China on the defensive in Taiwan after poll victory of William Lai

The election of Lai Ching-te as the President of Taiwan has put China on the defensive in its policies vis-a-vis the island territory. Earlier when the elections were approaching, Beijing had gone on the aggressive mode to intimidate the people of Taiwan not to vote in favour of William Lai, as he is popularly called. China had sent warships to the coasts of Taiwan; had sent numerous warplanes to the skies of the island and in the last leg of campaigning had even dispatched spy balloons to Taiwan. Beijing had openly asked the people of Taiwan not to vote for William Lai if they wanted to have peace in future. Nothing of these seems to have had an effect on the common Taiwanese people who voted for William Lai to elect him to power; the underlying message being that the people of Taiwan wanted to enjoy in peace their autonomous existence and had no intention to merge with China.

Now that the U.S. and other Western democracies have started increasingly to interact with the newly elected government in Taiwan, Beijing has little option left but to open negotiations on a conciliatory note with these countries to ensure that Taiwan does not slip away from the hands of Beijing for all times to come.

Following the election of the new President in the January 13 presidential election in Taiwan, on January 25 a bipartisan delegation from the United States Congress on a visit to the island territory reaffirmed support for the island territory. The visit of the delegation was the first from U.S. lawmakers to the island since the victory for the third straight term of the Democratic Progressive Party which advocated the status of Taiwan as an independent country. “The support of the United States for Taiwan is firm. It’s real, and it is 100 percent bipartisan,” US Representative Mario Díaz Balart, a Republican, was quoted as saying in an AP report from Taipei on that day. “Just know that we are proud of the people of Taiwan. We are proud of the relationship and as strong as that relationship has always been. That is assured. It will even be stronger,” Democratic representative Ami Bera expressed the same sentiment, saying: “In the 21st century, there’s no place for aggressive action. We have to learn to live together, to trade together, to work together and to solve problems together. So, we look forward to working together to continue to protect the peace, prosperity and the future of Taiwan.”

Compared to previous visits like one of former Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, the response of Beijing to the visit of the high level bipartisan delegation from the U.S. to Taiwan has been muted; restricted to the despatch of 33 aircraft and six naval vessels around Taiwan on September 27. Of these, 13 warplanes crossed the middle of the Taiwan Strait; the unofficial boundary between Taiwan and Beijing. Taipei in response deployed its own forces.

William Lai in his comments to the visiting delegation made it clear that Taiwan from now on wanted to build its relations with the international community without any Chinese control. “Today’s Taiwan is the Taiwan of the world,” he said. “Moving forward, I will work with Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim to build upon the foundation laid by President Tsai Ing-wen to unite the people of Taiwan, strengthen social resilience and continue to defend the cross-strait status quo of peace and stability.”

The issue of continued military assistance from the United States also figured in the talks between William Lai and the delegation from the United States Congress. Washington still formally sticks to its “one China” policy but allows informal relations and defence ties with Taipei. U.S. laws require Washington to ensure that the island has the ability to defend itself and that the U.S. must treat threats against the island as a matter of “grave concern.”

Meanwhile, the new administration in Taiwan has made it clear that it will now bow to the pressure from Beijing and is keen on maintaining the status quo.  The unofficial Taiwanese ambassador to the United States Alexander Tah-Ray Yui has told the AP in an interview that Taiwan is determined to safeguard its homeland and has noted that the island is increasing its defence budget and has extended the mandatory military service from four months to one year. Taiwan will also work with the U.S. to boost its defence and deepen cultural and economic ties, calling the relations with Washington “one of the most important aspects in our foreign affairs.”

Yui has not attached much significance to Nauru, a small Pacific island nation, withdrawing diplomatic support to Taiwan two days after the election of William Lai to office. He feels Beijing has lured away Nauru in an attempt to punish the Taiwanese people for electing the leader of their choice. “They were just trying to find an appropriate time and excuse to slowly pluck all of our allies,” Yui has said. But, as a technological powerhouse and democracy, Taiwan “has become a common word in the international community and countries around the world will have become more willing to engage with us,” Yui has been quoted.

Soon after the declaration of the election results in Taiwan and the formation of a government in Taipei that is ready to defy the threats from China, warships from the United States, Australia and Japan started holding joint drills in the South China Sea from February 7, 2024, to send a message to Beijing that the international community would not accept its claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire strategic waterway. Guided missile destroyer USS John Finn and combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords carried out operations with navy ships from Japan and Australia on February 7 and 8. Beijing has made military bases on at least seven islands in the South China Sea by piling concrete and sand atop coral atolls and objects to foreign naval operations in the area. The U.S. has rejected the claims of sovereignty of China over the entire South China Sea, partly on the strength of a ruling of 2016 by the International Court of Justice based in The Hague.

Commanding Officer of John Finn Commodore Earvin Taylor has been quoted in an AP report: “This multinational sail fortifies our relationship between the U.S., Japan and Australian allies. We promote transparency, rule of law, freedom of navigation and all principles that underscore security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.” Commodore Jonathan Ley of Australia has said such deployments are “crucial for enhancing mutual understanding and our ability to operate together.”

Before the joint military exercise, on January 24 the American destroyer John Finn sailed through the politically sensitive Taiwan Strait, a 160-km wide waterway. “No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms,” the 7th Fleet of the American Navy said in a release on the transit of John Finn through the Taiwan Strait. “The U.S. military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows.”

The muted response of China to these military moves by the U.S. has been an accusation that the U.S. has been abusing international law with its military manoeuvres in the western Pacific. Beijing, as usual, has remained silent on the brazen military manoeuvres carried out by the Chinese military close to the, and sometimes within, the territorial waters of Taiwan in the past two years in an attempt to threaten Taipei into falling in line.

According to analysts, the American military moves have been aimed in part at deterring China from launching any attack on Taiwan or enforcing its territorial claims in disputes with smaller neighbours such as the Philippines. And it seems like the message has gone home. Notably, according to an AP report on January 20, 2024, Beijing has agreed to lower tension with the Philippines in the South China Sea after having a tense confrontation with Filipino ships for over a year which had raised the spectre of armed engagement in the region. On that day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China said the two sides — China and the Philippines — had agreed to improve communications and use friendly negotiations to manage their differences at sea, “especially to manage well the situation at Ren’ Ai Reef; which incidentally is the Chinese name for what the Philippines call Ayungin Shoal and what the U. S. calls the Second Thomas Shoal; the site of multiple confrontations between ships of China and the Philippines in recent months.

Meanwhile, in a grim message to Beijing on February 9, 2024, Major General Marcus Evans, Commander of the 25th Infantry Division of the United States Army told the AP in an interview that the war in Ukraine and the Israel – Hamas conflict would not divert military resources of the U.S. from the South China Sea region. “Certainly, it does not affect our presence. If anything, it drives an increasing sense of urgency to focus on these partnerships that we have developed decades ago,” he was quoted to have said.