EUROPE ASIA FOUNDATION - INSIGHT
EAST AND WEST INDULGE IN TRANSIT DIPLOMACY OVER TAIWAN
In the Taiwan-China-US situation, both sides are playing what could be referred to as "transit diplomacy". The Americans did it when the president of Taiwan made a fleeting visit to their country. The Chinese did it when a former Taiwanese president visited the mainland. The so-called anger and hurt China expresses by launching military drills is, thus far, nothing but a calculated show of displeasure.
The Chinese government let the world know it was angry over the meeting between Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. The meeting came a week after Ing-wen was honored in New York. Ing-wen’s visit to the US on the way to a long tour of Central America came at a time when there is deep and growing hostility to China. The Americans left no stone unturned in using the occasion to "cock a snook" at China, though officially they downplayed the event.
Their meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library highlighted the strengthening ties between Taipei and Washington, even though they remain unofficial.
“I believe our bond is stronger now than at any time or point in my lifetime,” McCarthy said at a press conference after the meeting. “America’s support for the people of Taiwan will remain resolute, unwavering and bipartisan.” Tsai reciprocated his pledge of solidarity, noting “we’re stronger when we are together.”
“In our efforts to protect our way of life, Taiwan is grateful to have the United States by our side,” she said, standing alongside McCarthy with Reagan’s Air Force One as a backdrop. “The constant and unwavering support reassured the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone.”
Under Washington’s longstanding “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognised Beijing’s claim to the island of 23 million. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, it is also bound by law to provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself.
For Taiwan, the rare high-level, bipartisan meeting is a timely show of US support, as China ramps up diplomatic and military pressure on the self-ruling island it claims as part of its territory. But the last time Tsai met with a US House Speaker – during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last August, Beijing retaliated by holding days of large-scale military drills and firing missiles over the island, pushing tensions to their highest in decades. This time around, Beijing’s reaction - although it was initially restrained, the recent air exercises, however, demonstrate that little has changed in their approach.
To avoid provoking Beijing and triggering another military crisis, American and Taiwan officials have portrayed Tsai’s visit as nothing out of the ordinary, citing an abundance of precedents for a Taiwan leader to transit through the US. But the political significance of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy is unavoidable. It is the highest-level audience a sitting Taiwan president has received on American soil, with an official second in line to the presidency after the vice president.
China lost no time in launching military drills close to Taiwan. China will send planes, ships and personnel into the maritime areas and airspace of the Taiwan Strait, off the northern and southern coasts of the island, and to the island’s east, said Shi Yin, a PLA spokesperson. A report from state broadcaster CCTV said: “The taskforce will simultaneously organise patrols and advances around Taiwan island, shaping an all-round encirclement and deterrence posture.”
The report detailed the type of weapons China would use, which included long-range rocket artillery, naval destroyers, missile boats, air force fighters, bombers, jammers and refuellers. Reuters reported that China ended three days of military drills around Taiwan on Monday saying they had tested integrated military capabilities under actual combat conditions, having practised precision strikes and blockading the island that Beijing views as its own.
The Chinese military said it had "successfully completed" the exercises and "comprehensively tested" the capabilities of multiple units under actual combat conditions, the Reuters copy said. "The troops in the theatre are ready to fight all the time and can fight at any time, resolutely crushing any form of Taiwan independence separatism and foreign interference," the Eastern Theatre Command of the People's Liberation Army said in a statement.
But what China does not publicise is the parallel transit diplomacy it indulged in around the time it was publicly criticizing Ing-wen’s US visit. In fact it mounted a massive charm offensive by inviting President Tsai's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to tour the mainland. Ma went on an unprecedented five-city tour, ostensibly to pay homage to his ancestors. He visited their graves in central China. But the trip is also political. In fact, it's the first time a former president of Taiwan has ever been invited to the People's Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
When he was president between 2008 and 2016, Ma focused on establishing greater economic cooperation between Beijing and Taipei. The proposal sparked large-scale protests that saw demonstrators occupying Taiwan’s legislature for weeks. In 2015, Ma held an historic meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore – the first such meeting between political leaders of both sides of the Taiwan Strait in decades.
During his trip to China, Ma met with the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, noting the importance of maintaining exchanges across the Taiwan Strait and “doing everything possible” to avoid conflict. “People on both sides of the strait belong to the same Chinese nation and are descendants of the Chinese people,” he said last week. In contrast to Ma, Tsai does not acknowledge that Taiwan and China belong to the same nation. Instead, she has repeatedly emphasised that the island’s future can only be decided by its own people.
French President, Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen's recent China visit may have muddied the waters by not providing a united European (nor overarching Western) strategic approach to the China-Taiwan situation and certainly tensions between these global powers are not abating any time soon.