In October 2020, Hong Kong’s air traffic control denied a Taiwanese flight access to Pratas Island, a Taiwan-occupied feature in the South China Sea. It was the first time that had ever occurred. The refusal, likely prompted by Beijing, might seem to be just another way for China to put pressure on Taiwan, which it has long regarded as a renegade province. But more broadly, the incident reflects a marked change in not only how China sees Taiwan’s remote outposts, but also how confident China is in its ability to control the air and sea spaces of the South China Sea and its willingness to wield that power as a political tool.
Channeling President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, President of the Czech Senate Miloš Vystrčil said, “I am Taiwanese,” to a standing ovation in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on September 1 to show his support for the country. Vystrčil, who is leading a 90-person delegation to Taiwan, has become a critical—and unexpected—figure in supporting Taiwan over China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi—while touring Europe in a post-COVID attempt to reestablish goodwill—called the trip “an act of international treachery” and that the Czech Republic (Czechia) will pay a “heavy price” for “cross[ing] a red line.”
Over the past two months, the very public rivalry between China and Taiwan has moved into the Horn of Africa over representation in unrecognized Somaliland. On July 1, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had signed a deal with Somaliland to establish reciprocal representative offices to foster greater cooperation in “agriculture, education, energy, fisheries, health, information and communications, and mining.” The opening of offices and the exchange of diplomatic staff were delayed by COVID-19 restrictions—with the Somaliland office in Taipei scheduled to be opened in September 2020—even though talks between the two sides had been going on for months prior to the July announcement.
On July 30, 2020, former President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan passed away at the age of 97. He had served as vice president to President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, before becoming president himself. Lee was the first Taiwan-born president and also the first democratically elected president of the Republic of China, earning him the nickname of “Mr. Democracy.” His tenure as president saw great change and transformation in Taiwan: he finished Taiwan’s long path to democracy and ended the decades-long martial law. To evaluate his legacy, Thomas J. Shattuck, Managing Editor and Asia Program Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Jacques deLisle, Asia Program Director at FPRI, discuss Lee’s role in making Taiwan what it is today.
The recent imposition of the National Security Law is by far Beijing’s most decisive effort to bring the less-than-ruly inhabitants of Hong Kong into line with central government policies. This new level of control over the former British colony did not come about easily. The strength and persistence of Hong Kong residents’ demonstrations against Beijing’s ongoing efforts to curb their civil liberties took most observers, and perhaps even the participants, by surprise. This latest, and like its predecessors, largely leaderless movement with its motto “be like water” lasted more than a year, with nightly news footage of exploding tear gas canisters, bloodied demonstrators, and extensive property damage beamed around the world. With the new National Security Law, Hong Kong’s future remains uncertain.
COVID-19 seemed to change the narrative around Taiwan: from a nation whose existence is often characterized as standing on the edge of a knife to one that capably and effectively handled the pandemic with fewer than 10 deaths. Before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the globe, the only time that most people would hear about Taiwan was in stories about China pressing it militarily or diplomatically. Since 2016, Taiwan has lost a handful of its remaining diplomatic allies (which now numbers at 15) to China, but Taiwan just announced a surprising piece of news: it has gained, not lost, a “friend.”
Maia and Aaron are back with us this week! Last week, we took a little detour to discuss the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. It’s worth a read if you’d like to learn more about Taiwan’s COVID-19 response efforts and the challenges that the country will face over the next four years. We’re back to our normal discussion about all things Asia, Eurasia, Nat. Sec, and Middle East. As Aaron mentions, there is a lot a convergence on a number of issues we’ve been discussing over the last couple of months.
On May 20, 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan began her second term in office. In a more subdued ceremony than is the norm, Tsai took the office of oath, along with new Vice President Lai Ching-te. Her second inaugural address focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and Taiwan’s response; it also set forth Tsai’s priorities for the next four years. In her speech, Tsai said, “No matter the difficulties we face, we can always count on our democracy, our solidarity, and our sense of responsibility towards each other to help us overcome challenges, weather difficult times, and stand steadfast in the world.”
Mid-May is upon us. I would like to thank our readers who have loyally read our weekly discussions throughout the pandemic. I hope you all are healthy and safe, and continue to stay the course in staying at home. This week, Aaron joins me for a riveting discussion on important developments related to China, Taiwan, Turkey, the F-35 jet program, and the ongoing Marine reforms—Maia is off this week sunbathing in Tahiti.
The World Health Assembly (WHA)—the annual plenary session of the 194 members of the World Health Organization (WHO)—convenes on May 18, 2020. The perennial question of Taiwan’s participation and access has again become especially prominent and contentious, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the novel coronavirus has enhanced the arguments—and international support—for restoring Taiwan’s access and, with it, providing a boost to Taiwan’s international stature and, in turn, its security. But Beijing’s opposition and other factors create challenges more daunting than those that Taipei faced when it began its earlier eight-year run of WHA attendance. The push for Taiwan’s regaining engagement and participation is a case of what should be an irresistible force meeting what may be an immovable object.