In yet another report about the Taiwan issue, the author, unfortunately, has nothing positive to say once again. Taiwan continues to dutifully contribute its share to one of the most painful problems plaguing the relationship between the two world powers.
In August of this year, the negativity stemming from this issue and impacting the relations between Beijing and Washington has increased noticeably. Earlier, this author reported about the fact that the US finalized the sale of 66 of its latest F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
In this article, the author would like to focus, first and foremost, on a ceremony, held in Taiwan, to mark the 62nd (i.e. not a milestone) anniversary of what experts refer to as the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, which is also called the 823 Artillery Bombardment of Kinmen in Taiwan. The numbers refer to the date the attack started on, i.e. the 23rd of the 8th month (in 1958).
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (just as the “First” from 1954 to 1955) stemmed from PRC’s attempts to take control of a number of small islands, located fairly close to mainland China, that the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chiang Kai-shek followers claimed as part of Taiwan after they had fled the PRC in 1949. China’s main aim at the time was to “liberate” Taiwan from the Chinese Nationalist Party or the KMT.
The scale of operations becomes clear when one remembers that, at the peak of the conflict, in 1958, approximately 100 to 200 Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft were involved in a battle at the same time. While the People’s Liberation Army had some success during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the second conflict (at the time when the relationship between the Soviet Union and the PRC had already soured) essentially ended in a draw. In the end, the islands of Kinmen (located less than 10 km from mainland China), a key target of the artillery bombardments, remained under Taiwan’s control.
On August 23, 2020, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, accompanied by officials and military personnel as well as Brent Christensen, the head of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), attended the commemoration ceremony in Kinmen County. The author would also like to remind his readers that the aforementioned Institute serves as the de facto US Embassy in Taipei. And an article published by the Taipei Times (a Taiwanese newspaper) focuses on the fact that it was the first time the head of AIT attended such an event.
As is customary, no public comments were made during the ceremony. President Tsai Ing-wen laid a wreath at a memorial park on Kinmen island and then everyone in attendance bowed their heads in respect. Afterwards, the Presidential Office spokesman made a statement. “We are thankful to our US friends for joining us on this very meaningful day, to recall those who came before us and made great sacrifices to protect the safety of those living on Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu,” he said. “Those sacrifices helped secure regional peace, and advance Taiwan’s democracy and freedom.”
Taipei appears to have joined Washington’s campaign aimed against Beijing’s economic activities abroad. On August 24, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) commission gave Taobao Taiwan (a popular e-commerce site) “six months to re-register as Chinese-backed rather than foreign or leave the island”. Apparently, Taiwanese officials recently learned that the company, operated by a British-registered company called Claddagh Venture Investment, “was in effect controlled by China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd”. In fact, “Taiwan treats investment from foreign countries differently to that from China, with far more stringent rules for Chinese firms”. In the case of Taobao Taiwan, the commission “was also concerned about information security as user data was sent back to China”.
Such (relatively small-scale for now) dirty tricks played by Taiwanese “rebels” on the PRC are beginning to irritate Beijing, which is still trying to behave in a fairly reasonable manner. According to the Global Times, “the idea that Taiwan can be traded has always been on the minds of US politicians”. In fact, the article calls Taiwan “a useful chess piece for the US only because of the US strategy to suppress the Chinese mainland”.
China’s response to Taiwan’s actions has, of course, extended beyond words. For some time now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been flexing its muscles in the air and at sea around Taiwan. On August 23, the PLA announced “four concentrated military drills” to be held “in three major Chinese sea regions”: the Yellow, South China and Bohai seas. Earlier, the PRC had staged military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and at its north and south ends “aimed at deterring Taiwan secessionists and the US”.
The US has also consolidated its position in the South China Sea. For instance, during the first 3 weeks of July of this year, the United States conducted its first dual carrier operations in the South China Sea (involving the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups) in six years. Unsurprisingly, the exercises came “at a time of heightened tensions with China”.
It is important to remember that the Taiwan Relations Act “does not guarantee the USA will intervene militarily if the PRC attacks or invades Taiwan”. In fact, former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou (i.e. Tsai Ing-wen’s immediate predecessor) must have considered such a possibility when he criticized policies adopted by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on August 10. He stated that China’s strategy would be to “let the first battle be the last,” suggesting that Beijing aimed to launch a quick war before the US could come to Taiwan’s aid. The very next day, DPP spokesperson Yen Jo-fang lambasted his comments.
Still, during a security forum on August 22, Ma Ying-jeou (the former Chairman of the Kuomintang) confirmed his stance, according to the Global Times. He said that he would “strive to prevent war between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan from now” until the day he died. The Chinese newspaper had a positive reaction towards the speech given by the former Taiwan regional leader (such euphemisms are used in the PRC to refer to positions of leadership in Taiwan).
An interview with a former KMT Deputy Secretary-General, published by the Global Times on August 25, also points to an increased rivalry between Taiwanese parties over Taiwan’s role in the China-US game. The CIA involvement in the 2020 Taiwanese general election was mentioned, among other things, during the discussion. The New Eastern Outlook covered Tsai Ing-wen’s fairly unexpected re-election previously.
The interviewee also talked about “his pessimism, arguing that the possibility of a peaceful reunification” was diminishing, due to “US intervention, de-sinicization and other factors”. At this point, the author would like to mention that, from his perspective, the Kuomintang’s stance on the aforementioned “reunification” (in terms of what it entails and how it will proceed) remains unclear.
In Taiwan (and, in fact, elsewhere), the voice of reason appears peripheral while patriotism dominates. According to poll results published on August 25, “nearly 60 percent of Taiwanese disagreed” with the statement made by former president Ma Ying-jeou.
The author would now like to focus on two other noteworthy events with a bearing on Taiwan’s status on the international stage. On August 17, a Taiwan Representative Office was opened in the Republic of Somaliland (a self-declared state, internationally considered to be part of Somalia). It would seem that the number of countries (mainly located in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean) that Taiwan has diplomatic relations with has increased by one and now adds up to 16.
Incidentally, the absence of the “Republic of China” (ROC) title on the official name plate of the aforementioned office caused some controversy in Taiwan. And it would be nice to know what it all means.
The second and (possibly) more significant event occurred on August 25, when Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that a representative office was set to open in the Southern French city of Aix-en-Provence with the aim of bolstering cooperation and exchanges between Taiwan and France (“in an array of areas, including business, innovation, culture, and education”). It is also worth noting that on that very day, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi began his weeklong tour of Europe. It is quite likely that during his visit to France, the PRC official will discuss this recent development (behind closed doors of course), which also did not go unnoticed at the much cited Global Times.
In conclusion, the author would like to state that he is not yet certain about what any of this means either.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.