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A Month After Taiwan’s Election, Cross-Strait Tensions Continue to Simmer

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

A Month After Taiwan’s Election, Cross-Strait Tensions Continue to Simmer

From sending balloons over Taiwan to forcing a scheduled sports competition to relocate, China has been upping the pressure.

A Month After Taiwan’s Election, Cross-Strait Tensions Continue to Simmer
Credit: Depositphotos

It’s been a month since Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won Taiwan’s presidential election. Since then, there have been a number of cross-strait developments – even though much of that time was taken up by the Lunar New Year, one of the most significant holidays for Taiwan and China. 

China was, unsurprisingly, quick to denounce Lai’s victory, continuing to frame him as a dangerous cross-strait provocateur. At the same time, analysts noted that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) emphasized that the Chinese government would work with supportive political parties and other groups in Taiwan in the wake of the Lai victory, phrasing that is not usually present in messaging by the TAO. This could perhaps be a signal to groups in the pan-Blue camp to seek direct cooperation with Chinese United Front efforts in a manner that circumvents the authority of the Lai administration, such as through direct exchanges with Chinese government entities. 

Pan-Blue politicians already have a history of meeting with Chinese government officials in a manner that cuts out a DPP administration, such as Kuomintang (KMT) Vice Chair Andrew Hsia’s frequent trips to China, or city-to-city exchanges such as those promoted by Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je during his tenure as Taipei mayor. 

Meanwhile, China quickly resumed poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. A mere two days after Lai’s victory, Nauru announced that it would be breaking ties with Taiwan in favor of China. Since then, there has been much speculation as to whether Tuvalu could perhaps be the next to break ties. The Pacific Island state’s relationship with Taiwan was one of the issues at contention in the Tuvalu presidential elections that took place at the end of January. There is also concern over Taiwan’s continued relationship with Guatemala, which saw a leadership transition in January. Taiwanese diplomatic officials have reassured that ties with Guatemala remain stable. 

Either way, Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic allies is not likely to substantially affect it in any way. Taiwan is larger than all of its diplomatic allies in terms of the size of its population and economy by many orders of magnitude. Taipei primarily maintains such ties so that these countries can speak up for Taiwan in international organizations. At a time of strengthening relations between the United States and Taiwan, as well as between Taiwan and other Western powers, Taiwan’s unofficial relationships are of greater priority and importance than its formal diplomatic relations with its dwindling diplomatic allies. 

Nevertheless, China evidently intends to keep up pressure on Taiwan by seeking to constrain its international space. Efforts to stymie Taiwan’s presence on the world stage extend beyond poaching diplomatic allies and have taken place in other familiar arenas, including international sporting competitions, since the Lai victory. 

This could be observed in late January, when Taiwan suddenly lost the hosting rights for the Asian Men’s U20 Volleyball Championship, a volleyball tournament for players under 20 years old. Though the event was originally scheduled to take place in Taiwan in July, Chinese pressure led to the tournament being moved to Surabaya, Indonesia. 

This is not the first time that Taiwan has seen the abrupt loss of hosting rights for international sporting competitions because of Chinese pressure, often on short notice or after public expenditure has already been put into facilities for such competitions. Other examples include Taiwan losing hosting rights for the 2019 East Asian Youth Games in 2018 and losing hosting rights for the Asian Open Figure Skating Classic only a month before they were to take place in November 2019. In addition, Taiwanese athletes have faced Chinese pressure over the symbols used to represent Taiwan in international sporting competitions, with Taiwan not usually allowed to use its own flag in such competitions. 

Meanwhile, efforts by China to keep up the pressure on Taiwan in the security dimension have continued. China prompted anger from Taiwan in late January after announcing that it would be shifting flight route M503 and beginning eastbound operation of routes W122 and W123 so that flights pass close to the median line of the Taiwan Straits, especially during inclement weather. This is not the first time that there has been contention between Taiwan and China overflight route M503.

The Taiwanese government criticized the recent move as unilateral in nature and going back on previous negotiations. Taipei also accused China of seeking to use civilian flights for geopolitical purposes, contributing to greater dangers for regional security at a time when China already sends warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone on a nearly daily basis. The U.S. State Department has also criticized the unilateral flight path changes. 

In the aftermath of the announcement, the Tsai administration announced that it would not be lifting the current ban on Chinese group tours. While this led to pushback from Taiwanese tour operators, who have threatened to protest Lai on his inauguration day, the Taiwanese government cited unilateral actions by China as the reasons for declining to lift the ban. 

Indeed, in the same timeframe, China has continued to send balloons over Taiwan. There was a notable and visible uptick in Chinese balloons sent over Taiwan before the elections, which was interpreted as a way to ramp up military pressure on Taiwan without escalating to the level of more threats using warplanes. However, China has set records in the past week with the number of balloons sent over Taiwan, with a record eight balloons detected on February 11 alone and more than 80 balloons detected in the last two months.  

Looking ahead, the drowning deaths on Wednesday of two people on a Chinese speed boat that capsized in Kinmen territorial waters could prove dangerous for regional tensions. The Chinese speedboat was ordered to submit to an inspection but sought to flee and capsized, as a result of which four people on the vessel fell into the water. Two subsequently drowned. 

The TAO has blamed the incident on what it has framed as the unreasonable actions of the Taiwanese Coast Guard. However, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese government ramps up public outrage over the incident.