- By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
- bbc news
4 hours ago
Taiwan is caught in the middle of a dangerous love triangle.
The timing is not a coincidence. In the US there is deep and growing hostility towards China. And this is prompting ever more outspoken displays of support for Taiwan, with Democrats and Republicans vying to outdo each other.
It’s one of the main reasons former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so keen to land in Taipei last summer, even though it drew a furious reaction from China. The autonomous island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory, is arguably the biggest flash point between the US and China.
“I was personally very opposed to Pelosi’s visit,” says Professor William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan. “For a high-level politician from the US, visiting the island was just pushing China without much reward. And the consequences were pretty terrifying.”
Chinese missiles flew over the island as Beijing issued blood-curdling threats. In the region’s capitals, governments began talking seriously about the timetable for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Despite that, as soon as he was elected Speaker of the House in January, McCarthy, a Republican, declared his intention to follow Pelosi’s lead. But President Tsai decided that was not a good idea, says Professor Stanton.
“I think it was pretty clear that Kevin McCarthy wanted to do a Pelosi,” he says. “But Tsai Ing-wen said, ‘no thanks, how about we have tea together in California.'”
President Tsai may not want another controversial visit by a US leader to Taiwan just yet, but she also needs to show China that she will not succeed in closing contact between a democratically elected government in Taipei and its most powerful ally in Washington.
And so, the meeting in California. McCarthy is far from downplaying it, calling the meeting “bipartisan,” despite China’s warning that the United States was “playing with fire on the Taiwan issue.”
This so-called “transit diplomacy” is crucial for Taiwan, says Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
Over the years, China has poached many of Taiwan’s formal allies, reducing the number of governments that recognize Taipei to just 13.
“These international visits coincide with Taiwanese society’s need for international recognition,” says Mr. Sung. “When there is an absence of international recognition, these other indirect indicators of international support are important to (the) Taiwanese.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has mounted its own seduction offensive, inviting Chairman Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to tour the mainland.
Mr. Ma went on an unprecedented five-city tour, apparently to pay tribute to his ancestors. In fact, he has visited his graves in central China. But the journey is also political. In fact, it is the first time that a former president of Taiwan has been invited to the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
“Beijing is trying to soften its tone towards Taiwan… by winning more hearts and minds, and also avoiding a rise in Taiwanese nationalism during the (2024) presidential campaign,” Sung says.
Ma’s visit, he adds, provided the necessary “political cover” to do so.
When he landed in Nanjing last week, Mr. Ma delivered a surprisingly political speech: “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese. And they are both descendants of the Yan and Yellow emperors.”
“Beijing is being nice to Ma Ying-jeou because she represents capitulation,” says Professor Stanton. “He says ‘we’re all Chinese.’ That’s something he and the Chinese agree on, but it’s not something the Taiwanese agree on.”
The risk in Mr. Ma’s strategy is that more than 60% of Taiwan residents, according to surveys, describe themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese.
But there could also be a reward waiting in the wings. Polls show that more than half of Taiwan believes that a war with China is now likely. And Ma’s goal is to convince Taiwanese voters that only his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), can prevent such a war, Sung says.
“It is about consolidating its legacy as a bridge between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. And, at the domestic political level, Taiwan is starting its presidential campaign. The KMT’s argument is that we can achieve peace with China.”
But the elephant in the room is the deteriorating relationship between Taiwan’s two pretenders: Washington and Beijing. That relationship is worse today than at any time since the US and China officially recognized each other in 1979, says Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the US German Marshall Fund.
“They (Beijing) are not receiving calls from President Biden or the Pentagon. Congress has declared China an existential threat,” he says.
For decades, Washington has managed a rather delicate status quo, acknowledging, if not supporting, Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government, that of the mainland. It has maintained official ties with that government, and not with Taiwan, since 1979. But it has also remained a staunch ally of Taipei, guaranteeing to help the island defend itself.
But the fear is that China now believes the US is determined to change the status quo that has helped keep the peace in the Taiwan Straits for the past 40 years.
“President Biden told Xi Jinping that he is not using Taiwan as a weapon, that he does not support Taiwan’s separation from China,” says Ms. Glaser.
But such assurances are unlikely to mean much after contentious state visits or official meetings with Taiwan’s leaders, he adds.
So while Mr. Ma tours China and Ms. Tsai has tea in California, what Taiwan also needs is Mr. Xi to answer the phone.