Home / Articles / The Big Squeeze: Beijing’s Anaconda Strategy to Force Taiwan to Surrender
Much overlooked in continuing discussions about arms sales and what kind of strategy Taiwan should employ to counter an invasion by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the reality that the Beijing government’s real aim is to force unification without firing a shot—by forcing its government to capitulate. In what might be called an anaconda strategy, the target is squeezed until it cannot resist, then swallowed whole.
During the administration of former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), this gradual constriction was achieved through a series of agreements cunningly described as economic rather than political. As all good Marxists know, economics is the foundation upon which all else in society, including politics, rests. No economic agreement is ever without political implications. In this case, the quid pro quo from Beijing may have been a tacit understanding that it would not seek to further reduce the number of countries that accorded diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China (ROC), i.e. Taiwan. As a case in point, even after the Gambia, a small African state almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, broke relations with Taiwan in 2013, China did not reciprocate. Beijing also allowed Taiwan observer status in the United Nations World Health Assembly, albeit on a year-to-year approval basis that relegated Taiwan to a status below that of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the PRC.
Ma, meanwhile, ignored rising public dissatisfaction with his trade agreements, which came to a head in 2014 when his efforts to force through a Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement triggered the Sunflower Movement, whereby critics—primarily young people and students—occupied Taiwan’s national legislature, as well as protests that led to his Kuomintang (KMT) party’s devastating defeat in the next election. Beijing then demanded that newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accept a so-called 1992 Consensus in which each side agreed that there was but one China while having different interpretations of the one China. The DPP, not having been part of the negotiations and pointing out that the term 1992 Consensus had been invented by a KMT spokesperson eight years after the meeting took place, declined to do so.
Slowly, the pace of the anaconda strategy was stepped up, in across the spectrum moves that included diplomatic, economic, and military efforts as well as attempts to destabilize Taiwan society from within.
Soon after Tsai’s election, but even before her inauguration, Beijing announced the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Gambia, which in essence had a no-China policy for five years. Sao Tome and Principe, a two-island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, followed a little over a year later, joined by Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso. As of late summer 2018, Taiwan has only 18 diplomatic allies, with negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican ongoing and Haiti regarded as wavering. China has also blocked Taiwan’s participation in the WHA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Even those countries that already have formal diplomatic relations with the PRC have been affected. The Nigerian government was pressured to move Taiwan’s representative office from the country’s capital, Abuja, to Lagos, and other countries from the Middle East to Latin America to Oceania were told to insist that Taiwan’s de facto embassies in their countries remove any mention of either Taiwan or the Republic of China from their names and to deny Taiwan officials the use of diplomatic license plates for their cars. They have also been ordered to deport ROC citizens who have been accused or convicted of crimes to China rather than Taiwan. Pacific island nations, comprising a third of the countries with formal diplomatic relations with the ROC, are heavily in debt to China—Tonga’s, for example, amounts to nearly a third of its annual gross domestic product—which is being used as leverage in the PRC-ROC competition for recognition.
Chinese communities abroad have also been employed as conduits to influence their adopted countries’ policies in ways favorable to the PRC and unfavorable to Taiwan. Australia has the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (APPCC); a similar institute exists in New Zealand. In Okinawa, where military bases have caused friction between the Japanese government and Okinawan citizens, overseas Chinese associations on the island have established ties with anti-base groups. When a Japanese newspaper interviewed Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, the Chinese embassy in Tokyo lodged a protest.
One of the first areas to experience the squeeze was tourism, with numbers of visitors from China to Taiwan down over 22 percent in 2017 over 2016, though the decline was largely offset by an increase of visitors from elsewhere, in particular Japan and South Korea. This was followed by intense pressure on private foreign businesses to remove all mentions of Taiwan. In one of the more bizarre manifestations of these, when two little Australian-Taiwanese girls painted ROC flags on an Australian beef council-sponsored statue of a bull meant to symbolize their community’s diversity, the council painted over the flags before exhibiting the statue. Also, in Australia, a woman lost her waitressing job after responding to a customer’s question if she was Chinese; she identified herself as Taiwanese.
In late April, 44 airlines were ordered to replace their designations of Taipei, Taiwan with Taipei, China, or their landing rights would be cancelled. Faced with the loss of a modestly sized market with a large one, most complied, with several companies actually issuing apologies. As did the giant Marriott hotel chain, after the Chinese Cyberspace Administration ordered its website and its booking operations to close for a week for “seriously violating [China’s] national laws and hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” Marriott runs more than a hundred hotels in the PRC, doing tens of millions of dollars of business a year. China also became very angry with Vietnam, which had allowed Taiwan-owned factories to fly the ROC flag to distinguish them from Chinese-owned companies: the former had suffered losses in anti-Chinese riots from angry Vietnamese who could not tell the difference between the two.
In July 2018, the East Asian Olympic Committee rescinded its award to Taichung City to host the East Asian Youth Games due to pressure from China, after the city had already spent tens of millions of dollars in preparations. Only a few weeks before, the Taiwan government had discovered a Chinese project to promote unification in Taoyuan’s public schools.
Conversely, there are rewards for foreign citizens and companies who declare fealty to the one China policy. Hon Hai Precision Industries, perhaps better known as Foxconn, has profited handsomely from the pro-unification stance of its head Terry Gou who, among other activities, promised a lucrative factory to Taichung if his preferred candidate were to win the mayoral election. The candidate lost to his DPP rival, and no more was heard of the project. Taiwan as well as other countries’ businesses have been offered incentives to participate in the PRC’s ambitious “Made in China 2025” project, with allegiance to Beijing’s one China policy a prerequisite.
Although President Xi Jinping, while addressing the March 2018 meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, warned that Taiwan would face “the punishment of history” for separatism, military actions thus far have been aimed more at intimidating than kinetic force. Military aircraft, typically including bombers and electronic warfare plane, have increasingly flown in routes that circle Taiwan, with the PRC’s defense ministry announcing that these missions will be the new normal. In May 2018, the patrols were joined for the first time by China’s newest plane, the S-35, though neither Beijing nor Taipei have disclosed the number of aircraft involved. In addition to putting pressure on Taiwan, the Chinese are believed to be checking the reaction of Taiwanese aircraft and radars. In August, the Chinese air force announced that with its new J-16 advanced fighter jet, “targeting Taiwan” would soon be combat ready. Since the J-16 is a multirole fighter that can be refueled in flight and is capable of deep strikes, the description of it as targeting nearby Taiwan seemed designed to send an ominous message to the island.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all are the PRC’s efforts to destabilize Taiwan internally, in essence using Taiwan’s democratic ideals to destroy Taiwan’s democracy. With the once-powerful KMT at least temporarily in organizational disarray, the chief conduits for advancing the PRC’s message on unification have been a congeries of small groups, chief among which are the New Party and the Chinese Unity Promotion Party (CUPP). Though perfectly legal under Taiwan’s constitution, both the source of their funding and their activities have come under intense scrutiny from the country’s law enforcement organizations. Investigators have raided the homes of four pro-China New Party members on suspicion, since confirmed, that their activities have violated Taiwan’s National Security Act. Among other charges is that, with funds provided by Beijing, they have sought to organize a paramilitary youth group to further unification. The accused have been indicted and are awaiting trial.
The CUPP’s chairman, Chang An-le, also known as the “White Wolf,” is an acknowledged former gangster. His son, a CUPP activist, and an associate were charged with attempted murder after CUPP members allegedly assaulted university students during a cross-strait music event on their campus. In August 2018, judicial investigators raided Chang An-le’s home as well as the CUPP’s head office searching for evidence of funding from China to, among other activities, influence Taiwan’s November 2018 elections.
British and Australian cyber experts have noted that Chinese cyberhacking has sought to influence Taiwan society in new and increasingly creative ways, across websites, social networks, and mobile chat apps. They believe that these activities, which include online harassment and trolling campaigns, could later be employed in other countries as well.
In March 2018, after Japanese patrol boats forced out a Taiwanese fishing vessel that, according to the Japanese coast guard, illegally crossed a designated zone for fishing activities, a coalition of about 30 members representing, among others, the Concentric Patriotism Association (CPA), the Chung Hwa Baodiao (China [Association] to Protect the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands), and the Chinese Association of Friends of Okinawa protested in front of Japan’s de facto embassy in Taipei. China and Taiwan both claim the islands, which have been held by Japan since 1895. Since the agreement on fishing rights in the area was signed in 2013, under Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, the group’s real intent seemed to be to discredit the Tsai administration and drive a wedge between it and Japan. One protestor was quoted as saying that “if Tsai is unable to protect the Taiwanese, we should ask China’s People’s Liberation Army to protect us;” another waved the PRC’s flag.
Beijing’s surrogate parties have also engaged in demonstrations on matters unrelated to China policy with the seeming intent of discrediting any initiative of the Tsai administration. Not all actions are peaceful: in August 2017, a sword-wielding attacker carrying the Chinese flag slashed a guard outside Taiwan’s presidential palace, and demonstrators have sometimes resorted to fisticuffs.
Incentives designed to further unification have also been enhanced: in August 2018, Taiwan’s offshore island of Kinmen, also known as Quemoy, began importing its water from China, thereby increasing its vulnerability to PRC pressure, with the Chinese side also offering to provide Quemoy with electricity. The Taipei government reminded Quemoy officials that such a decision was the prerogative of the central authorities. An ambitious Chinese project, still in the early planning stages, to construct the world’s longest rail tunnel to link Fujian province with Taiwan, is similarly unlikely to be favorably regarded by the Tsai administration. The project would entail the creation of artificial islands to pump air into the tunnel, leading to speculation that the islands might have other purposes as well.
What Can Be Done?
Taiwan representatives have urged foreign governments not to capitulate to Chinese demands. President Tsai, vowing that Beijing would not succeed in its efforts to erase Taiwan, has embarked on a visit to allies Paraguay and Belize, with transit stops in Los Angeles and Houston. On the matter of airline destinations, several governments, including those of the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom have stated that Taipei will continue to be followed by the designation Taiwan rather than China. Yet, although Trump administration spokesperson Sarah Sanders famously called the PRC’s order “Orwellian nonsense,” it seems to be working. The Taiwan government is said to be mulling retaliatory steps against compliant airlines such as adjusting their time slots and barring them from using jet bridges, while rewarding other airlines by waiving landing fees, thus far inconclusively.
By early 2018, the New York Timesreported that there were signs of U.S. pushback. The United States, which is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to maintain a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait, signaled its concern in a statement that Chinese actions were destabilizing that balance. Reacting to rumors that Washington might respond by sending American warships through the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s Global Timeswarned that such action could provoke a Chinese response, citing military experts’ view that the People’s Liberation Army was fully capable of defending the country’s interests. In June, an expensive new U.S. embassy-equivalent was formally opened in Taipei. Although long planned, the facility seemed to indicate that America intended to be a presence in Taiwan for some time to come. And, at the 2018 Annapolis commencement ceremony, President Trump personally congratulated a Taiwanese graduate who was wearing her country’s uniform. The woman’s younger sister has been admitted to West Point.
In July, the U.S. Pacific Fleet issued a terse statement that two destroyers, the USS Mustin and the USS Benfold, had carried out a routine transit though the international waters of the Taiwan Strait, and that the navy would from time-to-time transit from the East China Sea to the South China Sea for unstated operational reasons. A briefing by the director of the Defense Department’s press operations added that the U.S. would fly, sail, and operate wherever legally permissible. Which, since the strait is in international waters, was indeed the case. In a portent of what is likely to come, U.S. naval surveillance aircraft flying near disputed areas of the South China Sea were six times warned that “this is China . . . leave immediately and keep out.” The carefully crafted American response, also repeated six times, was “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state. In exercising these rights as guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states.”
Congress added its voice as well. The Taiwan Travel Act, Public Law 115-135, enacted in March 2018, states that it “should be the policy of the United States” to allow U.S. officials at all levels to visit Taiwan and to allow high-level Taiwan officials to visit the United States and meet with its officials. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018, Public Law 115-91, includes a statement that the U.S. should consider the advisability and feasibility of reciprocal port calls between the U.S. and Taiwan navies. Although no high-profile visits or port calls have yet taken place, Taipei and Washington have signed an agreement to allow personnel of Taiwan’s research institutions to visit national defense facilities and laboratories in the U.S., thereby benefiting Taiwan’s ability to produce military vessels and aircraft. According to the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Taiwan is to build submarines with U.S. help.
Will These Actions Help or Hurt Taiwan?
For all of Beijing’s bravado about its determination to “defend” a sovereignty over Taiwan that it has never actually exercised, China will hesitate to attack the U.S. military kinetically for fear of escalation into an uncontrollable confrontation. It could, however, punish Taiwan. Chinese sources have warned of further actions, with the PRC’s foreign supporters urging that Washington not do anything that might cross Beijing’s red lines. It is not clear exactly what actions short of a declaration of independence—which neither of Taiwan’s major political parties has any intention of doing—would trigger these reactions. And, it must be pointed out, American immobilism for fear of triggering a response plays exactly into the anaconda strategy: the gradual tightening will go on.
So far, United States responses, while pleasing the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese who do not favor unification with China, have been largely symbolic. More needs to be done to counter the anaconda. High-level reciprocal visits, despite having been congressionally sanctioned, have not yet taken place—but should. There was disappointment that the U.S. did not send a higher-ranking representative to the opening ceremony for the new American Institute in Taiwan facility. The U.S. navy should regularly send its ships, including aircraft carrier battle groups, through the Taiwan Strait; its air force should conduct patrols in the area. Joint military exercises between the U.S. and Taiwan’s military should become routine, with Taiwan invited to participate in the annual multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises.
The timing seems right: there are persistent rumors about Xi Jinping being criticized within the PRC’s leadership elite for economic shortcomings, his overly aggressive behavior and reckless actions that have aroused foreign backlash as well as for the excesses of his personality cult. Continued American inaction will simply validate Xi’s conviction that these policies are working. To reverse Mao Zedong’s advice to the Soviet Union, if the west wind does not prevail over the east wind, the winds may change. The anaconda may swallow its prey, with concomitant loss of international confidence in the will of the United States to defend its principles and a further erosion of American power.