Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.
Image credit: 總統針對防疫工作發表談話 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Yes, I get it. Not many can resist a bold and eye-catching title. Supplement this with an articulated argument underpinned with a fair amount of empirical evidence, then one can expect the article to reach broader readership. Yet, the underlying issue of placing a bold statement at the forefront is that it is frequently misleading. This is precisely why I am sceptical about the recent article published by The Economist, which states Taiwan as ‘the most dangerous place on Earth.’
Is Taiwan the most dangerous location on Earth? I believe it is an over-exaggeration. This is plausible when considering the recent ‘hot’ conflicts involving India and Pakistan in Asia and between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Both conflicts have caused death casualties and are yet resolved, but only fallen silent due to either agreeing to an existing cease-fire accord (i.e. 2003 cease-fire accord for the India-Pakistan conflict) or the signing of a cease-fire agreement (i.e. Israel-Palestine conflict this May).
‘Better Now Than Later’
Is Taiwan a dangerous location? Certainly so. This is especially true when considering that its neighbouring country, widely considered an ascending superpower, has explicitly expressed its intention to invade by any means. However, I cannot entirely agree with the argument that what makes Taiwan a dangerous location is that ‘[it] is an arena for the rivalry between China and America’. Instead, it is the ongoing domestic dynamics in Taiwan that make the country prone to the threat of China’s military invasion.
I believe the most critical question to answer is: what are the circumstances that will prompt China’s President Xi Jinping to instigate war against Taiwan in the foreseeable future? Two inter-related reasons could potentially fulfil the conditions for imminent military actions. The first factor is the burgeoning distaste commonly shared by Taiwan’s residents against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is worth mentioning again that the CCP has never relinquished military force to unify Taiwan. Nevertheless, the CCP appears willing to defer this method if negotiations are possible and the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits: a conventional carrot and stick approach. In recent years, one can argue that the CCP has favoured a more ‘carrot’ approach to create economic incentives to achieve its political goal of unification. This tactic received mixed results in the early stages of former President Hu Jintao’s tenure. Eventually, it began to show effects when citizens of Taiwan elected the Pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou as president in 2008.
With setbacks such as the occurrence of the sunflower student movement in Taiwan in 2014, the CCP’s ‘gentle’ approach has proven to be less effective in recent years. Moreover, a series of political misjudgements (e.g. Xi’s 2019 New Year’ speech), mishandling mass demonstrations for greater political autonomy in Hong Kong (e.g. 2014 Umbrella movement and 2019 Water-Revolution), have led to a soaring distaste of Taiwan’s general public against the CCP. For instance, comparing the statistics published by the Mainland Affairs Council (Taiwan) shows that the percentage of Taiwan’s residents recognising the CCP’s hostility towards the country’s residents has surged from 42.7 per cent in August 2016 to 60.5 per cent in August 2020.
China’s recent assertive actions toward Taiwan can be argued as an indication of the CCP adjusting its strategy from ‘carrots’ to ‘sticks,’ especially in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19. However, actions such as the constant deployment of its military aircrafts’ to intrude into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone since early 2020—and China’s recent ban on Taiwan’s pineapple exports—have only strengthened the power of the incumbent Tsai administration as her popularity further boosted to 58 per cent in March. At the cost of the CCP, the issue is made worse when: Japan’s private sector actors demanded an increase of Taiwan’s pineapple export to Japan and the Japanese government’s decision to swiftly provide AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan. One can expect this to strengthen further the already firm bond between Taiwan and Japan’s general public. The survey released by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association shows that Taiwan’s resident holds the highest positive perception towards Japan (i.e., 59% in 2018). In addition, the recent decision of the US government to include Taiwan in the list of its 25 million COVID-19 vaccine-sharing destinations is expected to place the CCP in a bad light.
With the absence of domestic pressure to negotiate with the CCP on the theme of unification, it is almost certain that the anti-CCP incumbent government will not take the initiative in arranging these talks. The odds will be against Xi in the long run, and the annual survey conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study shed lights on this issue. According to the survey, Taiwan’s general public that favour ‘[maintaining] status quo, [but moving] towards independence’ has increased from 15.1 per cent in 2018 to 25.8 per cent in 2020. Concurrently, the same statistics exhibit those that favour ‘[maintaining] status quo, [but moving] toward unification’ has plummeted from a high point of 12.8 per cent in 2018 to 6.6 per cent in 2020. Another study that surveys the political identity of Taiwan’s general public also demonstrates a similar trajectory in the same period. It shows a substantial increase from 54.5 per cent to 64.3 per cent of those who merely identify themselves as ‘Taiwanese.’ On the other hand, it also demonstrates a decrease from 38.2 per cent to 29.9 per cent of those who consider themselves as ‘both Taiwanese and Chinese.’
Although no guarantee increased hostility towards the CCP and enhanced Taiwanese identity will necessarily translate to the willingness of Taiwan’s residents to take part in warfare against China, the extent of their resistance to conceding to ‘external’ forces should not be underestimated. Moreover, one must distinguish the difference between how Taiwan’s residents perceive the CCP and Chinese people. According to a study published last September, it demonstrates that residents in Taiwan who maintain a ‘positive’ opinion towards Chinese people (i.e. 39 per cent) is almost equivalent to those who hold ‘negative’ opinions (i.e. 40.1 per cent). Yet, residents who maintain a ‘positive’ perception towards the CCP merely account for 6.9 per cent, whereas the majority hold ‘negative’ sentiments (i.e., 82.5 per cent). This indicates that the negative public perception of China is mainly directed at the CCP rather than the Chinese people.
Thus, if Taiwan’s overall public perception of the CCP is likely to continue to downward spiral, an immediate military invasion may become the favourable decision for Xi to avoid the foreseeably burgeoning difficulties for the CCP to rule Taiwan in the long run effectively. A ‘better now than later’ mentality makes Taiwan a dangerous location.
Chaos in Taiwan
The second inter-related factor is the political and economic implications of the recent rise in domestic coronavirus infections in Taiwan. Politically, one of the main factors that allowed Tsai to sustain a high level of supporting rate after the honeymoon period of her re-election is the administration’s ability to control the negative impact imposed by COVID-19 effectively. Yet, having fatality cases surpassing the total number of the SARS pandemic (i.e. 73) and reaching 149 cases on 2 June is likely to shake the solid foundation of Tsai’s government. For instance, the soaring domestic infection cases unveiled the Tsai administration’s inability to procure sufficient COVID-19 vaccines promptly. Although Tsai may avoid receiving severe domestic criticism by accusing the CCP’s interference in Taiwan’s agreement to acquire the Pfizer vaccine with Germany’s BioNtech, the outspread of coronavirus infections in Taiwan has opened the stage for a new series of political struggles.
A notable example is the recent emergence of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je at the forefront in dealing with the new wave of coronavirus infections. In contrast, previously, he mainly mandates Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan to attend press conferences related to the city’s pandemic control. Other instances include KMT-affiliated politicians (e.g., Magistrates of Hualien, Nantou, and Changhua) claiming they can bypass central government and procure approved coronavirus vaccines from ‘abroad’ (i.e. China).
Political struggles may affect the overall clout of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Yet, the most troubling issue at hand is the expected economic impact after introducing a nationwide lockdown. Although case studies have shown that prioritising epidemic control is vital to mitigating GDP losses, this would be their first experience of facing restriction on their individual liberty for most of Taiwan’s residents. Therefore, the newly rolled out NT$ 260 billion pandemic relief package by the Executive Yuan may keep the country’s most vulnerable groups (e.g., low-income households, self-employed local businesses, temporary contract employees) afloat. Thus, negative tax implications may emerge if the nationwide lockdown is extended or imposed more rigid regulations. The reason for this is that panic sentiments and the length/strictness of the nationwide lockdown are both likely to impose negative impacts on resident’s consumption patterns and subsequently reduce Taiwan’s GDP output. Hence, to ensure sufficient liquidity circulation in the real economy, if authorities effectively control the outspread of the local coronavirus infection rates, the government may need to introduce yet another economic stimulus package, similar to last year’s Triple Stimulus Voucher programme, to increase private consumption levels and achieve economic growth. However, this would be a gamble for the government to maintain its balance of payment discipline.
With no certainty that Taiwan will attain the same degree of success controlling the outspread of COVID-19 domestically, political and economic turbulences for Tsai and the DPP government can be expected. Compounded with the potential emergence of a ‘better now than later’ mentality, these two factors may increase the incentives for Xi to instigate hot conflicts with Taiwan, making it ‘a’ dangerous location on earth.
Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter @DrHsiehCC
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.