[Interview] China to turn up pressure on Taiwan ahead of Lai’s inauguration, scholar predicts

Posted on : 2024-01-16 17:20 KST Modified on : 2024-01-16 17:20 KST
Lai Ching-te’s inauguration in May will be a major variable that could sway cross-strait relations
Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor of political science at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, speaks to the Hankyoreh from the university campus on Jan. 13. (Choi Hyun-june/The Hankyoreh)
Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor of political science at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, speaks to the Hankyoreh from the university campus on Jan. 13. (Choi Hyun-june/The Hankyoreh)

Until Lai Ching-te is inaugurated as president of Taiwan in May, China will continue its military pressure campaign against the island in order to get Lai to say what Beijing wants to hear, a Taiwanese scholar told the Hankyoreh on Monday. 

Upon Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te’s election as president of Taiwan, Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor of political science at National Chengchi University, predicted that China will continue its military pressure campaign against Taiwan in the days to come. The scholar says China will use provocations to pressure Lai, a staunch pro-independence supporter and the heir apparent of the DPP, to water down his vehement pro-sovereignty stance into a more conciliatory posture towards Beijing during his inauguration, which is scheduled for May 20.

“The US also doesn’t want more conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Washington will try to restrain Lai from provoking China,” Wang said. 

The Hankyoreh met with Wang at National Taiwan University on Monday.

Hankyoreh: Lai was elected president of Taiwan on Saturday. What’s your reaction?

Wang: Lai was elected with 40% of the total vote. Four years ago, Tsai Ing-wen, a fellow party member, was elected with 57% of the vote. That’s a plunge of 17 points. There’s been a change in Taiwanese politics. The emergence of Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party split the vote, and there’s an element of voters showing their disappointment in the DPP as well. Corruption, #MeToo incidents, the egg import controversy, and low pay for young workers — these issues have aggregated to chip away support for the DPP.  

Hankyoreh: The Kuomintang (KMT) suffered its third consecutive defeat in a presidential election. Why couldn’t it pull out a victory?

Wang: The KMT failed to secure the support of young voters. Surveys and polls suggest that only 10% of voters in the 20-40 age bracket support the KMT. Although the KMT officially opposes the Chinese Communist Party and unification with China, they still have a pro-China image. The DPP tenaciously attacked this weak point. The KMT’s failure to replace its aging leadership with a fresh generation further contributed to its election loss. The DPP has a lot of heavyweight hitters on its side, but nobody comes to mind with the KMT.

Hankyoreh:  Some people say the next presidential election will be a showdown between Taiwan’s vice president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim and Taipei Mayor Chiang Wan-an, the alleged descendant of Chiang Kai-shek.

Wang: If Lai serves two terms, or eight years, then Hsiao will probably lose her chance. Chiang is only 46 years old, and he is popular within the KMT, but public opinion regarding the Chiang Kai-shek line is divided. 

Hankyoreh:  Will Taiwan’s foreign policy change because of this election?

Wang: Lai will most likely continue the policies of Tsai Ing-wen. 

Hankyoreh:  China accuses Lai of being a “separatist.” Do you think he will push the issue in office?

Wang: Lai will probably not openly declare independence from China. But from Beijing’s perspective, there is likely a spectrum when it comes to stances on independence, or what it calls separatism. For instance, Lai may not openly declare independence, but he may champion a cultural separation from China. During his campaign, Lai pledged to pass the Culture Basic Law. China views this move as a deliberate attempt to distinguish Taiwanese culture from Chinese culture.

Hankyoreh:  So how will China respond?

Wang: Lai has described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan's independence.” China did not want him to become president, and has openly criticized him for the past year, calling him names like a separatist and “troublemaker through and through” and a “shameful person.” Right after Lai was elected, the Chinese government released a statement saying, “The Taiwan question is China’s internal affair,” and moved to censor unfavorable news about the Taiwanese election. Lai isn’t going to be inaugurated until May, so China will mobilize its military to pressure Lai to adopt a conciliatory stance towards Beijing during his inauguration speech. Chinese fighter jets will likely cross the “median line” of the Taiwan Strait, which has served as the de facto maritime border, and provoke it by sailing warships through Taiwan’s territorial waters, which Taipei defines as starting at 12 nautical miles from its coast. 

However, China will use its relations with the US as a gauge that determines the intensity of its provocations. China may try to leverage its economic influence to gain concessions from Taiwan. In fact, last September, China announced plans to turn Fujian Province into a “cross-strait integrated development demonstration zone.” China will also have to pump out domestic propaganda to craft the desired public perception regarding the DPP’s victory. Because Lai only secured 40% of the total vote, China will probably claim that the majority of Taiwanese support unification with China.

Hankyoreh: What about the US? It wanted to see Lai in power.

Wang: The US and China surely clash when it comes to Taiwan, but neither party wants military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Both Washington and Beijing want cross-strait stability. With the US presidential election coming up in November, the Biden administration surely does not want a skirmish in the Taiwan Strait that entangles US soldiers in a conflict with China. The US will push for Lai to extend his predecessor’s foreign policy, to stand with the US on the international stage, and to accept Washington’s proposals regarding cross-strait relations. Washington will strongly advise against any provocations of China from Lai. 

Hankyoreh:  Some say that Lai becoming president will trigger China to invade Taiwan. Do you see that as a possibility?

Wang: That depends on what Lai says during his inauguration speech. If he makes a direct reference to Taiwanese independence and sovereignty, tensions will surely rise, but he is not likely to do that. The US will also not idly stand by if China invades Taiwan, so a Chinese invasion is unlikely. Beijing has kept watch on the war in Ukraine. They know that the odds of a swift victory are low, and that Western sanctions will be heavy-hitting. 

Hankyoreh: How will Lai’s election impact US-China relations?

Wang: There won’t be any major changes. Lai Ching-te will more or less continue the policies of the previous administration. The US is concerned about Lai’s strong stance on sovereignty, so they will try to control him. Shortly after Lai was announced as the winner, he was greeted by a US delegation led by former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. The Biden administration does not want cross-strait relations to surface as an issue ahead of the presidential election in November. Trump is a potential opponent in the presidential election. Trump has a very clear, hard-line stance regarding Taiwan, which will make Biden look wishy-washy and weak. When it comes to Taiwan, Biden considers global geopolitics and relations with other allies, but Trump keeps it simple. 

Hankyoreh: If Xi Jinping wants to unify China and Taiwan, what does he need to do?

Wang: From China’s perspective, a peaceful reunification with Taiwan does not look easy. Democracy has become the political dogma of the Taiwanese people, who are not easily pacified by China’s economic proposals. Ideally, democratization would come hand-in-hand with China’s economic development, but that is unlikely at this point. What’s most concerning is that as a peaceful reunification becomes more unlikely, the only available option for reunification is military force. Taiwan needs to conduct itself so that China does not completely discard the option of a peaceful resolution, and to hope for change while giving China time. 

Hankyoreh: What do you make of Ko Wen-je’s popularity in the election?

Wang: There is a lot of public dissatisfaction with the current state of Taiwanese politics, meaning the DPP-KMT dichotomy. Ko got a lot of support from political moderates, the middle class, and younger voters. He got over 50% of the youth vote. Ko stressed three concepts during his campaign: the working level, science, and reason. This resonated with voters. Many people also like his no-nonsense, forthright way of speaking. But it remains to be seen if Taiwan will truly become a three-party system. It will depend on how certain issues impact public opinion going forward, and on the Taiwan People’s Party ability to establish a permanent presence in the rural areas and provinces outside Taipei. 

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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