Every March, nearly 5,000 delegates descend on Beijing for the meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference (CPPCC), generally simply referred to as the lianghui, or two meetings. The NPC, with nearly 3,000 members representing the country’s provinces and municipalities, is the world’s largest legislature, which is perhaps appropriate for the world’s most populous country. Despite its large size, the NPC it has very little power. Important decisions are made at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which typically meets in the fall, and then rubber-stamped at the NPC. The CPPCC, with about 2,200 members, is strictly an advisory body that is often imperfectly compared to Britain’s House of Lords. Its composition is more broadly representative of Chinese society as a whole and includes retired party elders, academics, businesspeople, and luminaries of the sports and entertainment worlds. Both meetings are highly scripted affairs meant to showcase the government’s achievements of the past year and introduce plans for the future. As such, they are eagerly awaited by China analysts over the world for clues as to what to expect.
For most of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the sea was the path over which foreign foes reached China, a fact not lost on Chinese naval strategists. In the 1980s, with the advent of long-range standoff weapons, those strategists began to argue that China would have to push out its seaboard defenses into the Pacific Ocean to ensure its security. They began referring to the waters between China’s coastline and what they called diyi daolian, or the “first island chain” (the Japanese home islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo), as an area where the Chinese navy needed to develop the capabilities to exert effective sea denial, if not sea control. Once that goal was achieved, China could push out its defensive depth to dier daolian, or the “second island chain” (the Marianas, Guam, and the Carolines).
Only days after his inauguration on January 20, President Joseph Biden faced one of his first foreign policy tests in the Indo-Pacific. On January 23-24, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent over 15 aircraft into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The timing of the escalation points to Beijing testing the new administration’s resolve over Taiwan, but it could also very well become a new normal in order to drain Taiwan’s military resources. The Biden administration should hit the ground running by directly engaging with the Taiwanese government and military and by making enhanced economic cooperation a high priority. Taiwan should play a greater role in American Indo-Pacific strategy, and the new Biden team has an opportunity to build on the existing relationship.
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.”