Foreign Policy: Beijing’s Attempts to Intimidate Taiwan Have Backfired

July 30, 2021

by: Zoe Leung and Cameron Waltz

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In the past few months, the United States has worked to deepen long-standing ties with Taiwan and has corralled like-minded allies into openly supporting it. Many have considered this a necessary response to Beijing’s attempts to convince the Taiwanese people and military of the inevitability of reunification and to show the United States its determination to achieve that goal, by force if necessary. To date, this strategy has yet to persuade Taiwan that Beijing is unstoppable or convince the United States to step back. Instead, it is inspiring greater urgency among the United States and its allies and has placed Taiwan on the international agenda. With its credibility critically damaged by the crackdown in Hong Kong and repression at home, Beijing’s tactics have only complicated its path to cross-strait unification.

China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan has intensified since 2016, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office. Tsai, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, refused to accept Beijing’s “One China” formulation, which considers Taiwan a province of a single China. Tsai’s defiance is the culmination of a dramatic swing in Taiwanese public opinion against unification with the mainland after witnessing Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy. To force Taiwan into submission, Beijing has mobilized a host of coercive capabilities that have been met by increased U.S. support for Taiwan. As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army tested missiles and stepped up drills in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. President Joe Biden responded by normalizing U.S. warship transits near Taiwan, coupled with sales of advanced weapons to Taipei to boost its ability to asymmetrically deny a Chinese invasion. As Beijing attempted to use economic leverage against Taiwan, the United States resumed long-stalled trade talks with the Taiwanese government, even though Biden has said that entering new trade deals is not currently a priority.

Under Biden, the White House and Congress are aligned on Taiwan being an issue in its own right as opposed to a sideshow to U.S.-China relations. In an era when bipartisanship is rare, Democrats and Republicans are in lockstep to legislate new initiatives to support Taiwan. The current Congress is on pace to break the record number of bills pertaining to Taiwan set by the previous Congress with 33 proposed laws.

Among the current bills is the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would help Taiwan accelerate its acquisition of asymmetric defense weapons , create a fellowship for U.S. government employees to work in the Taiwanese government, and direct the secretary of state to coordinate measures with allies to deter China from changing the Taiwan Strait status quo. Not to be outdone by the legislature, the Biden administration has loosened restrictions on governmental contact with Taiwan’s government and donated COVID-19 vaccines as Tsai was being pressured to accept doses from China.

The United States is now at its closest with Taiwan since it derecognized the Republic of China in 1979. In the past few months, U.S. delegations including senatorscabinet officials, and a sitting ambassador have landed in Taipei to reaffirm American support for cross-strait stability and bilateral engagement. Even as Beijing protests these visits as violations of Chinese sovereignty, the Biden administration has doubled down, expressing its intentions to develop relations with Taiwan in “every sector.” Americans’ attitudes toward Taiwan have also shifted, with an increasing proportion of Americans supporting U.S. intervention in the event that Taiwan were invaded by China (41%), a figure that has been trending upward since 2014 in spite of overwhelming war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States’ doubled-down commitments to Taiwan have spilled onto the international stage. The international community has long kept Taiwan at a distance, excluding it from international bodies and often giving in to Chinese pressure, but this has begun to change. Beijing’s blocking of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly amid the COVID-19 pandemic has invited wariness toward China’s conduct and elevated Taiwan’s visibility. After being sidelined for decades, cross-strait stability and Taiwan’s inclusion in multilateral institutions are now on the agenda of the G-7, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the European Union. Beijing’s attempts to revise the cross-strait status quo have already forced Australia and South Korea to take stances on the Taiwan Strait, testing Chinese sensitivities. Even Japan, which hosts U.S. bases within 500 miles of Taiwan, now acknowledges that Taiwan’s security is deeply linked to its own security and even questioned its adherence to the “One China” position. China’s actions have effectively invited new international support for Taiwan and introduced a new combatant in a potential war, thereby complicating its own strategic calculus.

There is no doubt that China anticipated international backlash to its pressure on Taiwan, but growing U.S. commitments and international attention are bound to strengthen Taiwan’s resolve to defend its democracy and identity, not weaken it. The fact that unification with Taiwan is a cornerstone of the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of national rejuvenation has further heightened domestic pressure to deliver. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan may win plaudits at home, his tactics have made the path to unification more difficult and costly. Taiwan’s greatest vulnerability is its international isolation, and rather than exploiting that, Beijing’s conspicuous coercive tactics have helped Taiwan gain more international support than it has seen in decades. Whether Beijing’s psychological tactics will succeed is yet to be seen, but China has given Taiwan just as many reasons to be confident as it has to be anxious.