Why the U.S. Must Counter China’s Efforts to Isolate Taiwan

Taiwanese sailors salute the island's flag / Getty
• May 22, 2019 9:04 am


China seeks to destroy any notion that Taiwan is an independent state by delegitimizing the island, isolating it politically, diplomatically, and economically. And if that does not work, then Beijing is prepared to use military force to unify Taiwan with the mainland. Xi Jinping, China's ambitious and imperial president, said as much in a speech in January. "China must be, and will be, reunified," he said. "We do not forsake the use of force." Xi also described unification as the "great trend of history," an unstoppable wave that will wash away the Taiwanese people's freedom and prosperity without their consent. In short, China wants Taiwan, a vibrant, self-governing democracy, to submit to Beijing's authoritarian and dystopian rule.

In Washington, discussions about Taiwan tend to focus on military matters, specifically the prospect of a war between the island and China. It is easy to see why. About seven weeks ago, two Chinese fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait's median line, the de facto maritime border between China and Taiwan. In response, the Taiwanese military scrambled fighter planes to intercept the Chinese jets, which continued their incursion for about 10 minutes. Then, just on Wednesday, Taiwan's navy held a major live-fire drill as part of its annual Han Kuang exercises, which simulate an attack by China.

Often overlooked, however, are China's non-military efforts to isolate Taiwan, which Beijing hopes will compel Taipei's surrender without a fight. These efforts were on full display in recent days. For the third straight year, China has excluded Taiwan from participating in the World Health Organization's biggest annual gathering, the World Health Assembly. For years, Taiwan was able to send observers to the assembly, but amid rising tensions between Beijing and Tapei, China has launched a concerted effort to block the island from admittance. The gathering is currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland, and will end next week.

China's campaign is not only morally outrageous, but also dangerous. Under Chinese pressure, the World Health Organization, or WHO, even rejected Taiwan's offer for help in combating the Ebola epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. "Our president announced we would donate $1 million U.S. to combat Ebola; but this donation, even this donation was not accepted by the WHO," Taiwan's minister of health and welfare, Chen Shih-chung, told Voice of America. "So, this is a pity in our situation. We want to do something, but WHO did not accept us to do something for the world."

VOA noted that WHO estimates it needs $98 million to run its operation to combat Ebola but faces a shortfall of about $63 million. Chen also explained that he has written several letters to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to protest Taiwan's exclusion from the assembly, but has received no response.

Fortunately, the United States and other countries, including Japan, Germany, and Australia, are supporting Taiwan's bid to receive observer status at the assembly. "We support Taiwan having the type of status it had previously here at the World Health Assembly," Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said. "We think it's important that 23 million individuals have a voice and are able to see the proceedings here and be part of that as appropriate, as consistent with past historic practices."

China's efforts to block Taiwan from the assembly came after Beijing tried to take credit for the island's decision to legalize same-sex marriage. "Local lawmakers in Taiwan, China [emphasis mine], have legalized same-sex marriage in a first for Asia," tweeted the People's Daily, a newspaper that serves as the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece. By publicly and consistently referring to Taiwan as part of China, and by stating it as a matter of fact, the Chinese government hopes to engrain the message in the international community's mind, delegitimizing Taiwan's sovereignty. Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with its own tweet.

These Chinese actions may seem small by themselves, but they are part of a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine Taiwan and force the island into a corner of isolation. And the campaign is expansive. In 2017, for example, China began demanding that foreign corporations treat Taiwan as part of China. Many companies complied, fearing they would lose access to the Chinese market if they did not fall in line. Such efforts are a form of economic warfare against Taiwan, meant to bully the island into submission. Beyond economics, they also isolate the island politically and diplomatically. China has also pressured countries to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Collectively, these actions pose a grave threat to Taiwan.

To its credit, the United States has opposed many of China's tricks, as has Japan. Washington must continue to do so if it believes freedom and democracy can and should overcome ruthless oppression. Beyond morality, however, the United States has strategic interests at stake. Indeed, China's non-military aggression against Taiwan is directly related to its military threats. How? China believes that, in a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, Washington may have important interests at stake, but not ones as important as those that Beijing has at stake. For Chinese leaders, an independent Taiwan poses an existential threat to their rule, challenging the survival and legitimacy of the Communist Party. Even if the United States is more powerful, China believes it could defeat the Americans because it would be more committed to the fight. Therefore, the United States must make clear, beyond any doubt, that it is committed to Taiwan's defense to deter Chinese aggression. But if the United States shows it is unwilling to defend Taiwan against China's non-military aggression in the political, economic, and diplomatic arenas, then how will China ever believe the United States is willing to defend Taiwan militarily? In short, to bolster American military deterrence, Washington needs to counter Chinese efforts to delegitimize and isolate Taiwan.

Critics may ask why the United States should risk American blood and treasure to defend Taiwan. As I explained last month:

If the U.S. were to abandon Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, it would signal to the rest of Washington's allies in Asia—and even in Europe and the Middle East—that they could not count on American guarantees. Indeed, they would look elsewhere for security, and the American network of allies, which gives the U.S. unparalleled global power, could very well collapse. But even beyond morality and allies, Taiwan is the critical point of the so-called "first island chain," the first line of archipelagos off the east Asian continental coastline. In order for China to challenge American dominance in the Pacific, it would need to break through that chain, which is composed of American allies. For China, Taiwan is the spot where it can break through. So if the U.S. is concerned about Chinese ambitions, or about the world order that has brought so much global prosperity, it must be willing to defend Taiwan, hoping that day never comes.

The United States must support Taiwan against Chinese bullying and belligerence. That support concerns most importantly the Chinese military threat, but not exclusively. There are many non-military steps the United States can take, above all launching a concerted effort with its Asian allies to present a more united front in support of Taiwan against China. Japan should be at the center of this campaign. The longer the United States takes to counter China's coercion more robustly, the more aggressive China will become.

Published under: China, Taiwan