As China’s relations with many countries in the region and outside deteriorate, sympathy for Taiwan and its plight is growing. While there is little to indicate that any country is considering dramatic shifts to their Taiwan policy, China’s aggressive behavior is generating growing concerns about a conflict across the Taiwan Strait. There is also increasing public sympathy for Taiwan in many countries in the region, especially in Southeast Asia and India, because most have now experienced some form of coercion from China. This provides a fertile ground should there be considerations of any shifts in policy toward Taiwan in any of these countries. Equally, China’s sensitivity about Taiwan provides a ready handle for others to retaliate for unfriendly Chinese behavior.
Some of these growing concerns are a result of Chinese behavior toward Taiwan itself. Repeated military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan and efforts to pressure Taiwan militarily have been growing. According to Taiwan’s defense minister, the PLA has engaged in 49 military aircraft sorties across the Taiwan Strait median line in 2020, the highest number since 1990. The minister, who made a statement in the parliament, said that the Chinese military “conducted 1,710 aircraft sorties and 1,029 military vessel sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) this year.” The minister added that, countering these moves, Taiwan’s military undertook around “3,000 military aircraft sorties to intercept and monitor the Chinese aircraft and vessels.” There is even some concern that China might be doing this as a tactic to force Taiwan to waste its resources.
In response to these Chinese moves, the United States has stepped up its diplomatic and military support to Taiwan. In August this year, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar traveled to Taiwan. This was “the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979.” The discussions during the visit focused on COVID-19, the impact on global health, and Taiwan as a possible supplier of medical equipment and technology to deal with the pandemic. In September, another high-level U.S. visit took place with Keith Krach, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment. Krach was also accompanied by a U.S. delegation that included Robert A. Destro, assistant secretary of the department of democracy, human rights, and labor.
More recently, the U.S. has also agreed to a major arms package for Taiwan worth almost $2 billion. The total package may increase to as much as $5 billion. The military package includes sensors, missiles, and artillery, all designed to boost Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself from China. China has threatened unspecified retaliation against the United States for such arms transfers, but it is unlikely that the United States will stop making them.
Support for Taiwan is growing at the popular levels in countries like India. This was in no small measure the result of Chinese heavy-handedness, such as its recent “instruction” to Indian journalists that they should observe the “One China” principle. This was triggered by reports and advertisements in the Indian media regarding Taiwan’s National Day. Far from winning any compliance, the Indian media dismissed and laughed off Chinese efforts. The Indian government was less than amused. The spokesperson of India’s foreign ministry rejected the Chinese statement saying, “there is free media in India, that reports on issues that they see fit.” The growing sympathy in India toward Taiwan, including at official levels, is most clearly the result of the Sino-Indian confrontation at the border this summer. There was even reportedly considerations in the Indian government of starting free trade talks with Taiwan, though this appears to have been shelved for the time being. The contrast between India’s attempts to curtail its China trade while seeking greater trade with Taiwan is stark. As in the Indian case, sympathy toward Taiwan has also grown in Southeast Asia as a result of crude Chinese pressures. The so-called “Milk Tea Alliance” is one reflection of this phenomena.
The increasing salience of the Taiwan issue is reflected in the growing debate in the United States about the appropriate level of commitment to Taiwan. There is also some concern in Australia about the potential impact of U.S. involvement in Taiwan on Australia. There are, equally, concerns about whether Taiwan itself is doing enough to defend itself.
Much of the new attention and support that Taiwan is getting is clearly the consequence of both the Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait as well as its unrelenting pressures on other countries, even those far from China. China recently engaged in a spat with Sweden after the country banned Huawei from its 5G network. China responded by asking Sweden to “correct its wrong decision” or face consequences for Swedish businesses. Just a few days earlier, the Chinese ambassador to Canada held out a not-so-veiled threat to the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong if Canada continued to grant asylum to democracy activists from Hong Kong. China’s unusually foolish behavior and its growing pressure on Taiwan is likely to continue to garner greater sympathy for Taiwan, a democracy that has successfully fought the coronavirus epidemic which originated in China.