Taiwan – the only country that can vote on China’s political system – again rejected Beijing’s overtures.
President Tsai Ing-Wen’s landslide re-election in Taiwan represents a sharp political loss for Beijing, considering its political objectives and ‘One China’ policy.
– Beijing’s choice to pursue an extradition bill in Hong Kong has had a ripple effect throughout the region, highlighting the threat to liberal democracies posed by China’s economic and political power
– The Communist Party’s unique strategic culture has dictated a slow and patient approach to political warfare
– It is unlikely that Beijing will seek conventional conflict at this time but domestic pressures are mounting on the party
TAIWAN SAYS NO TO BEIJING’S ‘ONE CHINA’
The re-election of Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency in Taiwan represents a frustrating setback for the realisation of Beijing’s ‘One China principle’ — the notion that there is a single Chinese state whose sovereign territory is temporarily controlled by two separate governments. Despite declarations by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is ‘a historical inevitability’, Tsai has asked Beijing to ‘face the reality’ that Taiwan is already an independent state. The divide raises fresh concerns about a potential conflict, considering the strategic and political significance of the island and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertions that Beijing believes it has the right to use force to reunify the island with the mainland.
Beyond the anxieties of a cross-strait conflict, the recent election showcased Beijing’s attempts to increase its influence in the region via its sophisticated political warfare capabilities. According to Dean Cheng, the author of Cyber Dragon, these capabilities are divided into three warfares — psychological, legal and public opinion. In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, Beijing’s use of the three warfares may have backfired.
BEIJING’S LEGAL WARFARE GOES TOO FAR
Tsai supported the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and positioned herself in the run-up to the election as the candidate who would resist Beijing’s efforts to reunify the island and the mainland. Her opponent from the Kuomintang party, Han Kuo-yu, was widely viewed as being pro-Beijing. Moreover, his campaign to become mayor of Kaohsiung — which he used as a platform to launch his bid for the presidency — has been linked to a social media campaign run by a group originating from the mainland. Tsai’s victory over Han was decisive and a significant turnaround from the November 2018 Taiwan local elections, the results of which were considered an indictment of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party’s policies and a major win for the Kuomintang.
The reversal represents a rejection of Beijing and its political designs over the island. In the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, democracies have woken up to the threat of authoritarian political warfare — a threat that a 2018 report from the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments highlights. Through the application of its political warfare capabilities, Beijing has been actively seeking to undermine pro-democracy movements and liberal democratic institutions across the Asia-Pacific to foster a new ‘Sinocentric’ order, in which the People’s Republic of China would be the dominant Asia-Pacific power. China has been looking to create its own international and regional institutions to supplant the influence of the US and its allies as well as intergovernmental organisations like ASEAN. Key examples of this include legal warfare operations like the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, aimed at discouraging Taiwan from seeking official independence, and the recent extradition bill introduced to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in February 2019, which has triggered ongoing pro-democracy protests.
According to Dr Delia Lin from the University of Melbourne, in this contest of political narratives, Beijing is also changing the meaning of words like ‘democracy’ to suit their political objectives. As a ‘core socialist value’, ‘democracy’ means submitting to the will of the majority — although Hong Kongers have made clear that they disagree with the sentiment. As such, Beijing’s choice to pursue an extradition bill in Hong Kong has had a ripple effect throughout the region, drawing international attention to the threat posed by Beijing’s growing power. Furthermore, the bill provided evidence for Beijing’s critics who believe a ‘One country, two systems’ model will inevitably give way to total political control under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such ‘legal warfare’ tactics are creating deep mistrust and solidifying anti-Beijing sentiment in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
WILL THE DRAGON SWALLOW THE PORCUPINE?
While the election of Tsai represents a setback for Beijing’s designs for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan, the probability of a cross-strait conflict remains small. Beijing’s prevailing strategic culture is averse to kinetic conflict; it prefers to weaponise its soft power and its political and economic leverage to achieve its wider strategic aims without fighting. However, China has shown it will test the waters on the use of force, as seen in its actions in the South China Sea (SCS) and its establishment of de facto control over the waters it claims to be its historical territory. Civilian fleets, coast guard and naval vessels dominate the SCS and control waters in contradiction to principles of international law — a situation challenged by US freedom of navigation operations but little else in terms of ‘hard’ power responses.
Even though Beijing is growing in military strength, other levers of power and influence have been effective in advancing the CCP’s strategic aims, which have the added advantage of mitigating the risk of conflict with the US or other regional powers. The modern Chinese military (PLA) has vast cyber resources and a military command that understands the value of ‘informationised’ warfare, whilst the CCP exercises tight control over media outlets that can help to push the narrative Beijing wants both their domestic and foreign audiences to hear. Accordingly, Beijing is likely to continue its political warfare operations with the aim of eroding resistance and establishing de facto control over Taiwan — as it did with the South China Sea — until de jure control is achieved.
Beijing can employ its cyber capabilities to target young, pro-independence voters via social media information warfare and undermine confidence in the US commitment to help defend Taiwan from aggression as well as continuing support for pro-Beijing political candidates and parties. The CCP could also order cyberattacks against public institutions and infrastructure as well as private business to erode public trust in Taipei’s ability to provide security and disrupt Taiwan’s economy.
Beijing is likely to continue ratcheting the political pressure on Taipei by coercing the states that continue to officially recognise Taiwan over switch recognition to Beijing. That pressure can be enhanced by legal warfare measures like the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, used to project a message of political resolve to both domestic and foreign audiences and deter any potential move towards independence by Taiwan. Should Beijing succeed, a threatened, isolated, disillusioned population of Taiwanese may assent to a ‘One country, two systems’ for Taiwan, especially if they can be convinced that the alternative is fighting the PLA without US military support.
With nationalism remerging as the driving force in geopolitics and with slowing economic growth in China, a conventional conflict between the mainland and Taiwan cannot be ruled out. But as long as Taipei does not force Beijing’s hand by attempting to gain its official independence, the potential costs of conflict appear to outweigh the gains, considering Taiwan’s asymmetric defensive capabilities and the potential international backlash from unlawful aggression. Taiwan being reunified with the mainland may be a ‘historical inevitability’, but ‘history’ has a long timeframe and Beijing has already demonstrated decades of patience and resolve.