Beware: China’s Taking the Gloves Off Over Taiwan

Beijing’s had enough of Taipei’s posturing and the stream of support being drummed up for Taiwan across the West. Military action’s unlikely, but it will use its economic and diplomatic muscle to punish the island’s supporters.

It’s been another busy week on China-related matters. Unsurprisingly, in line to manufacture consent for America’s and the Anglosphere world’s diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, there’s been a coordinated frontloading of anti-China content from various US affiliated groups and organizations. In addition, the US Congress has sought to advance a number of anti-China bills and resolutions. 

Most seriously, tensions over Taiwan are ratcheting up yet again. Just as President Joe Biden undertakes his self-proclaimed “democracy summit,” which Taipei has been invited to, Beijing has been making its furious opposition known, not just in words, but with actions, too. 

Firstly came the news, deliberately timed to meet with yesterday’s opening of Biden’s summit, that Nicaragua, currently being targeted by the US for regime change, had declared that it had ended ties with Taiwan and opened diplomatic relations with Beijing, with officials traveling immediately for a meeting in Tianjin. The US State Department responded by condemning the Central American nation and encouraging countries to expand their ties with Taiwan. 

Then, in addition to that, there were unconfirmed reports claiming China had outright cut Lithuania off from its own supply chain, allegedly barring international companies from exporting to the Baltic state from China. This is in retaliation for the opening of a representative office by Taiwan in Vilnius, after Lithuania’s ruling coalition agreed to support “those fighting for freedom” on the island.

If this is confirmed, then it is clear that China is now “taking the gloves off” when it comes to Taiwan and is backing up its words with serious action. Apart from the action against Lithuania, it is also doing other things such as blacklisting “separatists” and fining companies who support Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Beijing is increasingly prepared to leverage its “national power” and capabilities in more sophisticated and creative ways in order to force countries to respect its position on the issue, enforce its red lines and hit back, while also upping its diplomatic game.

To do this, China is slowly developing a more intelligent and extra-territorial “sanctions regime”. While not as extensive, far-reaching or brutal as America’s, it does begin to utilize some of the same concepts which Washington employs: that is the capability to force one’s will upon a country outside of its sovereign boundaries, without kinetic action, by leveraging critical dependencies upon it. 

Beijing’s playbook was never as simple as a binary choice between “war or no war” in seeking to resolve the “Taiwan problem”. It comes amid a policy from Washington which has sought to increasingly hollow out and undermine Beijing’s One-China Policy, as well as encourage others to do likewise, but then accuse Beijing of being the one moving the goalposts for hitting back. In a nutshell: China has had enough. 

2020-2021 will almost certainly be looked back on as the year China “lost patience” over Taiwan to the point it was forced to act. The middle ground where Beijing tolerated Taiwan sitting ambiguously for years has collapsed. This is a consequence of the island being thrust into the international spotlight not merely as an unresolved territorial issue, but as an active strategic and political counterweight to try and contain the rise of China in Asia, which Taipei’s leadership has taken advantage of to pursue an agenda of formal independence and rubbish the idea of reunification. 

During this period, Taiwan’s foreign policy has been designed to exploit discord and opposition against Beijing wherever it can, to garnish support for itself, put itself in the spotlight and to expand its political space, enabled by US support. 

I have repeatedly described this strategy as “provocation diplomacy”. Taipei’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has frontloaded visits of Western legislators and former politicians to the island, penned op-eds in Western newspapers and made provocative comments such as confirming there is a US troop presence on the island. 

This public relations game seeks to make Beijing appear isolated, frustrated and helplessly sat on the sidelines as Taiwan increases its support, seemingly unable to do anything about it other than to protest and snarl or risk a catastrophic war which, even if it won, would be a pyrrhic victory. In taking this gamble, Tsai’s endgame is to change the status quo gradually and slowly escape Beijing’s political grasp.

In reaction to this, China has doubled down on the stakes of reunification, affirmed by President Xi Jinping himself, has repeatedly flown more warplanes near its “airspace defense identification zone,” and is now, as of late 2021, taking more strident actions. 

Out of all the Taiwan-related matters in the past months, Beijing has probably seen Lithuania’s act of opening a “Taiwan representative office” as the most alarming. While a visit to the island by a tedious has-been politician like former Australian premier Tony Abbott can be dismissed as a bad joke, the prospect of Taipei formally expanding its ties with countries sympathetic to it is seen as the graver threat through the precedent of which it sets. 

Despite Beijing’s protests so far, Lithuania has seemed largely undeterred. This has left China feeling it has to show the country not a mere sign of discontent or snub, but to impose serious and real costs on the country to make a point to others, especially in that same part of Europe, that they should never consider doing the same thing. 

This has been the primary motivator of China enhancing its sanctions policy over Taiwan. Beijing is hitting Vilnius where it hurts by cutting off its supply chain. Although Lithuania is largely insular and depends more on intra-European trade, it imported $1.34 billion worth of goods from China last year. Sanctions could easily force inflation upwards there by forcing it to look elsewhere for critical goods. 

International firms are being made to subtly choose between the gigantic Chinese market, of which Xi appears to be increasingly confident in as the world’s largest, or the very much smaller, offending countries such as Lithuania. But it’s not just in relation to this issue either. China’s fining of the Taiwanese firm, Far-Eastern Group, over support for the DPP is the first example of this strategy being used against the economy of Taipei itself, which is heavily integrated with the mainland.

On another front, China’s winning over of Nicaragua is a reminder that Beijing will continue to hammer away at the island’s remaining “official relationships”. While in practice, the Central American country, which the Biden administration has the knives out for anyway, does not mean a lot materially to Taipei, the timing of the move was deliberately designed to overshadow its participation in the “democracy summit,” as well as deal a jab to the US in its own backyard. 

It’s now the seventh country to switch sides since Tsai took office in 2016, which amounts to a loss of one-third of its total diplomatic relationships to Beijing in five years. These moves usually come in twos or threes, and Honduras is likely to be the next, given that its newly elected leader has shown interest in doing so.

However, there is ultimately only one relationship which matters to Taipei most in the end, and that is the one which is still described as informal: that with the US. It is on this battleground where Taiwan will be won or lost. But this isn’t going to be a physical war: it is going to be a mutual war of attrition where each side strives to undermine the credibility and political clout of the other in order to attain the upper hand. 

In doing so, Beijing is increasingly developing a new toolbox focused on painful precision, as opposed to blunt force. The Lithuania saga and the Nicaragua breakthrough are reminders that its One-China Policy is not a soundbite, but a deadly serious aim which will one day be fulfilled. If countries push against this redline, Beijing has every intention to hit back and leverage everything it can to make its position clearly understood.

By Tom Fowdy
Source: RT International

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