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China sends Taiwan’s new president a message of belligerence

Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te, middle, chants slogans as he poses while inspecting military personnel at the air force base in Hualien on Tuesday, May 28. Tribune News Service

Last week, Taiwan got a new president. Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, was sworn in after a rough and tumble campaign, succeeding his old boss, former President Tsai Ing-wen. Elections in Taiwan are always a sore spot for China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own and regards any expressions of Taiwanese sovereignty as a violation. But Lai’s inauguration is an especially thorny subject for Beijing because the Chinese Communist Party views him as a dangerous instigator of Taiwanese independence.

Chinese officials were always going to pick apart Lai’s inauguration speech. And sure enough they did. During the speech, Lai pledged to defend Taiwan’s democratic character, resume tourism with the Chinese mainland and seek talks with Beijing, relatively tame remarks compared with his comments as a younger lawmaker, but China took serious issue with his contention that any diplomacy between the two should be conducted in a spirit of equality.

In China’s view, Taiwan is a renegade province, not a sovereign state with territorial integrity. According to China’s Taiwan affairs office, Lai “sent a dangerous signal of seeking ‘independence’ and undermined the stability of the Taiwan Strait” in the process. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was more blunt and undiplomatic, calling Lai “disgraceful.”

The strong rhetoric was only the half of it. Shortly after the inauguration, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, authorized joint air and sea drills around Taiwan. During the first day of the exercises, 49 PLA aircraft, 15 navy vessels and 16 coast guard ships were detected in waters around the island, an extension of the flyovers Beijing has conducted for years now. All of a sudden, Lai had to perform his commander-in-chief duties, traveling to a marine brigade to visit the troops, where he committed himself to defending Taiwan from all threats.

All this may sound a bit scary if you don’t monitor the Taiwan Strait on a weekly basis. Yet the dozens of fighter aircraft and surface vessels taunting Taiwan’s defenses has as much to do with political signaling to the new Taiwanese authorities as it does with subjugating the island. In effect, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy want to send Lai and his new administration a message: Not only are they prepared to act militarily at a time of their choosing, but they will respond to even the slightest insult.

None of this bodes well for Lai’s agenda over the next four years. Domestically, Taiwan is feeling the pinch of a rising cost of living, high housing prices and near-stagnant wages for younger workers. While Lai may have extended his party’s stay in the presidential office for a third consecutive term, he lost the majority in the legislature to the opposition Kuomintang. Lai won only 40% of the popular vote, which isn’t exactly a mandate. In addition, a significant portion of the Taiwanese electorate is tired of the two main political parties, so much so that a third-party candidate received more than a quarter of the vote.

Things aren’t looking particularly great internationally, either, but the situation could be worse. Taiwan, after all, is now the golden child in Washington, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike agreeing that U.S. shipments of military aid to the island need to be ramped up. Some foreign policy thought leaders are now equating the defense of Taiwan from a possible Chinese invasion as the equivalent of defending global democracy, foisting an almost mystical status on the island’s shoulders. Europe is no longer as resistant to calling out Chinese belligerence in the Taiwan Strait as it used to be, which is a pretty important development given that the European Union’s trade with Beijing last year reached $800 billion in today’s dollars. More European navies are sailing through the Taiwan Strait, although the notion they would get involved in a potential war between China and Taiwan is slim given the limited naval capacities of many European states.

What’s depressing, at least from Lai’s perspective, is that the chances for diplomacy with China today are close to nonexistent. Tsai, Lai’s predecessor, was also interested in establishing durable communications with Beijing during her eight years in office, but Xi ignored her government’s entreaties. It’s difficult to envision Xi being any more sympathetic to someone like Lai, who is commonly seen as more of a hard-liner on the issue of Taiwanese independence than Tsai was.

Taipei will keep trying to kick-start a dialogue, even if it’s on more mundane, nuts-and-bolts issues such as crisis communications between their respective militaries and increasing economic exchanges. But diplomacy is only as effective as the stakeholders’ willingness to partake in it.

What, then, should we expect over the next four years? While a growing number of national security officials in Washington are extremely concerned about China taking some kind of military action against Taiwan — Xi has tasked China to be prepared to invade the island by 2027 — this is the absolute worst-case scenario. While the side-by-side comparisons between China and Taiwan are beyond stark — China has more of everything, such as people, wealth, fighter aircraft, ships, missiles, ground troops and formal diplomatic relationships — far too many underestimate just how logistically complicated such an operation would be for the PLA, which hasn’t fought a war since 1979.

What’s more likely to occur is a continuation of the last four years: regular Chinese military drills around the island, purchases of more anti-ship and anti-air weapons by Taiwan to make Beijing think twice about ordering military action and yet more hair-raising in Washington. Realistically, that might be the best we can do.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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