Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan”: Taiwan’s Strategic Conundrum

Written by Ferran Perez Mena.

Image credit: Hong Kong Protests 2019 by Jonathan van Smit/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the past year, the Hong Kong protests, along with the newly approved National Security Law, have generated much anxiety in Taiwan. They have been perceived by both the DPP’s political elite and the Taiwanese public as a premonition of what lies ahead for Taiwan. One of the popular slogans of the protests, “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” (今天的香港,明天的台灣), perfectly epitomises the widespread unease that such political events are producing and the apparent inevitability of Taiwan’s downfall. According to such a slogan, Taiwan’s unfolding future is looking grim. The prospect of war between Taipei and Beijing is, indeed, increasing. Through their conflict with China, the fate of both Hong Kong and Taiwan are inextricably linked. Professor Sing Ming used the term “symbiosis” to describe the Hong Kong-Taiwan relationship.

Interestingly, the popular catchphrase, “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” has transcended protestors’ street chants in the former British colony. It has become an analytical framework to foresee the inevitable political destiny of the island of Formosa. Nevertheless, what if tomorrow Taiwan will never be like Hong Kong? What if such a framework is ill-equipped to analyse Cross-Strait relations properly?

The internalisation of such self-fulfilling prophecy

Currently, several political dynamics reveal how both the DPP’s political elite and the Taiwanese public have internalised such ill-equipped framework. Firstly, Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in January 2020 was partly shaped by the effects the Hong Kong protests had in the collective consciousness of Taiwanese citizens.  In order to secure the presidential election, the DPP campaign often invoked the slogan “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” to mobilise anxious Taiwanese voters. Such methodology was based on how citizens saw the PRC’s shadow looming over their island.

Secondly, the Hong Kong protests have triggered increasing transnational cooperation among young activists who have actively participated in these protests, and other political gatherings, to discuss organisational tactics to struggle against the CCP policies. The aim of such Cross-Strait activism is not only strengthening the social base of activist groups in the former British colony but also ensuring that the Taiwanese activists are prepared for a potentially dark future that could entail social mobilisation.

However, the most concerning dynamic that demonstrates the internalisation of such a self-defeating framework is the current Taiwanese foreign policy towards Hong Kong. In May 2020, Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to a bookseller who fled Hong Kong increased the tensions between Beijing and Taipei. Nevertheless, the transnational aid that Taipei is willing to provide to Hong Kongese protestors through the launch of a new office to process applications by Hong Kong nationals seeking to work, study or seek asylum in Taiwan has been perceived by Beijing as an intolerable act that impinges on the PRC’s sovereignty. After all, Hong Kong is a domestic matter for the CCP. This growing transnational support fostered by Taipei displays a growing internationalist and outward approach that some years ago would have been unthinkable.

This paradigm shift in Taiwan’s policy towards Hong Kong has been possible due to the new international conjuncture and the ongoing trade war between the US and China. On the one hand, the current global climate that has emerged after the Covid-19 crisis has created some opportunities that Taiwan has wisely seized. Furthermore, Taiwan’s exceptional strategy to successfully tackle the virus has enabled Taipei to maximise such scenario. On the other hand, the ongoing trade war and media attacks between the US and China have opened up some political spaces for the DPP. Under these circumstances, Taiwan has advanced a more assertive foreign policy towards Hong Kong. More specifically, Taipei has taken advantage of the ‘security umbrella’ of the global public opinion and the apparent implicit support of the Trump administration to promote an international image where the small East Asian nation is depicted as one of the champions of the liberal world that struggles against an authoritarian China.

Even though we can understand this political manoeuvre as an effective PR campaign to attract vital international support for Taiwan’s future survival in the global arena—even if it comes from non-official channels—it could also reveal strategic thinking based on fatalistic sum-zero assumptions that Taiwan has nothing to lose, given the gloomy prospects that lie ahead. Put differently, the DDP foresees that Taiwan’s future is only going to get worse during the upcoming years. Therefore, it is time to play the final trump cards. The problem of such a strategy is that Taiwan runs the risk of sinking into a quagmire created by the blindless of its own political elite and the liberal media supporters. Whilst such an internationalist approach to aid the Hong Kong protestors has been celebrated by many in the liberal world, including the US, Beijing has publicly condemned it. In such context, Taiwan seems to forget that, unlike Hong Kong, they do have something to maintain: the status-quo of the island, which is the political outcome that the majority of the Taiwanese desire and have actually enjoyed for decades.

The “politics of the possible” in the context of Cross-Strait relations

After having spent some time interpreting Taiwan’s current foreign policy towards Hong Kong under the framework of “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan”, at least, at the discursive level, one has the impression that the DPP policymakers are not fully aware of the existing correlation of forces that are operating in the global arena. In some ways, Taiwan’s current idealistic yet fatalistic interpretation of Cross-Strait relations, which is crystallised in its current policies towards Hong Kong, seems to have neglected the factor of power. In other words, Taiwan does not have the material capabilities nor the international support to carry out an assertive policy that could sink Taiwan into an undesired quagmire with the PRC. For those who are more concerned about avoiding a military conflict between Taiwan and China and not saving the broken liberal order, the DPP’s current policy towards Hong Kong could be perceived as an irresponsible and even a suicidal act. Perhaps, such an internationalist approach has been fostered due to the DDP’s calculations that the US will rescue Taiwan in a hypothetical military conflict against China. This might also explain why the DPP has embraced such ill-equipped framework. In this light, Taiwan can afford to envisage a fatalistic future and push for a more assertive policy in Hong Kong because it is counting on a powerful ally such as the US.

Nonetheless, to what extent can Taiwan trust the US? The history of US-Taiwan relations clearly illustrates how the US has never hesitated to abandon Taiwan in key historical junctures. Furthermore, despite all the current support of the US mainstream media and some major American politicians, the US has traditionally tended to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to foster its own China policy and national interests. All in All, Taiwan’s changing status as one of the champions of the liberal order in East Asia or as a common and forgotten soldier has mainly depended on the US’ political desires and the status of Sino-American relations.

The adoption of the framework “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” to analyse Cross-Strait relations also reduces the number of options to escape the bleak future that supposedly lies ahead for Taiwan. In this light, if politics is the art of the possible, then here it becomes the art of enduring until an already decided future arrives. Subsequently, political agency vanishes. In some ways, in an unfathomable way, it seems that the DPP policymakers have transposed all the social, historical and geopolitical conditions of Hong Kong to analyse Taiwan’s future. Put it differently, policymakers in Taiwan have decided to put on an unnecessary straitjacket that will constrain “what it is possible” in the context of Cross-Strait relations. The problem of this move is that it transposes Hong Kong’s framework to analyse a political problem that takes place in a completely different social and international setting. The prosaic reality is that Hong Kong is not Taiwan.

Furthermore, such framework neglects the simple fact that the ongoing political conflicts of Hong Kong and Taiwan with the PRC depart from divergent starting points. Hong Kong is part of China. Taiwan is not. Their shared conflict with the PRC does not necessarily tie them together, as Hong Kong has nothing to lose, whereas Taiwan can lose everything. In conclusion, such framework is acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy that will put in jeopardy the current status-quo that the majority of the Taiwanese desire, rather than as a tool to navigate the current Cross-Strait relations and build a better future with China. As a result of this, Taiwan is entering a political conundrum whose way out seems to be an unavoidable self-defeat.

If Taiwan wishes to maintain its status quo, then DPP policymakers might need to alter their current policy towards Hong Kong. The reality is that fighting the battles of other alien interests might put in jeopardy Taiwan’s survival. Quite often, the liberal order has ignored the existence of Taiwan. So why now should Taiwan put itself in a dangerous position to become the champion of a broken international order in East Asia? This is why the current international conjuncture where Taiwan seems to have regained some international prominence, at least on the global liberal media, should be understood by policymakers as a temporary juncture. For Taiwan, it is a mirage. It is not a new starting point nor a finishing line. Although media power is essential to shape public opinion, the real power lies elsewhere. Taiwan cannot afford to think that a good PR campaign will change or shape the material conditions that shape Cross-Strait relations. Such consideration will have serious consequences that could lead to a terrible miscalculation.

Furthermore, if Taiwan wishes to maintain its status quo, it might need to drop the fatalistic slogan of “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” as an analytical framework to envisage its political future. Regardless of what is happening in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s future has not been decided. So, what if tomorrow Taiwan will not be like Hong Kong? It is time for the Taiwanese policymakers to understand politics as the art of the possible. In the context of Cross-Strait relations, this entails building bridges, considering the existing correlation of forces, rather than destroying them. Taiwan should not be the champion of a broken liberal order; it should be the champion of peace in East Asia. There is a lot at stake.

Ferran Perez Mena is a PhD student in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Ferran is currently working on the intersection between the production of Chinese International thought, China’s political economy and the expansion of global capitalism. His research areas are International Historical Sociology, IR Theory, IR in East Asia, Cross-Strait Relations, Non-Western IR theory, Social Movements in East Asia, Chinese political thought and Marxism.

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