PacNet #33 – China cannot hinder international navigation through Taiwan Strait

During China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on June 13, he responded to a Bloomberg question concerning the legal status of the Taiwan Strait. Asked about Chinese military officials’ contention that the Taiwan Strait does not constitute “international waters,” he said that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory. …According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

He went on to say that calling the strait international waters is “a false claim” by “certain countries” searching for a pretext for “threatening China’s sovereignty and security.”

However, while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not use the phrase “international waters” most waters, even territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be used for international navigation.

Instead, the relevant UNCLOS terms concerning movement through the Taiwan Strait are that it is a “transit passage” through a strait used for “international navigation.”

The Taiwan Strait’s importance as a shipping channels is well-documented: it links major economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, among others. Maritime traffic on the Strait has also increased drastically in recent years. The Strait’s width is approximately 220 nautical miles at its widest, meaning that for both China and Taiwan, it falls within the 200 nautical miles afforded to all countries for their EEZs. Because the Strait is “used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone,” as defined by Article 37 of UNCLOS, “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.”

Transit passage

Transit Passage is very well-founded in UNCLOS. According to Article 38, it “means the exercise of…the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

One may observe that this right of transit passage merely repeats all states’ freedom of navigation and overflight within any state’s EEZ (as spelled out in Article 58) as well as in the high seas (according to Article 87).

Thus, the right of all States to navigate and fly over to transit, in this case, the Taiwan Strait, is very well defined in international law, and shall not be impeded by China or any other state.

Long-standing international conventions

In addition, UNCLOS recognizes “the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits” (Article 35).

In the Taiwan Strait, there is a center line called the Davis median line with its origins in the 1954 US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Even though China does not officially recognize the existence of the de facto center line, there has been a tacit understanding on both sides of the strait to respect the unofficial boundary. The line was established in 1954, and through August 2020, there was only four reported Chinese military incursions across the line.

Since September 2020, however, China has sent many airplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, presumably crossing the Davis median line many times.

China may be trying to ignore the Davis median line. But its historical value in keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century should be considered by an UNCLOS tribunal, in case of an eventual dispute in front of an UNCLOS panel, as “long-standing international conventions in force” that should be enforced.

In any event, China cannot do much to legally hinder or impede all States’ right of transit passage through the Taiwan Strait. China should respect the tradition of the median line, and deal with Taiwan Strait issues differently.

Innocent passage

In addition to the right of transit passage with freedom of navigation and overflight through the Strait in the EEZ and high seas, Article 45 says ships of all states also enjoy the right of innocent passage (in other words, is not engaged in prohibited activities) through China’s (and Taiwan’s) territorial sea within the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, China cannot claim the Taiwan Strait as its own waters, be they territorial seas or EEZ, just to hinder international navigation.

Tran Đinh Hoanh () is an international litigator and writer in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #14 – What the war in Ukraine means for Taiwan

The war in Ukraine has implications for Taiwan, which similarly fears attempted forced annexation by an authoritarian neighbor. There are different interpretations of those implications. Here are mine.

The war in Ukraine does not mean that a war over Taiwan is imminent. There has been much speculation that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine makes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely because Beijing could take advantage of US attention being diverted to Europe.

This line of thinking has two major flaws. First, the recent deployment of 14,000 additional US troops and six F-35 aircraft to Europe in response to the Russia invasion does not significantly impair the ability of the US military to fight in the western Pacific. The officers of the US Indo-Pacific Command responsible for preparing and executing war plans and recommending courses of action to the White House are focused on developments in the Indo-Pacific, not Europe. The Biden administration’s attention to the war in Ukraine did not prevent it from thinking to send a delegation of former US defense officials on a reassurance visit to Taiwan.

Second, the idea of coordinated invasions of Ukraine and Taiwan assumes Beijing has already made the decision to use military force to compel cross-Strait unification and is waiting for an opportunity to strike. This outlook does not account for Beijing’s political calculus. China-Taiwan relations operate according to their own logic and timetable, independent of what is happening in Europe or even Hong Kong. Attempting a military conquest of Taiwan has always been a last resort that China would consider only when compelled to by Taipei moving unambiguously to a permanent political separation from China.

Xi Jinping’s first order of business is to stay in power. His immediate need is the secure a third term as Communist Party General Secretary during the 20th Party Congress in October. Absent a dramatic move by Taiwan toward independence, which President Tsai Ing-wen does not intend to make, Xi does not need to settle the Taiwan issue to get a third term. On the other hand, a war against Taiwan, the United States, and probably Japan would force Chinese elites to think that Xi had led China into disaster. Beijing’s recent hostile signaling to Taiwan, in the form of military exercises and warplane fly-bys, are probably less a rehearsal for attack than an attempt by Beijing to halt the trend of closer US relations with the Taipei government.

What the Ukraine war does for Taiwan is to improve Taiwan’s own strategic situation marginally.

The Russian invasion forced Beijing to prioritize among Chinese interests. Beijing wants worldwide recognition as a responsible, law-abiding, and constructive international citizen and it hopes to weaken strategic coordination between the United States and Western Europe. But it also wants to preserve its valuable working relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ March 1 press briefing (the most recent at the time of this writing), spokesman Wang Wenbin dodged a question of why Beijing refused to call the Russian campaign an “invasion” and backed away from his previous already-vague statement that “one country should not flagrantly undermine others’ sovereignty.” Instead, he drew moral equivalency between Russia and Ukraine by calling on “all parties to exercise necessary restraint” and implicitly blamed NATO for causing the war by “strengthening or even expanding military blocs.” Wang’s colleague Hua Chunying has repeatedly called the United States “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine.”

In choosing to support diplomatically what is almost universally seen as a villainous act of aggression, China’s international standing is reduced. The ceremonial veneer of moral uprightness that Chinese officials work so hard to maintain is tarnished. Consequently, Beijing’s agenda, including its position that it has the right to annex the de facto state of Taiwan, commands less international respect and engenders more suspicion. In general, a weaker rather than a stronger international position is a disincentive for Chinese leaders to make a decision they know will bring much global opprobrium, at least in the short term.

One of the factors that would support a Chinese decision to go to war against Taiwan would be the expectation that economic reliance on China would deter other important countries from levying serious sanctions against Beijing. Putin likely had a similar expectation with regard to Russia. But contrary to expectations, European governments proved willing and able to support quickly and unitedly a surprisingly tough stance against aggression, despite the potential harm to their economic interests.

Particularly significant was the disconnection of major Russian banks from the international SWIFT transaction network, a step Europe considered but was ultimately reluctant to implement following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The developed countries now have a template for future similar scenarios, including a cross-Strait war. Chinese elites might have believed that economics always trumps values. No longer.

The course of the war so far is not encouraging to Chinese military planners. Ukraine has demonstrated how a seemingly overmatched military can prove stubbornly formidable when fighting on its home ground and motivated by the objective of saving loved ones and statehood from an invader. This does not invalidate the China’s large quantitative military advantages, but it illustrates that superior numbers do not automatically guarantee success. The Russians’ problems with logistics and the difficulties they face trying to fight in cities are especially applicable to a would-be invader of Taiwan.

Finally, the war in Ukraine is likely to accelerate changes Taipei must make to improve the island’s chances of fighting off an attempted Chinese invasion. The war should focus minds on at least these three key issues.

First, Taipei must use its limited defense funds to acquire the weapons systems most useful for the all-important job of stopping attacking Chinese ships and aircraft. Second, Taiwanese conscript soldiers require a much more serious training program than they currently get. Third, Taipei should organize reserve soldiers into a territorial defense force, such as is now acquitting itself well in Ukraine. The prospect of contending with an independent guerrilla army that could fight on even after the apparent defeat of the regular Taiwanese armed forces adds to the disincentives against Beijing choosing war.

The ongoing war should serve as a warning to Beijing that its irredentist claims over Taiwan would not shield China from international condemnation as a war-criminal regime, or from economic retribution if it attacked Taiwan. Nor could it expect the people of Taiwan to accept forced annexation supinely. Ukraine’s heroism reverberates around the world, including in the Taiwan Strait.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #13 – What the Indo-Pacific sees in Ukraine

The capitals of the Indo-Pacific are closely watching the invasion of Ukraine. From Tokyo to Taipei, Hanoi to Canberra, and Bangkok to Beijing, Russia’s invasion presents a lucid lesson as to the tactics China could use in any forced re-unification of Taiwan, such as gray zone operations, lawfare, fake news, military might, and posturing.

But the Indo-Pacific faces numerous other areas where a Russian-style takeover with Chinese characteristics could happen. In the East China Sea, the Senkaku Islands face nearly daily incursions and challenges to Japanese sovereignty through lawfare tactics such as adoption of a Chinese Coast Guard Law in January 2021.

According to Lyle Goldstein, the Taiwan Strait remains ripe for invasion and in the South China Sea the Philippines has experienced Chinese swarming gray zone operations such as the April 2021 Whitsun Reef incident, as well as Chinaexplicitly rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016 decisions against China’s claims. Today, China holds a set of artificial islands it has militarized, supposedly as an outpost for the delivery of emergency aid and humanitarian aid to Southeast Asian friends.

What the Indo-Pacific sees

Three concerns have emerged from Russia’s invasion. The first has to do with US security guarantees at the bilateral level. After the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, concerns have resurfaced as to whether the United States will come to the aid of Japan over the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan in the event Beijing seeks to unify it with the mainland.

Similarly, in the South China Sea critical sea lanes of communication, the major arteries of trade and import/export of energy are potentially at risk if China decides to engage in a forced acquisition of these territories.

Stakeholders in the region worry that a Russian-style contingency in the East China Sea, South China Sea, or Taiwan Strait would fundamentally collapse the regional security architecture, placing invaluable sea lines of communication and the First and Second Island Chain in the hands of authoritarian China, a regime with an established track record of economic coercion and weaponization of supply chains.

The second area of concern for Indo-Pacific stakeholders is the response of the United States and the international community. Stakeholders closely observe the tools that will be applied to penalize, discipline, and push back against Russia’s expansionism.

They should appreciate that the European Union has taken a collective stance including the EU’s first batch of Russia sanctions targeting 351 lawmakers, high-ranking officials, and banks. Germany has taken forceful actions by putting Nord Stream 2 on hold, and the United States has coalesced and strengthened NATO unity in the face of Russia’s belligerence. This includes comprehensive and collective sanctions such as “sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will have profound impact on Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.”

The question for many Indo-Pacific states is: Will this be sustained? Will it be escalated, and will deterrence capabilities be deployed to prevent further expansion of Russian influence into Eastern Europe? And, perhaps most importantly, will this pay dividends?

This is critical for Tokyo, Taipei, Canberra, and Southeast Asian countries. They view enhanced deterrence capabilities as essential for pushing back against aggressive Chinese behavior in their region. This includes deterrence systems to “prevent low-intensity crisis scenarios like the landing of Chinese fishing crews or maritime law-enforcement officials on the Senkaku Islands,” according to Iwama Yoko and Murano Masashi.

In Japan’s case, Iwama and Murano also stresses the importance of enhancing the “MSDF’s capabilities to swiftly negate any Chinese efforts at escalation, thereby underpinning its national capability to handle situations arising in the gray zone.”

The logic of Indo-Pacific stakeholders is that anything less than substantial investment in deterrence and costly punitive measures against the Putin regime would result in Beijing drawing false conclusions about the resolve of the United States and its allies, and thus an end to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The hope for capitals in the Indo-Pacific is that a robust defence of Ukraine will not distract the United States from sustained engagement at all levels in the region. In addition, they hope that confronting Russia will mean that the United States and its allies can draw lessons from Russia’s invasion, including the need to maximize deterrence capabilities within the Indo-Pacific. Ideally this will be integrated with economic sanctions as well as a blocking of potential aggressors’ ability to use the financial system and sea lanes of communications freely—key elements to maintain China’s economic prosperity.

Third, and relatedly, capitals in this region will watch for a shift of resources away from the Indo-Pacific and towards Ukraine. The Biden administration has been adamant that it will not intervene militarily in the conflict (notwithstanding the at least 7,000 troops that have been sent to “ reassure skittish NATO allies in Eastern Europe”). Capitals within this region will look at the investments NATO and the United States place in Poland, Hungary, and other countries vulnerable to Russian incursions or tactics including the weaponization of refugees.

They will be also look for a concrete example of resources directed at the Indo-Pacific. This includes a United States Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that not only competes with Chinese initiatives but offers new initiatives and frameworks for integrating the region. That includes inculcating a rules-based order, transparency, and good governance in the region to deal with emerging regional challenges.

What to expect

While Indo-Pacific capitals are concerned about the US position in the region, some like Japan will not wait for the United States to respond while others will vacillate in silence. They will likely begin their own bilateral and multilateral initiatives to strengthen deterrence capabilities. This will include more proactive cooperation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) at many of the contested areas within the Indo-Pacific.

This proactive diplomacy will not only translate into Quad partners providing for their own maritime security but also into bringing in other partners into a Quad-plus formation to ensure that the Quad remains a nimble institution that can deal with ad-hoc regional problems.

AUKUS-based deterrence capabilities will likely accelerate within the region. Many Indo-Pacific stakeholders will welcome this. We are also likely to see contingency strategies to deal with challenges across the Taiwan Strait as well as South China Sea and the East China Sea. Tokyo has been at the forefront of this shift, articulating Japan’s security concerns over Taiwan, and with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stressing that a Taiwan security dilemma is a Japan security dilemma.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders, including China, will look at the failures and successes of Russia, but also the United States and its allies. China will look for cracks in the US-NATO armor, seeking leverage to pursue its geopolitical objectives across the Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas. They will look for weaknesses in the Biden administration and commitment to sanctions, including removing Russia from the SWIFT system, which will have economic implications for the United States and the partners. One consequence, for instance, could be the acceleration of China’s attempts to adopt a digital currency to deploy throughout the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network of countries and potentially insulate China from future sanctions.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders will also look to the strategies that the European Union and the United States develop to deal with the energy shortages and increases in energy prices as Russia will likely weaponize energy resources to pressure EU countries to step back from sanctions.

Working together, Canada and the United States may provide some energy relief in the short to mid-term, until the European Union further diversifies away from Russia as its primary energy supplier.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the canary in the coal mine for many Indo-Pacific stakeholders. A forceful, collective, and effective response to Russia’s belligerence would do much to accrue the confidence of the United States allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI); a senior fellow at the East Asia Security Centre (EASC); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: A Chinese Coast Guard ship seen near the Senkaku Islands in February. Source: Hitoshi Nakaima/Kyodo

PacNet #60 – AUKUS’ short- and long-term implications for Taiwan

More than a mere pact over submarines, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral (AUKUS) signifies the crossing of a strategic threshold by Washington and its partners, past robust competition and toward outright confrontation. This, naturally, has significant implications for Taiwan’s security.

By agreeing to afford Australia access to nuclear naval propulsion and other advanced strategic technologies—a first since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958—AUKUS fortifies the US-led order to deter military challenges in the region. AUKUS, of course, has the Chinese Community Party (CCP) regime in mind. This strengthening of the defense relationship with Canberra, even at the expense of political fallout with Paris, signals to Beijing that Washington (and its partners) are preparing in case of conflict.

Taiwan is where such conflict looks likely, given the irredentist claims by China, the significance of its geography to major regional powers (e.g., the United States, or Japan), and its critical role in the global supply chain.

Nuclear-powered submarines (or SSNs, as the US Navy calls them) will give Australia the range, transit speed, and endurance to provide meaningful presence in the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, SSNs are one of the few assets able to penetrate and conduct sustained operations within China’s anti-access area-denial, particularly in combination with submarine-launched cruise missiles. The other long-range strike capabilities provisioned under AUKUS (Tomahawk cruise missiles for the Hobart-class destroyers, air-to-surface missiles for Royal Australian Air Force fighter aircraft, precision strike missiles, and US-Australian collaborative development of hypersonic missiles) will also strengthen Australia’s capacity to support US military operations in first-island-chain contingencies.

What’s more, AUKUS signals strengthened British security commitments to the Indo-Pacific, already demonstrated by the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group’s 28-week deployment to the region.

These contribute to enhancing the so-called “integrated deterrence” championed by the Biden administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Implications for Taiwan

Though heartened by AUKUS, Taipei remains cautious about its significance for its security.

If AUKUS partners are committed to deterring China from conquering Taiwan, the three governments must reassess their policy regarding defense cooperation with the island. For example, London still imposes strict restrictions on defense exports to Taipei. Canberra, for its part, has long forbidden direct contact between Taiwanese officials with Australian defense establishment outside of the military education system. Not surprisingly, then, Taipei is prudent in its expectations of any realignment of Canberra’s security cooperation posture, especially given Australia’s economic interdependence with China.

The United States has begun making headway towards enhancing Taiwan’s defense while managing tensions with China. One example appears to be quietly encouraging a select number of allies to loosen restrictions on security cooperation with Taipei, including defense technology, intelligence, and other exchanges. Similar policy realignment should be among priority considerations for AUKUS countries.

AUKUS countries, meanwhile, are unlikely to deploy additional military capabilities to change the power balance in the Taiwan Strait by 2027, when US-based sources say the threat of Chinese invasion is most severe. Current Australian power projection assets are limited to six Collins-class conventionally powered submarines, with the deployment of nuclear submarines still over a decade away. Also unclear is Britain’s willingness and ability to rapidly base and sustain substantive capabilities in the Indo-Pacific that would contribute to deterring and, if necessary, winning a major military conflict with China. AUKUS’ significance to Taiwan, therefore, is primarily over the long term.

Near-term options

AUKUS countries should advance an ambitious security cooperation agenda focused on a Taiwan Strait conflict scenario. At a strategic level, they should participate in joint war planning. At the operational level, they should consider a joint working group to ensure interoperability—including, most importantly, with Taiwan forces and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems.

Between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, there should be discussions about assisting Taiwan with defense systems and/or related technology, which can help alleviate the severe arms embargo Beijing imposes on Taipei. AUKUS countries should also explore expanded participation through track-2 discussions on collective measures for countering gray-zone threats, improving regional interoperability, and enhancing intelligence sharing.

In the short-term, however, even before such measures are enacted, AUKUS signals to Taiwan that key countries are now willing to push back more seriously against Beijing’s rising military assertiveness. It suggests to Taipei that outside help is increasing, making its leaders more resolute in the fight for its own defense and survival, which is critical to strengthen deterrence against Chinese military adventurism.

Fu S. Mei (tdrfsm@aol.com) is Director at the Taiwan Security Analysis Center in Manhasset, New York.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, CR 3 — US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue: Dealing with Increased Chinese Aggressiveness

INTRODUCTION

Taiwan needs much stronger friendships and more support, particularly from the United States, to counter Chinese moves and enhance deterrence of, and its defense potential against, Beijing. This is urgent because Taiwan no longer holds the qualitative advantage it once had over China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The United States supports a strong, resilient, and democratic Taiwan capable of maintaining its autonomy and ability to counter coercion and defend itself from any source, especially from China. Absent this, Washington’s widely shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific would be permanently undermined.

It is clear, therefore, that the United States and Taiwan should step up their joint work and strengthen their security relationship, and it is critical that they do so expeditiously. At the same time, from a US perspective, it is important not to embolden Taipei or exceedingly raise its expectations about the US role to deter and defend against Beijing. While Washington has an interest in strengthening the island’s deterrence and defense potential vis-à-vis Beijing, it also does not want to encourage Taipei to become belligerent toward Beijing. Engagement, therefore, involves striking a tough balance, and many topics to that effect remain difficult—and much too sensitive—to address and discuss at the official level, particularly when it comes to deterrence and defense questions.

To this end, the Pacific Forum, in partnership with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in cooperation with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), organized the inaugural Track 2[1]  US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue. The dialogue aimed to: initiate a discussion between the United States and Taiwan on deterrence and defense, and produce actionable and operationally relevant recommendations for policy; and to build a community of senior and young, up-and-coming officials and strategists well-versed in these issues both in the United States and Taiwan.

On Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 2021, more than 80 scholars, experts, and former and current government officials (the latter in their private capacities) from the United States and Taiwan convened for the inaugural Track 2 US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue in a hybrid format[2] (in Honolulu, and with participants joining virtually) to examine growing Chinese assertiveness vis-a-vis Taiwan and its impact on Taiwan’s security and Taiwan-US relations. Topics for discussion included US and Taiwan comparative threat assessments focused on the near-, mid-, and long-term threat posed by China toward Taiwan; Taiwanese and US defense policy plans, goals, and priorities; an examination of the whole spectrum of US strategic and conventional deterrence and defense, from gray-zone challenges to high-end contingencies; domestic attitudes in Taiwan and the United States and their impact on national decision-making; and the prospects for future cooperation aimed at strengthening deterrence without undermining the prospects for cross-Strait stability. The dialogue’s agenda underwent extensive pre-dialogue “socialization” with key stakeholders from both the United States and Taiwan to ensure that topics for discussions and eventual actionable recommendations generated were relevant to the national security interests and priorities of both countries.

The discussions, held under the Chatham House rule, were candid and cordial with the common purpose of improving Taiwan-US defense cooperation and enhancing Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. Disagreements existed on a number of issues both within and between the two delegations but the discussion, while frank and direct, was respectful and insightful. The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by this author. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.

The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsor, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email Ralph@pacforum.org.

[1] Track 2 dialogues are conferences and workshops that bring together subject-matter experts, academics, policy analysts and, on certain occasions, unofficial representatives from governments, to discuss thematic issues and generate insights and nonbinding recommendations. Participants in track 2 dialogues are invited in their private capacity.

[2] In keeping with State of Hawaii COVID protocols, two back-to-back conference rooms were set up and video linked, each containing no more than 10 participants at any one time; the remaining participants, both in Honolulu and elsewhere, participated via WebEx, in strict compliance with State of Hawaii safety regulations.

Click here to download the full report. 

 

PacNet #49 – Xi Jinping’s top five foreign policy mistakes

Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is stimulating increased international opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be peaceful and non-domineering. Here are five examples of Xi’s self-defeating decision-making in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign relations.

Wolf Warriorism

Xi has ordered his diplomats to demonstrate “fighting spirit” and to “dare to show their swords.” Accordingly, over the past two years Chinese diplomats have aimed jarring insults and threats at various countries, not just Western democracies, but also Brazil, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is unsurprising. Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other pollsters show a marked increase in negative feeling toward China since 2019 in Europe, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other countries. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan said “China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.” Chinese diplomats could defend their country’s actions differently. Instead, Wolf Warriorism acts as an extension of domestic politics, with little regard for harm done to China’s international prestige and relationships.

Galwan Valley skirmish

According to Indian sources, this June 2020 battle on the disputed Sino-Indian border began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel who had approached the Chinese unarmed and in good faith to negotiate de-escalation. Whether or not Beijing ordered this particular act, a PRC policy of creeping expansionism made an eventual confrontation almost inevitable absent a tacit Indian surrender. For years the Chinese have built infrastructure to facilitate quick military mobilization in disputed areas. The Chinese government found it intolerable when the Indian side started to do the same in response.

The clash caused a long-term hardening of Indian attitudes and policy toward China. The Indian government cancelled several infrastructure construction deals with China, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to economically decouple from China in other important sectors. New Delhi re-committed itself to blocking Chinese expansion into disputed areas. India has signaled a deeper commitment to the Quad, was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement, and now sends warships into the South China Sea—acts that Beijing finds threatening.

South China Sea policy

Having already distinguished itself as the most aggressive of the South China Sea claimants, Beijing started building sizeable artificial islands in 2013. China has now installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. The PRC’s South China Sea policy highlights Beijing choosing to impose its will upon weaker neighbors rather than seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. It is also another example of the Chinese government disregarding an international agreement to which China was a signatory. Beijing has argued that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea take precedence over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and contemptuously rejected the 2016 ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The upside of these outposts, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might be more liability than asset to the PRC in a time of conflict. As for the downside: more than any other single Chinese policy, the new bases convinced international observers that PRC foreign policy under Xi was taking an aggressive turn, with more emphasis on winning rather than managing strategic disputes, and less effort to avoid alarming other governments in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan

Rather than blazing a creative new solution to the cross-Strait dispute, the man celebrated for “Xi Jinping Thought” has simply doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s “rejuvenation,” although the PRC is abundantly prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is “one country, two systems” (1C2S). Taiwan’s people, however, never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has thoroughly discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as Oct. 9 indicates a stunning intellectual and political sclerosis.

Finally, Xi has increased military pressure on Taiwan. This has deepened resentment on the island toward China and bolsters support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which now holds both the presidency and a legislative majority. The heightened sense of danger has prodded Taiwan to implement asymmetric defense, which will make it more capable of fighting off an attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as “rock solid.” Even Japanese leaders are now openly discussingthe increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan.

Xi’s Taiwan policy works to eliminate possible solutions other than a war that, even in the best-case scenario, would be disastrous for China.

Economic coercion against Australia

In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting importsof 10 Australian products. As in previous cases, Chinese officials implausibly denied that the restrictions were politically motivated, a gratuitous show of duplicity.

The consequences of this Chinese policy were worse for China than for Australia. Canberra did not accommodate the 14 political demandsmade by the Chinese embassy in November 2020. Australia suffered little from the import bans, finding other buyers for much of the supply turned away by China. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently described the damage done to Australia’s economy as “relatively modest.” In addition to the reputation cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with China. Power shortages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to a coal shortage, worsened by the sanction against Australian coal imports. The attempt to punish Australia has increased momentum for addressing China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments under Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, diminishing the usefulness of this tactic.

What drives Xi? First, he has relied heavily on pandering to Chinese nationalism. Appearing to defend China’s interests against challenges by foreigners makes the Xi regime more popular and implicitly makes opposing Xi seem unpatriotic.

Second, Xi rules during a period of Chinese hubris. By 2012, when Xi assumed leadership, China was the world’s second-largest economy and on track to surpass the United States for the top spot. Beijing had hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, China’s coming-out party as a world power, while the financial crisis in 2007-2008 convinced Chinese observers that America was in rapid decline even as China surged ahead.

A third contributing factor is hyper-authoritarianism. Xi has concentrated numerous decision-making powers in himself, built up a personality cult, and prioritized political correctness over pragmatic analysis. The resulting political climate is not conducive to advisors warning Xi that he is making mistakes.

Xi’s goals include increasing China’s international stature and quashing international criticism. He says he wants to cultivate the image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” Xi seeks to maximize China’s access to global markets and technology. He wants to hasten the withdrawal of US strategic influence from the region. He wants the world to believe “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”

Xi’s major foreign policy errors, however, have undermined these goals. The PRC government under Xi has indulged nationalistic domestic public opinion at the risk of sabotaging the important longer-term national objectives that Xi has specified as central to his “China dream.”

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive is engendering coordinated strategic opposition. This will make it harder for China to become a regional and global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. During Xi’s tenure this logic has become commonplace in discussions about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. There is also an important economic and technological cost to China, as worried trade partners decouple to reduce their vulnerability to PRC coercion and to avoid selling China the rope that China might hang them with.

Chinese remember Mao’s leadership as 70% good. Xi may have difficulty reaching even that modest standard.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #40 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2021

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- SEPTEMBER 2021 ISSUE

 

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
EUROPE “DISCOVERS” ASIA AND WASHINGTON “DISCOVERS” SEA, AMID AFGHAN ANXIETY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy at it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUMMER TAKES AN UNEXPECTED TURN
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.

US-CHINA RELATIONS
THE DESCENT CONTINUES
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US
The downward slide in US-China relations continued as the two countries wrangled over Hong Kong, COVID-19, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and cyberattacks. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese officials met in Tianjin but appeared to make no progress toward managing intensifying competition between the two countries. The US rolled out a series of measures against alleged Chinese forced labor practices and strengthened the prohibition against US investments in the PRC’s military industrial complex. Deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong prompted the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on Chinese officials and issue a business advisory warning US companies of growing risks to their activities in Hong Kong.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
STIR NOT MURKY WATERS
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
WASHINGTON FINDS ITS FEET IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
PUSHING REGIONAL ADVANTAGES AMID HEIGHTENED US RIVALRY
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
CROSS-STRAIT TENSION INCREASING BENEATH A SURFACE CALM
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
SUMMER FALSE DAWN: ON/OFF COMMUNICATIONS
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high—aren’t they always?—that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and ROK began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
ALLIANCE RESTORATION AND SUMMIT COMMEMORATIONS
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
A CHILLY SUMMER
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
China and Japan continued to vie over a wide variety of issues including economic competitiveness, jurisdiction over territorial waters, World War II responsibilities, representation in international organizations, and even Olympic and Paralympic medals. The Japanese government expressed concern with the increasingly obvious presence of Chinese ships and planes in and around areas under its jurisdiction, with Chinese sources accusing Japan of a Cold War mentality. Nothing was heard of Xi Jinping’s long-planned and often postponed official visit to Tokyo. Also, Chinese admonitions that Japan recognize that its best interests lay not with a declining United States but in joining forces with a rising China were conspicuous by their absence.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
UNREALIZED OLYMPIC DIPLOMACY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
AFGHAN ENDGAME AND GUNS OF AUGUST
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
The summer of 2021 may be the best and worst time for Russia-China relations. There was much to celebrate as the two powers moved into the third decade of stable and friendly relations, symbolized by the 20th anniversary of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the “friendship treaty” (The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation). This historical moment, however, paralleled a hasty and chaotic end to the 20-year US interlude in Afghanistan with at least two unpleasant consequences for Beijing and Moscow: a war-torn Afghanistan in their backyard with an uncertain future and worse, a United States now ready to exclusively focus on the two large Eurasian powers 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As the Afghan endgame rapidly unfolded in August, both sides were conducting large exercises across and around Eurasia. While Afgthanistan may not again serve as the “graveyard of empires” in the 21st century, but then end of the US engagement there, however, will usher in an era of competition, if not clashes, between rival empires.

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS
COVID AND CHINA CHILL, ALLIANCE ANNIVERSARY AND AFGHANISTAN
BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE
Australia closed its borders to confront COVID-19 and rode out recession, while China shut off key markets to punish Australia. The short recession caused by pandemic ended Australia’s record run of nearly three decades of continuous economic growth; Beijing’s coercion crunched the optimism of three decades of economic enmeshment. However, Australia’s economy rebounded while the China crunch continues, causing Australia to question its status as the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. The Canberra–Beijing iciness has built over five years, marking the lowest period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 2021, the language of “strategic partnership” died and the “strategic economic dialogue” was suspended by China. The Biden administration promised not to abandon Australia, saying that US–China relations would not improve while an ally faced coercion. Australia embraced Washington’s assurance, along with the elevation of the Quad with the US, Japan, and India.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #39 – Covid-19 Recovery: Re-energizing Hawaii with Regional Insights

As part of our long-standing Honolulu International Forum, the Pacific Forum launched a special virtual series, “Covid-19 Recovery: Re-energizing Hawaii with Regional Insights,” to provide Hawaii’s policy leaders with insights from the region to inform both its public health and economic responses to Covid-19.

Below is a summary of Covid-19 Recovery highlights with a link to key insights from each talk, which we hope will be valuable to our readers well beyond Hawaii.

  1. Taiwan (April 24, 2020)

Taiwan has been able to avoid wide-spread public shutdowns, containing the spread to relatively low numbers. Much of Taiwan’s success has been due to lessons learned during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, which impressed upon the Taiwanese public the importance of following guidelines from relevant authorities. The talk by Michael Y.K. Tseng, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Honolulu, Hawaii, focused on three main themes: technology and big data, community measures, and organizational structure.

Technology and Big Data: Taiwan officials integrated the national health insurance database with the immigration database to track the 14-day travel histories and symptoms of citizens returning from high-risk countries. Taiwan’s “digital fence” monitoring system allowed it to monitor quarantined individuals in real time.

Community measures: Taiwan has not enacted widespread public shutdowns, adopting effective community measures instead. These included wearing masks in confined areas, granting healthcare access to foreign workers, and adopting social distancing measures in schools.

Organizational structure: Taiwan CDC allocated the key tasks of identification and treatment of new cases to two separate groups. This approach sought to eliminate a potential conflict of interest, giving the “hunting” group a free hand to identify infected individuals without having the responsibility to also treat them.

  1. South Korea (May 6, 2020)

South Korea has been widely praised as a Covid-19 success story, avoiding wide-spread public shutdowns and counting a low number of deaths. Dr. Victor Cha, Professor and Vice-dean at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies described South Korea’s response as centered on four main themes: the importance of early, decisive action; the ability to quickly deploy innovative measures; and resources for contact tracing. He also provided insight into North Korea’s handling of the crisis. 

Early action: Despite a slow start and some initial mistakes, within a month of detecting the first imported case of Covid-19, the government rolled out a robust response and testing regime, elevating the infectious disease alert level to the highest category.

Innovative healthcare facilities and reorganization of existing ones: South Korea developed drive-through testing facilities to meet the high testing demand and avoid widespread infections in hospitals. It also designated some hospitals for Covid-19 patients only.

Contact tracing: Two main mobile apps have been developed to track patients and help the public avoid outbreak areas. They provide information regarding Covid-19 patients’ recent locations and other details without revealing names or identities.

North Korea: North Korea’s response to Covid-19 is consistent with its past behavior during Ebola and MERS: closing its borders and shutting down domestic and international travel, then asking for international assistance a few months later.

  1. Singapore (May 14, 2020)

Despite early virus chains of transmission, Singapore has experienced no exponential rise in new cases for about three months until a recent surge took place, forcing the country to enter a “circuit breaker” period in early April. Benjamin Ang, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), discussed the “ecosystem” of Covid-19 services and how various tools can assist human tracers and the public at large.

Contact tracing: The Government Technology Agency of Singapore developed the mobile app “TraceTogether” to aid the efforts of the contact tracing teams, thereby reducing the spread of Covid-19. TraceTogether does not track the user’s location but instead uses Bluetooth to determine if the user has been in close proximity with another user of the app.

Technological innovations: New technologies have facilitated business operations in different areas such as e-commerce, delivery services, wet market live streaming, and home-based learning. Robots are being used to encourage social distancing and monitor crowd density in parks.

Travel quarantine: Singapore has striven to simplify its 14-day mandatory quarantine system for travelers by presenting new arrivals with a pre-designated quarantine itinerary and utilizing existing infrastructure like empty hotels.

  1. INDO-PACOM (May 21, 2020)

Dr. John Wood, Director of United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) J9 Pacific Outreach discussed the Department of Defense’s perspectives on responding to the pandemic. His talk focused on INDOPACOM’s readiness to support the State of Hawaii, regional partners, and allies, and how the military will continue to contribute to the state’s economy.

Support for the State of Hawaii: INDOPACOM’s primary focus is to protect the health and safety of servicemembers while maintaining the force’s readiness to respond to challenges in the region and carry out its mission. It is also standing by to help Hawaii as well as Guam, American Samoa, the Compact of Free Association (COFA) states, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Maintaining friends, allies, partners, and readiness during the pandemic: The US Navy will host a modified version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises this year. USAID, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense are providing financial aid and equipment to countries in INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility.

Building up Hawaii’s non-tourism economy: While Washington has the lion’s share of resources, Hawaii’s strength is that it is home to the region’s leading authorities on Asia-Pacific affairs. Hawaii-based institutions excel in environmental stewardship, sustainable and renewable energy, and Pacific Islands relations.

  1. Japan (May 28, 2020)

Dr. Kazuto Suzuki, Vice Dean and Professor of International Politics at Public Policy School of Hokkaido University discussed Japan’s approach to managing Covid-19. Japan has successfully contained the number of deaths without introducing strict lockdowns and pervasive testing policies. Dr. Suzuki’s talk focused on three main themes: Japan’s overall strategy, testing and contact tracing, and cultural norms.

“Hammer and Dance” strategy: Japan’s strategy does not aim to eliminate the virus but to distribute its spread over a longer period, creating a sustainable balance between public health and the economy. The “hammer” refers to the imposition of draconian measures when there is an exponential increase in new cases, whereas the “dance” refers to the use of containment measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

Limited resources guiding testing and tracing regimes: The role of testing has been limited due to low supplies of testing kits and concerns over the accuracy of results. Local health centers in each community have conducted contact tracing by phone.

Role of culture and social stigma: Certain social norms in Japan support compliance with public health measures, such as good hygiene and high scientific literacy. In addition to low-contact gestures such as bowing, face coverings are widely used in Japan.

  1. New Zealand (June 1, 2020)

New Zealand has been able to contain the spread of Covid-19 imposing strict measures since the very outset of the outbreak. Its strategy has been successful, and Prime Minister Jacinta Arden declared the country “virus-free” in early June. Dr. Jane Rovins, Senior Lecturer and International Coordinator at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research (JCDR) at Massey University described New Zealand’s “go hard, go early” approach to managing the Covid-19 public health crisis and the nation’s emerging path to economic recovery.

Travel: New Zealand suspended domestic travel during its highest level of alert, then gradually eased restrictions on movement as the emergency deescalated. International travel remains limited to specific class visas, and all incoming travelers are placed in managed isolation facilities for 14 days.

Economy: New Zealand has elaborated financial support schemes to help businesses and their employees recover from the effects of Covid-19.

Community & social distancing measures: The measures adopted varied depending on the alert level. Measures included movement restrictions, school closures, and limited-to-no public gatherings. The government has left the choice of using masks up to citizens.

Public messaging, enforcement, and protecting vulnerable communities: Covid-19 multimedia messaging translated into numerous languages allowed the government to be open and transparent and connect with all community groups about the public health crisis.

  1. Australia (June 25, 2020)

Australia has been able to successfully suppress Covid-19, flattening the curve and significantly reducing the rate of transmission. Ambassador Jane Hardy, Australia’s Consul-General in Honolulu, discussed Australia’s strategy for managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Her talk emphasized the country’s highly internationalized nature and its holistic approach to recovery on both the national and regional levels.

Public health measures: Australia adopted a strategy of “suppression” as opposed to one of elimination, which included a complete lockdown followed by a phased opening of society divided in three steps. Contact tracing was supported by the adoption of a mobile app, and testing was expanded to include asymptomatic cases.

Travel and tourism: Domestic travel has increased as many Australians are traveling within the country’s borders. Australia and New Zealand have been discussing the possibility of implementing a “Trans-Tasman Bubble,” i.e., opening travel between Australia and New Zealand without requiring travelers to undergo 14-day quarantines.

Economic assistance measures: Australia’s government passed a suite of economic packages supporting the workforce and healthcare, including aid for aboriginal communities. Australia has also reframed aid and the capabilities of its programs supporting its Pacific Island neighbors and Southeast Asia as Covid-19 resilience and response efforts.

In summary, while there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing the virus, these countries took the challenge seriously with timely steps to mitigate the impact. Various factors have contributed to certain Asia-Pacific countries’ success, including definitive government action, experience with epidemics like SARS and MERS, and cultural norms, resulting in better timeliness, preparedness, and ability to adapt as circumstances changed. Asia-Pacific countries deployed efficient testing and contact tracing systems, tailored technological solutions, and community measures. The United States has contributed to the regional pandemic response by providing financial aid and equipment to countries in INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility. Visit our website for other Covid-19 related research and perspectives, such as a living document analyzing successful response measures of regional economies.

Eugenio Benincasa (eugenio@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Crystal Pryor (crystal@pacforum.org) is Director of Non-proliferation, Technology, and Fellowships at Pacific Forum.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #31 – Taiwan’s Covid-19 Diplomacy and WHO Participation: Losing the Battle but Winning the War?

Taiwan’s pragmatic “warm power” diplomacy during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak represents a low-key approach to boosting its international participation while minimizing the burden for its sympathetic international partners and friends. The government of President Tsai Ing-Wen’s successful management of the Covid-19 crisis has also made a strong case for liberal democracies as the superior form of government for public health crisis governance. This, in turn, has translated into more positive international publicity for Taiwan, as well as greater opportunities to network with other states’ relevant agencies and potentials for functional spillover into other forms of cooperation at the governmental level.

China, the alleged origin of the virus, has seemingly kept its official toll relatively low. While officially China has less than 100,000 confirmed cases, several Western liberal democracies—even, some have argued, with more reaction time and insight from the Chinese experience—have suffered greatly, with more than a million confirmed cases in the United States and over a 100,000 each in five populous Western European nations (Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France).

Assuming these official statistics are dependable, this development might have engendered yet another blow to liberal democracies in the ongoing battle over perceived performance legitimacy between authoritarian and liberal democratic regime types, adding fuel to what Larry Diamond has termed the global democratic recession.

It is in this context that Taiwan finds a way into the international collective narrative. Despite Taiwan’s geographic proximity, as well as close economic and demographic linkages with China, it has kept its Covid-19 toll remarkably low—with less than 450 confirmed cases to date and a death toll in the single digits. Together with fellow high performers such as South Korea, Taiwan’s performance provides solid proof that liberal democracies can be just as effective in public health governance as authoritarian polities. In so doing, Taiwan helps prevent the Covid-19 crisis from diminishing the case for democracy in the global marketplace of ideas.

Accordingly, Taiwan’s public diplomacy efforts have focused on presenting itself as a persecuted but nonetheless gracious international good Samaritan. Case in point: in an opinion piece for Time, Tsai says that although Taiwan has been “unfairly excluded” from the World Health Organization (WHO), it remains “willing and able” to contribute to global public health during the crisis using its strength in manufacturing, medicine, and technology.

Taiwan’s “mask diplomacy” represents the first significant initiative in this area. In a campaign titled “Taiwan can help; health for all,” Taipei has so far announced three rounds of international humanitarian assistance in the form of mask donation. These took place on April 1, April 9, and May 5, when it pledged to donate 10 million, 6 million, and 7 million masks to the international community.

The choice of priority recipient countries seems consciously tied-in with Taiwan’s soft power strategy. The aid goes to three broad categories: first, to the so-called “like-minded democracies” in the North Atlantic that share Taiwan’s liberal democratic values—a key theme that Tsai drove home in her June 2018 address at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy; second, to Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies that frequently voice support for Taiwan in international forums, as reciprocity for their goodwill; and third, to a select number of worst-hit developing nations, in a show of international good citizenship.

The approach has dove-tailed with both Taiwan’s image projection needs and its coalition-building strategy. First, the initiative instills the image of Taiwan as an altruistic actor that repays slights with kindness. That despite it being it largely shut out of the World Health Organization and the public health expertise and support that participation would have engendered, Taiwan still harbors no grudge, remains gracious and empathetic towards the needs of other societies, and is keen to lend assistance to those in more dire situations.

For its international “good samaritanship,” Taiwan has earned an extraordinary amount of goodwill from numerous Western governments, especially on Twitter, that dual-use messaging platform where official statements come with a cloak of informality and plausible deniability. Often hash-tagged #StrongerTogether, these messages include: from Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s open expression of gratitude and pledge to combat Covid-19 together on Twitter; from Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen became the first EC president to directly address Taiwan in an official communication when she thanked Taiwan for mask donations; from the United States, numerous tweets from the White House National Security Council and various State Department missions’ accounts form an echo chamber that acknowledges the people of Taiwan’s gestures of goodwill, while noting Taiwan’s significance in safeguarding a free and open Indo-Pacific.

On coalition-building, Taiwan is capitalizing on this outpouring of international goodwill to enhance bilateral relations and rally support for regaining participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA). Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not been shy about espousing what it calls “the Taiwan Model for Combating Covid-19,” on which New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the US State Secretary Mike Pompeo had lavished praise and claimed to borrow significantly from for their respective Covid-19 responses. In addition, numerous bilateral functional linkages have sprung up for Taiwan, as Taiwan’s vice president (a renowned epidemiologist), vice premier, and health minister have all joined virtual track 1 or track 1.5 exchanges, often with US cabinet secretary and deputy secretary level dialogue partners—hitherto politically sensitive but now legitimized in the name of global public (health) interests. While these talks may be functional and technical in nature, the establishment of regularized channels of communication at high levels may be expected to have a functional spillover effect facilitating future discussions at more political levels.

By exporting its best practice lessons to the world, Taiwan exploits that intersection where the very interdependence of the global common’s non-traditional security needs (in pandemic mitigation) meets Taiwan’s particularist interests in greater international participation. In the name of enlightened self-interest, where health for one is dependent on health for all, Taiwan has built a multinational coalition to support its bid for meaningful participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA). The Foreign Affairs Committees of both houses of the US Congress wrote a public letter to 55 countries urging them to support Taiwan’s participation at the WHA session and the WHO more broadly. The US State Department’s various missions launched a #TweetForTaiwan initiative over Twitter to marshal media interests. Meanwhile leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and others have openly announced support for Taiwan’s participation as either an observer or a guest.

Ultimately, whether Taiwan’s bid for WHA observer status comes to fruition or not may be secondary. During Covid-19, Taipei has branded itself as a champion of liberal democracies in the ongoing contest of legitimacy between liberal and authoritarian regime types. Moreover, its coalition-building effort over WHA participation has set a politically useful precedent of sympathetic partners’ collective bargaining on behalf of Taiwan, thus further diminishing their cost of supporting Taiwan in the future, especially when they chain-gang. In this sense, even if Taiwan is losing the WHA 2020 battle, it may still be winning the war of greater international space.

Wen-Ti Sung (wentisung@gmail.com) is a visiting fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. His research covers cross-strait relations, Chinese elite politics, and think tank diplomacy in US-China-Taiwan strategic triangle. He tweets at @wentisung.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.