Are China and Taiwan on the brink of conflict? This is how the SOAS podcast covered the issue.

Welcome to China in Context, I’m Duncan Bartlett. 

President Xi Jinping of China has described reunification with Taiwan as “a historic mission”and an “unshakeable commitment of the party”. 

Taiwan is viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province, which must be brought into its fold by force if necessary. The tense situation is a legacy of the Chinese Civil War that ended in 1949, with Nationalist forces fleeing to the island and forming their own government, while the Communists took over in Beijing. Xi Jinping`s rhetoric is sometimes matched by shows of force. Recently, cross-Strait tensions have been running at an all-time high, after a record number of Chinese fighter jets entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. So is the escalation from Beijing near bluster? Or are we on the verge of conflict? 

This week, I’m pleased to welcome to the podcast, Liam Gibson, who’s based in Taiwan. He’s a journalist at the Taiwan News. And he’s also the founder of Policy People, an online platform for think tank experts. Thanks for joining China in Context. Can you tell us what it feels like when Chinese military aircraft invade the Taiwanese airspace? Can you see the planes from your home and hear the noise? Or is it just something that you read about the next day in the papers?

Liam 

Typically we do not really hear or see any jets flying around in the skies above us, at least where I am in Taipei. But the other day, I was just heading out of my office, out of the news agency to go and get some lunch. It was a beautiful blue sky that day, and I was walking through a traditional market along a very thin alleyway and as I was walking along, all of a sudden, out of the clouds above me, this deafening sound of a fighter jet suddenly burst out and everyone briefly looked up and you could see this bomber jet flying, it was quite amazing. You could see it come out of the clouds. And it did this very sharp turn and then disappeared again, off into another section of the sky. I should make clear that it was a Taiwanese jet that was flying, now why was it flying in the skies of Taipei? Because that was one of our fighters doing practice, basically, in preparation for the military parade that was to happen on the 10th of October. It got me thinking as I was walking back to my office, what would it be like if that were not a Taiwanese bomber, but a Chinese one, and it really brought home to me how helpless we would all be as civilians? There’s nowhere to hide from bomb strike, if it could strike you at any moment on any surface.

Duncan

So this is an issue that certainly generates a lot of international attention. Sometimes you might get the impression that a war between Taiwan and China is imminent. What can you say about the mood on the island? How would you describe the atmosphere?

Liam

Well, I would say there’s a perception gap between the international media and local public opinion. However, I think that perception gap is starting to close. Some polls, as recent as last year, showed that 80% of Taiwanese still felt China would not invade. However, that has lowered somewhat to about 60 percent. So I think there has been some sort of shift in public opinion. 

However, I still think Taiwanese don’t think it’s really going to happen straight away. There is not the same sort of a countdown to war, that you might see if you read the headlines overseas, I would say where these two narratives, or where this sort of perception gap was most clear was when the Economist ran a front-page story in April this year, which said that Taiwan was the “most dangerous place on earth.” 

That really ruffled a lot of feathers here. So there was a statement from the president saying, let’s not worry, we can defend our country, etc. Meanwhile Joseph Wu, the foreign minister recently said to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Taiwan is preparing for war, and so I would say that overall, people here are concerned but they’re not panicked. Taiwanese have lived with the threat of Chinese invasion for a long time, and they are quite mature and quite level-headed in facing that threat.

Duncan 

I’d like to invite you to analyze what Taiwan and China’s leaders have said about this issue recently. Let’s start with China. Xi Jinping delivered a speech in October marking the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, the revolution in Wuchang or the Shanghai revolution that led to the establishment of the Republic of China, which is Taiwan’s official title and it ended China’s monarchy. Did you pick up anything significant from Xi Jinping’s speech?

Liam 

I think what was most significant was the fact that Xi Jinping did not specifically mention unification by force, which is often spoken of by the Chinese leadership and the Chinese media. But in this speech, he did not specifically mention that. And that signals a slight recalibration on the part of Xi Jinping. There is a slight de-escalation in terms of rhetoric coming from China, I would say that some of the most heated debate in Taiwan regarding that particular speech actually was from the Kuomintang nationalists, who were quite irritated at how the CCP sort of hijacked the legacy of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, in sort of framing the Xinhai revolution as a sort of lead up act to the CCP’s “liberation of China”, as they call it, in 1949. So I think Tsai Ing-wen’s speech the next day on 10th of October was more significant.

Duncan

Okay, well tell us more about what President Tsai said the next day on this national day of Taiwan. That’s the double 10 day that you were talking about earlier.

Liam 

Two key takeaways, Duncan, first is her emphasis on the four commitments or si ge jian chi (四個堅持). And those four commitments are that she and her government remain committed to a free and democratic constitutional system, that the commitment to the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China not being subordinate to one another. The third commitment being to resist encroachment on Taiwan sovereignty and the fourth commitment being that the future of the Republic of China, Taiwan must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people.

The second commitment that the ROC and the PRC are not subordinate to one another, has proved the most controversial. The Chinese of this hu bu li shu (互不隸屬), is a little bit vague, but what we can say is typically a li shu (隸屬), there is a political element to this, and that is administratively, if something is li shu, it is within your jurisdiction. So what she’s saying is that hu bu li shu means that the jurisdictions of the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China are separate, they are not subordinate to one another. That to some in the KMT defies the Republic of China’s Constitution, which of course lays claim to the whole territory of mainland China. However, a lot of our supporters have said that Tsai Ing-wen is simply laying out the ground reality that the ROC as Taiwan is its own country. It has its own laws, its own territory, and its own administration. And the same is true of the PRC, on Mainland China. So this is a very tentative step towards a more clearly stated, more explicit expression of Taiwan being an independent sovereign nation as separate from Mainland China.

Duncan 

Well, thanks for explaining that I can see there’s a lot of sensitivity about the actual terms and the language used. I expect some of it gets lost in translation, but you’ve explained it very clearly. I mean, clearly, China is trying hard to push the idea of a peaceful unification with Taiwan. Yet I can’t help feeling that the harder it presses for that the more resistant people in Taiwan are to the idea. What’s your view here?

Liam

Well the harder Beijing presses, the less peaceful it becomes!

Whilst peaceful unification sounds nice on paper, China has never been able to show to Taiwan, what role it would play in this supposedly unified “Greater China”, especially it has not been able to really guarantee that Taiwan’s democratic model would continue, or even what its economy might look like if it was subsumed into a greater economic structure within China.

Now, the issue is China really fails at soft power. It has failed to attract Taiwanese to say that yes, actually, China has something better to offer us. We would like to join China and actually prosper and have a better system under Beijing. It has not been able to do that and it has failed on every attempt to do that. And so instead, there are just constant threats and coercion. So whilst there were some on the KMT side amongst the nationalists to still hope for some sort of peaceful reunification, the reality is the vast majority of Taiwanese have now looked at Hong Kong and seen that as the best indicator of what peaceful unification would look like with Taiwan. And so as everyone says, now it is Hong Kong, and next is Taiwan, and so that failure on the part of Beijing to really respect their commitments in Hong Kong, and to show that they could abide by some sort of one country two systems model has really damaged any chance the Taiwanese would trust their intentions in creating so-called peaceful unification.

So that does raise the stakes. And that does make the possibility of forced unification, possibly more likely, and that’s quite alarming.

Duncan 

Let’s wrap things up here by talking about the role that the United States of America has approved several deals to sell arms to President Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taiwan, and the US Taiwan Relations Act. Well, that’s created a lot more diplomatic distance from Beijing. Let’s put it that way. I’m interested to know where that leaves thinking in Taipei, in terms of this great issue that faces the whole world, US-China great power rivalry.

Liam 

Essentially, the outlook for Taiwan’s government is the closer they can get to Washington, the better.

Taiwan is very aware that its best bet to resist Chinese aggression is to shore up a commitment from the US that the US will indeed come to Taiwan’s defense, if conflict does occur across the Taiwan Strait, and it’s doing pretty well at that.

In a very partisan political climate in the US, support for Taiwan is very high amongst both Democrats and Republicans. But it’s not just in the US, you know, Japan ties have also been on the upswing.

I was at a press conference recently where the Deputy Defense Secretary Nakayama dropped in from Tokyo via video conference call and told us all that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense. Japan views Taiwan as family. And so there’s been a lot of two plus two dialogues between the leadership in Taiwan in Japan so that there’s been a real increase in the ties and the exchange there.

Of course, the US is still by far the most important ally Taiwan has, but we really should look at things in perspective and realize that Taiwan has gained a lot of good faith credibility, and its status has really been elevated over the last few years.

Duncan

Well, thank you, Liam, for putting all those ideas to us. So clearly, that was Liam Gibson, on the line from Taiwan. This podcast is produced by the South China Institute. That’s part of the University of London, and you can find out more about our research and courses, our website, www.soas.ac.uk. But for now that’s all from us here at the China in Context podcast.