China’s Coercive Moves Against Taiwan Are Counterproductive

Tensions are high in the Strait, but most Taiwanese refuse to be intimidated by Beijing’s show of force

High alert: Taiwanese soldiers fire artillery in response to China’s live fire drills at the beginning of August. Image Credit: Annabelle Chih/Getty Images News

The military threat facing Taiwan reached an unprecedented level when China fired off 11 weaponized ballistic missiles toward the island, four of which flew over its skies in early August. Beijing, which sees the island as a renegade province, doubled down on live fire drills for days near waters surrounding Taiwan to protest U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s two-day visit to Taipei. But, like Ms. Pelosi, most people in Taiwan refuse to be awed by China’s show of strength.

As a journalist, I travelled across Taiwan the following week, when many told me that they are willing to stand up against China and fight for our “country” to the death. “I learn to use [airsoft] guns because I don’t want to get killed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shall it attack,” said a man in his 30s, who joined many other young people to sign up for civilian gun training in Taipei.

“The Chinese won’t attack the Chinese,” said a fish vendor in Yilan, northeastern Taiwan, citing the Chinese government’s narratives to reject the possibility of an invasion. But a female vendor next to him immediately corrected him by saying, “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese.” She added that Beijing’s heightened hostility did frighten her, but that Taiwan cannot cave in, otherwise the neighboring superpower will become a bigger bully.

While observing a local drill in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, an ex-navy officer admitted that “Taiwan’s military isn’t ready. So, they need trainings, trainings and trainings.” By contrast, an F16 pilot in Hualien, eastern Taiwan, told reporters that, because of frequent PLA warplane flyovers, the fleet’s “alert jets have been sent up more frequently. But everybody’s ready for it.”

I also learned that hundreds of businesspeople with high net worth rushed to seek emigration consultation or asset relocation advice, as they’re worried that the impact of escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait may hurt their asset values or personal safety.

But regardless of their stance toward Beijing, the Taiwanese in general don’t easily panic over China’s show of force because we’ve lived through similar military intimidation for decades. Some even appear too complacent this time, planning on going out to sea to observe what they ridicule as China’s “fireworks.”

In a crisis like this, I believe most of us put on brave faces because we all realize that we must rise to protect our hard-earned democracy and freedoms, sparing no chance for the Communist Party to resurrect our repressive past as a one-party state.

But none should underestimate Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing assertiveness because the threat emanating from China is getting more and more real every day. U.S. officials in the Pentagon have reiterated their warning that Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, told the PLA to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, according to U.S. intelligence.

At home, Xi has driven the Chinese people and their economy to despair in the past two years, after he refused to end the notoriously strict zero-COVID policy and lockdowns amid growing public outcry.

Across the Strait, it would be impossible to sway Xi if he set his mind on retaking Taiwan by force. If the U.S. and its allies were to jointly slap sanctions on China in the wake of a Taiwan emergency, China’s State Council reportedly warned in an April assessment that China would “return to a planned economy closed off to the world.” Japan’s Nikkei estimated that such a step could translate into a loss of $2.6 trillion in the global economy, or 3% of the world’s gross domestic product.

China, in the previous two decades, has tried both soft and hard approaches toward Taiwan to promote pro-unification sentiments. Preferential treatments have been offered to China-bound businesses and individuals, including entertainers. While some Taiwanese entertainers are often criticized for kowtowing to Beijing, China’s economic incentives can’t buy minds and hearts in Taiwan. Polls show that the island’s desire for unification with China has dropped from 45% before 1991 to a record low of below 10% this year. By contrast, the support for de jure independence has climbed to 21.8% while the majority, at 62%, prefer to keep the status quo, which can translate into de facto independence.

Most businesspeople I talked to shun political complications, treading carefully so they will not be in the Communists’ crosshairs and risk their access to the Chinese market. But there are rare exceptions such as Robert Tsao, ex-chairman of the United Microelectronics Corp, the island’s second-largest chipmaker, who has openly hardened his anti-Communist stance and pledged a $100 million donation to help beef up Taiwan’s defense by training 3.3 million civilian warriors to counter China’s invasion.

Tsao said he witnessed firsthand China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, which pushed him to take on China. He added he won’t allow Taiwan to become the second Hong Kong. “They have to do so over my dead body,” he told ABC. All in all, the island’s anti-China sentiments are surging as China keeps playing hardball with Taiwan, a strategy that ends up driving Taiwan farther away.

China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and coercive moves under Xi’s leadership have also backfired abroad, as more and more international support is rallying behind Taiwan. U.S. President Joe Biden recently reaffirmed America’s security commitment to Taiwan for the fourth time. He confirmed to “60 Minutes” that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. The Biden administration is clearly moving from “strategic ambiguity” toward “strategic clarity,” which some say could provide a deterrent to China, while others call it needlessly provocative.

Many Americans may ask why their fellow countrymen should risk their lives for Taiwan’s cause. But U.S. policymakers are well aware that, if Taiwan falls into the wrong hands, it will be almost impossible for the U.S. to contain China within the first island chain or safeguard its geopolitical interests in Asia.

Not to mention that Taiwan’s chip industry is another battlefront in the U.S.-China tech rivalry. Taiwan’s chip giant, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, alone accounts for over 90% of global output of high-end microchips, used in modern and futuristic devices from smartphones to electric cars. Without the island’s chip-making strength, U.S. high-tech leadership will be on the line. That’s why this chip company is viewed as a strategic asset to the U.S., to the extent that some U.S. military academics even suggest Taiwan should adopt a “broken nest” policy and wipe out all its chip foundries if invaded, making it less attractive to aggressors.

I think the world, led by the U.S., is gradually waking up to the fact that an independent Taiwan is in the world’s best interest. In this regard, I think the U.S. should next end its outdated endorsement of the One China Policy—the notion that Taiwan is part of China—which not only sings along with China’s delusional narrative but fails to reflect the reality for people in Taiwan. After all, China has no right to dictate U.S. foreign relations with any other country in the world, including Taiwan. Neither should the U.S. have to seek China’s permission to talk to its allies. I hope it’s time that the U.S. starts engaging with China on its own terms, not on China’s terms.

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