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China Dials up Military, Economic Pressure Campaign Against Taiwan’s New President

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China Dials up Military, Economic Pressure Campaign Against Taiwan’s New President

The tactics are familiar: military exercises, economic coercion, and pressure on Taiwanese celebrities.

China Dials up Military, Economic Pressure Campaign Against Taiwan’s New President

In this photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, Taiwan guided missile destroyer Ma Kong DDG1805, left, monitors Chinese guided missile destroyer Xi’an DDG15, right, near Taiwan on May 23, 2024.

Credit: Taiwan Ministry of National Defense via AP

China’s pressure on Taiwan has continued since the presidential inauguration of Lai Ching-te on May 20. This has generally involved familiar means China has long used to seek leverage over Taiwan, including military threats, economic coercion, and pressure on Taiwanese entertainers.

The most dramatic means by which China sought to register its displeasure with Lai was, unsurprisingly, military exercises. A set of drills took place around Taiwan on May 23 and 24. These were termed “Joint Sword-2024A,” indicating continuity with the “Joint Sword.” military exercises conducted by China around Taiwan in April 2023.

China began holding large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in August 2022, following a visit that month to Taiwan by then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as the first U.S. speaker to visit Taiwan in a quarter century. China regularized certain military activities after the Pelosi visit, particularly increased naval activity around Taiwan in addition to near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). In later drills, China escalated its military presence around Taiwan.

Also of note, the August 2022 exercises were not named. Naming the April 2023 and May 2024 drills indicates that China also seems to be regularizing these exercises, perhaps on an annual basis.

That being said, China’s intent was that the drills should be seen as a response to Lai’s inauguration speech. Beijing framed the speech as dangerously pro-independence and the exercises as the resultant military response. This could be observed in messaging from state media condemning Lai’s speech in the context of the exercises. To this end, China has sought to frame the exercises as only occurring due to the contents of Lai’s speech, rather than as a regularly scheduled activity.

Consequently, in May, Taiwan saw the second-highest number of monthly violations of its ADIZ on record and the highest number of People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels reported by the Ministry of National Defense. May 25 saw the highest number of crossings of the median line of the Taiwan Strait by aircraft on record. Likewise, a satellite launch that crossed through Taiwan’s ADIZ took place on May 30.

For its part, the Taiwanese military responded by scrambling aircraft to monitor Chinese warplanes, as well as monitoring Chinese vessels with its own navy ships. Missile launchers, some of which were visible in public parks, were also deployed.

Despite the uptick in Chinese military activity, there was relatively little public response in Taiwan. As with past drills conducted by the PLA around Taiwan, including the exercises after the Pelosi visit, there was a lack of panic in response to China’s military intimidation.

Indeed, it may be that the public has long become inured to Chinese military threats, after decades of missiles pointed at Taiwan. In contrast, Chinese military threats in the 1990s and 2000s did lead to a real sense of threat, including many deciding to immigrate out of Taiwan.

At the same time, it is not as though Taiwan does not feel a sense of threat from China. But the public is apparently more concerned about the potential for political influence operations rather than military drills.

Shortly after the Lai inauguration, a series of protests against efforts by the Kuomintang (KMT) to expand legislative powers to its own benefit drew up to 100,000 at their peak, according to organizers. If so, this would make the demonstrations the largest protests since the 2014 Sunflower Movement, with the Bluebird Movement demonstrations escalating from several hundred demonstrators to over 100,000 in the course of a week. The Bluebird Movement protests commonly framed the KMT as acting at the behest of China and attempting to institute measures in Taiwan similar to those enacted in Hong Kong.

China’s military threats took place in tandem with economic trade measures intended to pressure Taiwan. In the wake of the Lai inauguration, China announced that it would end preferential trade tariffs on 134 imports from Taiwan, including base oils used for bicycle parts, lubricants, and textiles. According to experts, the end of the tariffs will most affect industries reliant on the Chinese market.

This has again raised the question of whether the Chinese government will end the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that had been inked between Taiwan and China in 2010. China had announced the end of preferential tariffs for 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products in December, while also stating that it would end ECFA in June. China again announcing an end to further preferential tariffs seems to be a reminder of this threat.

Chinese bans on Taiwanese products occurred a number of times during the two terms of the Tsai administration. Products banned ranged from fruit (mangoes, sugar apples, and pineapple) and seafood products (grouper, chilled large-head hairtail, frozen horse mackerel, and squid), to iconic snacks and liquors such as Kinmen Kaoliang, Taiwan Beer, and Kuai Kuai. Notably, China has avoided bans of intermediate goods that it uses for its own supply chains.

Beijing lifted bans on Taiwanese citrus fruit and two kinds of fish that had been in place since 2022 after a trip to China by a delegation of KMT lawmakers led by party caucus convener Fu Kun-chi, a move that was also a way to signal that China prefers the KMT in power. Similarly, the grouper ban was lifted in December 2023, shortly before the January 2024 presidential elections, in what was read as an attempt to influence elections.

Ending ECFA would have high symbolic value, in that the trade deal was touted as a triumph of strengthened cross-strait relations under the presidential administration of Ma Ying-jeou, the last KMT president to hold power in Taiwan. The 2024 Taiwanese election cycle saw the KMT champion a return to many Ma-era policies, including calls to restart talks over the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which was framed by the Ma administration as building on ECFA. The CSSTA and the manner it was handled in the KMT-controlled legislature sparked the 2014 Sunflower Movement, given fears over the deal’s potential impact on political freedoms in Taiwan when it would allow for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry.

Also in the immediate aftermath of the Lai inauguration, a wave of Taiwanese entertainers also posted statements on Chinese social media expressing opposition to Taiwanese independence and support for “One China.” This often took the form of entertainers reposting a statement from Chinese state-run media CGTN on Sina Weibo. While this dynamic is not always understood in the same frame as a means of economic coercion by which China seeks to influence Taiwan, Taiwanese entertainers working in China can be understood as a form of Taiwanese capital in the Chinese entertainment market. They – just like Taiwanese businesses operating in China – would experience political pressure.

Many of the entertainers who made such posts had expressed pro-unification views in the past, with a prominent example being Ouyang Nana, the daughter of KMT politician and former actor Ouyang Long. However, particularly surprising to the Taiwanese public was the lead singer of rock band Mayday, A-shin, referring to himself and the other band members as Chinese in comments while performing.

During the 2024 election cycle, Mayday had previously come under fire over allegations of lip-synching that began on Chinese social media but were soon amplified by state-run media. This was reported on by Reuters as political retribution for Mayday refusing to perform an unspecified service for the Chinese government to induce Taiwanese young people to vote for the KMT.

This became a lightning rod issue during the elections, with the KMT vice presidential candidate, Jaw Shaw-kong, accusing the DPP of working with international media to concoct this story to ramp up fears over China for electioneering during a televised vice presidential debate. Jaw compared this to similar incidents that occurred before the 2016 elections and 2020 elections involving Korean girl group TWICE member Chou Tzu-yu and purported Chinese spy Wang Liqiang. Jaw promised to investigate and legally prosecute those responsible for the story if elected.

Indeed, members of Mayday were previously seen as pro-Taiwanese sovereignty, even if making compromises to work in the Chinese market. At the time of the Sunflower Movement, Mayday bassist Masa expressed support for the protests, before the band later apologized and declared in a public statement that it was not against the CSSTA. As such, Mayday’s apparent turnabout has taken many by surprise.

Efforts by China to pressure Taiwan, such as occurred under the Tsai administration, are likely to continue both economically and militarily under Lai. Yet the framing by China going forward will be to depict Lai as more provocative on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty in a way that Tsai was not and, in this way, China will claim that it is being forced to take reciprocal measures.

Some experts except the current round of pressure will continue until the Straits Forum in mid-June. The annual Straits Forum aims to highlight ties between the CCP and Taiwanese political parties and organizations. Dialing back tensions after the Straits Forum would serve to emphasize that Beijing will only communicate with certain groups in Taiwan, to further the perception that they are the only forces in Taiwanese society that can lessen cross-strait tensions.