971 was 56, but now there are only 13 countries that maintain relations with Taiwan, and the majority of these countries are marginal or isolated islands. Recently, Honduras severed its relations with Taiwan, so Tsai was forced to visit Central America, as there were only two countries left that recognized Taiwan, namely Belize and Guatemala. At the end of this month, there will be presidential elections in Paraguay, and if opposition candidate Efrain Alegre wins, he will announce the severance of relations with Taiwan, which will be another defeat for Tsai, who is facing elections next year. Although Beijing’s focus is on restoring Taiwan, it is trying to avoid confrontation and to achieve its goal through diplomatic means.

Chinese response:

The Chinese response to the visit of the President of Taiwan and her meeting with McCarthy may not be what one would expect. A quick and superficial reading of Beijing’s response would lead one to believe that China’s response is the same as it has been in the past, such as conducting military maneuvers around the island and making more threats and statements. However, this is not the case.

In reality, the Chinese response may have started much earlier when Beijing saw the November elections in Taiwan as a strong indication of the desire of the people on the island to return to the motherland. Therefore, the leader of the Kuomintang Party was received with a delegation of professors and university students in Taiwan, as it seeks through them to strengthen its influence there and support the party’s candidate for the upcoming elections.

Externally, Beijing stepped up its political rhetoric after President Xi’s visit to Moscow. Starting from the date of the visit, which came two days after the International Criminal Court issued a decision against President Putin, and President Xi’s affirmation of the depth of friendship between them, and ending with the positive results of that visit. When the Chinese president returned, it was said that President Biden asked to speak to President Xi, but China refused, stating that there was no need for this meeting. This is perhaps the first time that Beijing has acted in this way.

It seems that Beijing has started to feel that there is no point in communicating with the Biden administration, as it does not abide by the promises agreed upon in previous meetings between the two presidents. Additionally, the Biden administration has many problems, including bad economic conditions, the bankruptcy of banks, and political and criminal scandals involving former President Trump, which indicate more division within American society.

Beijing is actively seeking to weaken the dollar through more cooperation and exchange agreements in national currencies, as seen recently with Brazil and France. Beijing is also trying to persuade and encourage some European countries to seek their own interests outside of the American shadow, especially since Europe was the biggest loser from the war in Ukraine. President Macron’s recent visit to Beijing may be pointing in the same direction, as his statements about the need for European countries to search for their interests and reduce their dependence on the US dollar will likely influence the positions of other European countries.

As for the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who preceded her visit to Beijing with statements stressing the need to pressure China to change its position on the war in Ukraine, she was completely ignored by the Chinese government. Instead, she was received by the Minister of the Environment of China, which is not commensurate with her status. Furthermore, she was forced to leave China on a regular flight as a regular passenger after her passport was checked by airport security, which angered her greatly. Von der Leyen is the strongest candidate for the presidency of NATO, which may have prompted her to step up her rhetoric against Beijing.

It seems that the world has really changed, and Beijing is aware of its strengths and is working to invest them in the appropriate way. What remains for China is to continue its peaceful approach to restore Taiwan, without being dragged into any battle that would exhaust China and impede its development.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)