Taiwan will take part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco this week, a rare opportunity for the self-governing island democracy of 23 million people and its high-tech economy to break the diplomatic embargo on it imposed by authoritarian China.
Taiwan’s chief delegate will be a civilian rather than a government figure or head of state, under an unwritten rule that satisfies China’s contention that Taiwan participate as an economic entity rather than a state player.
For the seventh time, Taiwan will be represented by Morris Chang, the 92-year-old founder of the world-leading Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. Chang is known as the godfather of the industry that has put Taiwan in the top ranks of high-tech manufacturing and personal electronic devices.
Taiwan has participated in APEC since 1991 under the name Chinese Taipei. It began taking part just two years after the group’s inception and the same year that China and the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, then under British control, joined.
Taiwan has relied on retired ministers – and, in Chang’s case, industry leaders – who are well connected with the government but do not carry the burden of formal office, which could spark a protest from China. But that doesn’t mean Taiwan’s government won’t be represented. Minister of Finance Chuang Tsui-yun will attend a meeting presided over by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who recently visited Beijing, and two other ministers will attend meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
A Japanese colony until the end of World War II, Taiwan split from mainland China amid a civil war in 1949. China continues to claim the island as its territory, to be annexed by force if necessary, a threat it plays out on a near-daily basis by sending ships and warplanes into areas around the island. These acts of political intimidation have the potential to wear down the operational resiliency of the island’s military equipment and personnel. Taiwan has just a fraction of the air, sea, and missile power of China’s People’s Liberation Army, not to mention its ground forces, and relies heavily on young men doing their mandatory national service to fill its ranks.
However, Taiwan in recent years has invested heavily in upgraded arms purchases from the United States, along with boosting its own defense industry, most notably building submarines that could undermine the Chinese naval threat. That has come partly in response to Chinese displays of force such as sailing aircraft carriers through the economically crucial Taiwan Strait and sending aircraft and drones to circle the island.
While the U.S. has no military treaty with Taiwan, it is obligated under federal law to ensure the island can defend itself and to treat all threats to the island as matters of “grave concern.” That, along with Washington’s string of alliances from Japan to South Korea and the Philippines, and its refusal to recognize China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, make the Taiwan Strait a potential powder keg should Chinese leader Xi Jinping seek to make good on his determination to unite what he views as China’s historical territory and cement his political legacy.
China primarily wants an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, including latest model F-16 fighter jets, and an assurance it will not give an electoral boost to the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Even with China’s lackluster economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, including high youth unemployment and massive debts born by an overextended housing sector, Xi is pushing ahead with his vision for China to reclaim its historical place as the center of cultural, political and economic life in the Asia-Pacific.
Taiwan, with its multi-party system focused mostly on local issues and with a broad consensus favoring political separation from China, presents a unique challenge to those who call the shots inside the cloistered leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Almost entirely male and shielded from the media, they brought Hong Kong to heel after pro-democracy protests broke out in the former British colony in 2019.
China has sought to influence Taiwanese politics through military threats, but also by using a “carrot and stick” approach toward economic opportunities on the mainland and by enticing politicians, chiefly from the main Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, to meet with high-level officials in Beijing. Taiwanese media outlets have also been persuaded to run stories critical of the status quo of de facto independence and Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, mainly through their ownership structures, which involve substantial investments on the mainland.
Ultimately, it comes down to the voters in Taiwan. January’s elections for the presidency and legislature will be the best determinant of whether the populace wishes to stay the course or seek a greater degree of accommodation with Beijing.
Current Vice President William Lai appears to be in a strong position to win at least a plurality of the vote in his bid for the presidency, while his opposition appears splintered. But that could change, as two of the three opposition candidates – Hou Yu-ih of the KMT and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party – have vowed to form a joint ticket after months of back-and-forth negotiations.
In a meeting on November 15, the two parties agreed to determine who will be the presidential candidate for their unity coalition based on a nationwide opinion poll, with results to be announced November 18. The other candidate will get the vice-presidential slot. But with both Ko and Hou hoping to come out on top of the ticket, it remains to be seen if one will truly accept playing second fiddle.
Independent candidate Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn who unsuccessfully sought the KMT nomination, has indicated his intention to stay in the race regardless.
According to a poll aggregation by Taiwan News, as of this week Taiwanese opinion polls have Lai in the lead with 32.5 percent support, followed by Hou at 23.9 percent and Ko at 22 percent. Gou is polling at 7.5 percent, and 12.6 percent of voters are undecided.