Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

President Tsai Ing-wen’s overreach will likely return the Kuomintang to power

  • Mainland China has long accepted Taiwan’s democracy; it’s independence against which it will go to war

Call them allies or client states. For the United States, they are put in a hierarchy. At the top is Israel, followed by the “Five Eyes” English-speaking nations. Where Taiwan actually is is anyone’s guess, assuming it is even in it.

But Taiwan is not Israel; it is nowhere near the top. Everyone likes to back a winner. The US is no exception. The Jewish state is a winner, literally in every war it has ever fought with an Arab state or a combination of states. Taiwan? Well, it is not an internationally recognised state, and it is militarily untested.

That’s why Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is overplaying her hands. Israel can be assured of US support in any military conflict – because it can fight one on its own and most likely prevail. Militarily and diplomatically, it dominates the Middle East. Banks love to lend to people who don’t need their money.

They don’t like clients who are desperate for a loan without which they may not survive. In a Taiwan Strait conflict, the island would be that desperate customer who can’t survive without a really, really big loan from Washington.


Taiwan denounces mainland China for ‘over the top’ flights into island’s air defence zone

Taiwan denounces mainland China for ‘over the top’ flights into island’s air defence zone

That “loan” would involve not just US weaponry, but US soldiers. American blood would be spilled for Taiwan’s ambition to become independent. Such a confrontation would risk a third world war involving the use of nuclear weapons. The island is definitely not worth that much within the calculus of American foreign policy, whatever bombast that is coming out of Washington.

Even if Taiwan-US “won” without starting a world war, there is no reason to think it would end mainland China’s long-term goal at unification. It would most likely postpone the stage for a round two or three, and so only push further down the road a perennial issue that wouldn’t go away as long as the Chinese people endure as a nation.

For better or worse, unity or unification is bred into China’s – not just the Communist Party’s – political DNA; Chinese just aren’t very good at living with diversity or diversification. That’s where culture meets history meets realpolitik; and that’s the intersection where the tricky Taiwan issue lies.

Beijing accuses Taiwan leader of demanding ‘state-to-state’ equality

It makes far more sense for Washington to maintain the old status quo, which is something that Beijing can still live with, at least for now. It entails diplomatic isolation for Taiwan, but otherwise doesn’t hinder its prosperity or from maintaining meaningful contacts with other nations. In fact, good relations with Beijing have been good for Taiwanese businesses.

So long as the mainland doesn’t take over the island, the US role as the dominant power in the region is assured. There is perhaps an analogy to be drawn between a divided Korea and a divided China: China sees a unified Korea as a threat right up to its borders in a similar way that the US considers a united China a direct threat to its regional dominance.

However, so long as Washington keeps a lid on Taiwan’s (self-) destructive urges for independence, Beijing has no reason to attack the island.

This game was well understood on all sides, until former US president Donald Trump came over and upset the apple cart. Playing the Taiwan card has had the short-term advantage of using it as a pressure point on China along with multiple other contentious issues. For a time, his successor, Joe Biden, played along as well, thereby further emboldening Tsai and her independence-prone Democratic Progressive Party.

In her speech marking the 110th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China, she has effectively demanded state equality between the island and the mainland. And in her recent article in the Foreign Affairs journal, she has painted Taiwan as a fellow democracy on equal footing with other democratic states.

In fact, the first line of her article sounds like what Israel has often described itself: “The story of Taiwan is … of a country upholding democratic, progressive values while facing a constant challenge to its existence.”

Note the word “country”. Further down, she writes: “If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”

US strengthens Asia-Pacific defences with floating helicopter base

Here, Tsai has deliberately conflated independence with democracy. She realises that other democratic states have no obligation to defend the island’s fight for independence; but they are so obliged, she argues, as she has painted it instead as a struggle for democracy. Nice try!

This is not to mention the myriad small ways she has tried to move the island towards independence such as playing around with the island’s official name with offices set up in other countries. In the case of Lithuania, that has even provoked a diplomatic spat between Vilnius and Beijing.

But mainland China has long accepted the island’s democracy. Otherwise, it would have started a war a long time ago. It’s the island’s independence – the one and only real casus belli – against which it will go to war.

It’s time the Biden White House realises that as a limited asset, Tsai and the DPP can turn Taiwan into a huge liability for the US very quickly, especially in a military conflict.

Hopefully, her overreach may yet herald the return to power of the Kuomintang as more Taiwanese realise the mortal danger she is putting them in, nay, the region and the world, by her misguided, if single-minded, attempt to internationalise – and to blow out of all proportion – the status of her little island.