All eyes on Taiwan: What will China do?

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Taiwan’s response to China’s latest round of rather aggressive retaliation against US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has been measured and calculated but firm. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said, “We will work to maintain the peaceful and stable status quo in the Taiwan Strait. We are calm and will not act hastily. We are rational and will not act to provoke. But we will absolutely not back down. Taiwan is showing determination and transparency with rapid dissemination of information, but China is upping the ante in the Taiwan Strait.

China’s overreaction, symptomatic of its insecurities vis-à-vis Taiwan, is a continuation of its conventional response whenever there is a high profile foreign visitor in Taiwan. China wants Taiwan to fall into oblivion and deprive it of all international legitimacy.

Unfortunately for China, the COVID-19 pandemic has given Taiwan a rare opportunity to reach out to the global community and expand its international space amid China’s attempts to narrow the international space of the former and poaching diplomatic allies. It was the direct result of the Tsai government’s refusal to accept the 1992 consensus to govern cross-Strait relations that led China to suspend cross-Strait dialogue.

While accusing Taiwan and the United States of changing the status quo through Pelosi’s visit, China conveniently forgets that in reality it is China that has unilaterally violated the status quo in recent years. Its repeated encroachments into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and attempts to persuade countries not to recognize and engage Taiwan are also violations.

As for its strategic options, despite its increased rhetoric and intimidation, the widespread view in Taiwan is that China is less likely to opt for a full-fledged military response.

What makes China’s choices difficult is the fact that this is a crucial moment for China and that it cannot afford to appear weak, both to the international community and to the domestic audience. On August 2, the float march on a beach in Xiamen, the closest point to Taiwan’s outer island of Kinmen, as people enjoyed the beach, was meant to show the domestic public that China considers the visit of Pelosi as a violation of his sovereignty and if the need arises, will respond with military actions.

We are a long way here, and China’s bullying could go on for months or even years. However, this is not something Taiwan has never seen before. Taiwan has lived under Chinese threat for decades, but the world is now waking up to it.

Arguably, China’s retaliation against Taiwan is likely to be fivefold: spreading disinformation, launching cyberattacks, intensifying economic coercion, seeking reassurance and trying to shape the narrative in its favor, and a further escalation of naval and air raids.

As Pelosi landed, Chinese state media launched a coordinated verbal attack on social media apps and even spread misinformation that Su-35 fighter jets flew through Taiwan’s airspace. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense quickly dismissed these false stories by Chinese state media. On the day of Pelosi’s arrival, several Taiwanese websites, including the president’s office and the foreign ministry, were hit by “unknown” cyberattacks overseas. On August 3, the digital signage of several convenience stores and government facilities in Taiwan was hacked and even displayed anti-Pelosi messages. China’s disinformation campaigns to create panic among Taiwanese and the millions of cyberattacks from China are a common problem that the Tsai Ing-wen government is grappling with.

A long-term response includes economic coercion. China has already banned 100 Taiwanese manufacturers of food snacks, imports of citrus fruits and varieties of fish. China’s economic sanctions will only intensify as it tries to hit Taiwan where it hurts the most given the economic interdependence across the strait.

China is also taking advantage of this episode to reassure several countries that they adhere to the one-China policy. Two of the first countries to support China were Russia and North Korea. Additionally, Chinese diplomats hope to shape the narrative of people in host countries through social media interactions and by writing op-eds in mainstream media.

One of the most alarming responses is the further increase in military activity around Taiwan. With this, China aims to achieve three goals: it wants to sow panic among the population and intimidate Taiwan; it allows China to check Taiwan’s readiness, the United States’ determination to defend Taiwan, and even Japan’s response in the event of a future cross-Strait conflict; and deterring countries from expanding their interactions with Taiwan, leading to Taiwan’s isolation.

These measures appear to be punitive measures and are intended to deter the United States and Taiwan from improving semi-political exchanges and other countries from freely engaging Taiwan. For now, China’s response appears to be a mixture of military intimidation, verbal strategy and severing dialogues on key issues with the United States with the possibility of downgrading diplomatic contacts.

China’s actions will have long-term implications. While this increases anxiety and tension in the Taiwan Strait, such miscalculations have the potential to create new problems for China. This leads to a further deterioration in relations with the United States, Japan and other G7 countries, with the possibility that the United States and Japan will also be involved in any future eventuality.

It will tarnish China’s image and establish it as an aggressor. China has active territorial disputes with countries such as India, Japan and Southeast Asian countries. If China decides to escalate, it will fuel countries’ concern that they might be next, and only strengthen countries’ resolve to further strengthen a collective response to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Sana Hashmi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation. She tweets @sanahashmi1.

(Disclaimer: The views of the author do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. WION or ZMCL also does not endorse the views of the author.)

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