Written by Wei-Hsiu Huang.
Image credit: Public domain.
The cross-Strait relations have been especially strained since 2017 because the Tsai Ing-wen administration of Taiwan’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party was established in 2016. Chinese regime led by the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi Jinping, is proactively applying pressure from all fields, including political and military, to force Taiwan to recognise the Chinese claim to reunification. Furthermore, mainland China is increasing military pressure on Taiwan following the visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in 2022. Mainland China frequently instructs military aircraft to intrude into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and cross the Taiwan Strait median line. Then, as well as in the address to the 20th National Congress of CPC and the 2023 Lunar New Year Greetings, Xi Jinping emphasised both the initiative to promote cross-strait relations with Taiwan and caution against external interference. Xi said “that the initiative to steer relations across the Taiwan Strait has been maintained, while major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics has been promoted to inject stability into this volatile world.” Given these conditions, the so-called Chinese invasion of Taiwan or Taiwan contingency seems to be becoming a reality under global attention. No doubt, mainland China will keep squeezing Taiwan, but it is worth observing in what way they will take the initiative in cross-strait relations.
In the “Post-War Flux: Analysing the Fluctuation of Relationships Between Taiwan-Japan in the Post-war Period,” I pointed out that the possibility of a peaceful settlement about the cross-Strait relations has diminished; in the meantime, the US deterrence toward mainland China has been relatively weakened compared to the Korean War period, and Taiwan is facing the most dangerous international environment for security since the Korean War.
Nowadays, the US remains the world’s leading superpower. Till now, Japan has been enacting Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which stipulates the renunciation of war and the non-retention of military force, on the premise that the UN would protect the international order after World War II. Even though the premise collapsed by the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, Japan has been rather slow in responding to security policy issues. But surrounded by North Korea and China since the 1990s, Japan is starting to adjust its security policy, including considering developing the counterstrike capability in 2022. As for Taiwan itself, the national defence has been well developed, ranking 23rd in the 2023 world military power ranking. From the Ukraine conflict, we learn that although mainland China has overwhelming military power over Taiwan, the invasion of Taiwan may not go smoothly.
Therefore, it is important to note that China desperately wants to promote cross-Strait interactions through political and military means and through exchanges and culture, as shown in Xi Jinping’s aforementioned statements. That is why the contemporary definition of ‘power’ in international relations theory includes political, military, and economic dimensions and social and cultural fields. ‘Soft power’ precisely means the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.
Likewise, today’s authoritarian states are using “sharp power” to project their influence internationally, with the objectives of limiting free expression, spreading confusion, and distorting the political environment within democracies. In view of the statement above by Xi Jinping, it is conceivable that China is using political and military power to exert pressure on Taiwan and sharp power to collapse Taiwan from within.
The increased economic interdependence in the cross-Strait relations since the 1980s catalyses for mainland China to establish routes to use sharp power over Taiwan. In other words, the exchanges based on economic interdependence have resulted in the penetration of the sharp power by mainland China in Taiwan, from the spread of fake news by pro-China media and social networking services to exerting influence through some organisations involved in cross-Strait exchanges and Taiwanese companies which have expanded their markets into mainland China. For example, Mainland China pressured the Taiwanese government in 1996 through the Chinese National Federation of Industries, the main business organisation in Taiwan, to allow increased investment. In response, President Lee Teng-hui has decided on the“No Haste, Be Patient” Policy to review investments. But Mainland China is always using the openness of democracy to fulfil its influence on Taiwan’s business and economic leaders through economic exchanges, and not only the religious and cultural exchanges but also mass media and social media to manipulate public opinion and intervene in elections.
Taiwan is also taking proactive measures. Since the 2010s, the Taiwanese Government has banned the procurement by mainland China’s components in developing government institutions and critical infrastructure. However, some Taiwanese citizens also recognise hacker activities and fake news from mainland China as part of everyday life. The Tsai administration is focusing on the impact of fake news and has strengthened its monitoring system to actively disseminate fact-checks. During the People’s Liberation Army’s military exercises in the wake of Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, the Tsai Government is credited with minimising the impact of the sharp power of Chinese fake news and hacker activities. Nevertheless, China’s sharp power over Taiwan cannot be completely eradicated, as it permeates all areas, including society and culture. The COVID-19 vaccine is a good case study.
After the global pandemic outbreak, Taiwan was clean from COVID-19 until April 2021, but the Delta variant caused the spread of the disease from mid-May 2021. Taiwan started vaccinations of AstraZeneca vaccines in February 2021, but there were not enough vaccines. Japan also donated several rounds of AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan from June 2021.
But there were also some criticisms that the vaccines donated by Japan are not safe. The discourse about the persistent criticism of the safety of AstraZeneca vaccines meant that they were not trusted from the outset. Delays in vaccination were one of the reasons that led to the spread of the disease from May 2021. As mainland China also circulated similar discourses simultaneously, these discourses seem to be in line with the cognitive warfare of mainland China. And some people in Taiwan still seem to trust these discourses, even though there have been considerably fewer media coverage of vaccines.
Nevertheless, based on the logic of democracy, including freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the opposition’s responsibility to be a loyal opposition, it is absolutely difficult to investigate or crack down on the speech of politicians, researchers, and the media. It is even more difficult to ban all discourse on cognitive warfare circulating on the internet.
Mainland China will likely exercise its sharp power strongly in the run-up to the Taiwan presidential election in 2024. In Taiwan, there is also a discourse that the US will not defend Taiwan when mainland China invades Taiwan because the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan and has not directly deployed troops to Ukraine. Meanwhile, another discourse is that the military build-up by Taiwan is a provocation against mainland China. We can assume that these discourses are also in line with the cognitive warfare by mainland China. Of course, the forces that dispersed these discourses failed to mention the history of the US in defending Taiwan from the Korean War. The current tension in the cross-Strait relations is due to pressure unilaterally exerted on Taiwan by mainland China. Again this is another good example of China’s sharp power exploiting the free society of Taiwan.
To sum up, based on the address to the 20th National Congress of CPC and the 2023 Lunar New Year Greetings by Xi Jinping, it is explicit that the Chinese mainland will exercise even more robust sharp power and attempt to break up Taiwan from within. Moreover, the Chinese Mainland, which is always wary of foreign powers interfering in Taiwan’s affairs, could use the same sharp power against democratic states such as the US and Japan. This is because many countries, not just Japan, already have developed strong economic interdependencies with the Chinese mainland, creating routes for China’s sharp power. It is an important issue for democracies: how to prevent dictatorships from using sharp power to exploit freedom of speech and collapse democracies from within. To prevent the status quo in the Taiwan Strait from being changed by the power of Mainland China, the US, Japan, and other democratic countries must be prepared for hard power and sharp power.
Wei-Hsiu Huang is the Project Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo, and the Guest Junior Researcher at Waseda Taiwan Research Institute. He comes from Taiwan. He specialises in politics and foreign relations between the PRC and Taiwan, Cross-Strait Relations, Sino-Japan Relations, Japan-Taiwan Relations, Japan’s foreign and security policies, and the Mainland Policy Decision-Making Process in Taiwan. He is the winner of the sixth Japan Association for Taiwan Studies Award (politic and economic field) in 2011 and the seventeenth Yasuhiro Nakasone Award of Incentive Award in 2021.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Cross-Straits relations 2023’.