Determined to remain free

Despite the recent loss of diplomatic allies,Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen is standing up for its autonomy more forcefully than ever, counting on US support as China ramps up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the self-ruled island. Duncan Bartlett reports from Taipei

Taiwan’s president has vowed to protect the island’s democratic political system from what she calls ‘tremendous pressure’ from mainland China.

In a speech in Taipei last month, President Tsai Ing-wen pledged to raise defence spending to a level that will enable its defence forces to deter a potential Chinese invasion. She also presented Taiwan’s democratic values as a challenge to Communism.

Speaking at the National Day celebration on October 10, she said,‘To all our friends who are pursuing democracy in Hong Kong, in mainland China and around the world: you can always look to Taiwan, because Taiwan’s democracy lights up to the world.’

Arms race

Her words followed recent sharp increases in defence spending by China, which has many weapons aimed at the island from military bases along its coast. It conducted live fire exercises in April as a ‘warning’ to the Taiwanese president ‘not to provoke ordinary people’s emotions’.

President Tsai’s speech was a forthright expression of her support for Taiwan’s autonomy and sovereignty, although she stopped short of calling for complete independence. Nevertheless, the Chinese President Xi Jinping regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and sees its democratic political system as a challenge to the dominant socialist ideology on the mainland.

Trump’s support

China is also vexed by Taiwan’s close ties to the United States. President Trump recently offered a further $330 million to support Taiwan’s armed forces and agreed to dispatch more American diplomatic and military representatives to Taipei. America still adheres to the official ‘One China’ policy, which prevents it from recognising Taiwan as an independent state. However Vice President Mike Pence told a conservative think tank in Washington in September: ‘America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.’

A former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Stephen M. Young, says the alliance is strong: ‘Almost forty years after Washington cut its formal ties to Taipei, America remains deeply tied to the island and its people. In terms of trade, investment, student exchanges, tourism or any other measure, our relations are vastly more important now than they were when Jimmy Carter severed the formal relationship.’

‘Taiwan’s democracy lights up to the world’
Taiwan military police outside the Presidential Palace during a National Day parade in Taipei, 10 October
Taiwan military police outside the Presidential Palace during a National Day parade in Taipei, 10 October

Washington agenda

Soon after he was elected in 2016, President Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai. Some commentators, including China’s supporters, viewed that as a deliberate breach of the ‘One China’ protocol. Others observed that Mr Trump may not have realised who he was speaking to and was confused between the official name of Taiwan – the Republic of China – and China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.

There are other signs that President Trump is puzzled by the region. The journalist Bob Woodward claimed in his recent book Trump: Fear in the White House that the president asked a National Security Council meeting in January 2018: ‘What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean Peninsula – and even more than that, what do we get from protecting Taiwan?’

Balance of power

The book’s author does not record a response. But one argument in favour of protecting Taiwan is that it counters Chinese power in the region. Taiwan has greater economic influence than its size might suggest. Although it has a relatively small population of 23 million compared to China’s 1.4 billion, it is one of the few parts of the world to maintain a trade surplus with China and many of its citizens have business links with the mainland.

I asked Cheng Cheng-Mount from the National Development Council if a push towards more independence would harm Taiwan’s economy. He replied: ‘It could, if we become hostile towards China, but the current government led by the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is in favour of both sides recognising the status quo in terms of cross-Strait relations. Taiwan and the mainland are ruled by two different authorities, so they (the Chinese) need to recognise who has sovereignty here.’


The Global Perspective on Taiwan

How is the situation between Taiwan and China regarded in other parts of Asia and around the world? Here are the views of reporters from four continents

Manasi Phadke, Associate Editor, The Print, Mumbai, IndiaManasi Phadke, Associate Editor, The Print, Mumbai, India
India and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations but have had cultural and economic ties since the formation of the India-Taipei Association in 1995. Taiwan and India both are wary of China’s rising influence in Asia and that has pushed the two regions closer. Bilateral relations between India and Taiwan have improved since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016. Taiwan has been actively trying to cement its ties with South East Asian and South Asian countries, especially India, at a time when China has been hardening its stance on Taiwan. India is also suspicious of China’s links with Pakistan and believes links to Taiwan could help it gain leverage. India will not openly challenge the ‘One China’ policy but it is seeking to boost its own position in Asia.


Rowan Callick, Journalist for The Australian newspaper and Fellow of the Asian Institute of Griffiths University, Queensland

China remains Australia’s biggest economic partner and our country recognises China diplomatically but not Taiwan. However, Australia’s version of the ‘One China’ policy allows it to maintain ties with Taiwan. There is even talk that we could reach a free trade deal with Taiwan, similar to the one we have with the mainland. Recently, there has been an upswing in terms of economic and people-to-people links between Australia and Taiwan, with a rise in trade and investment both ways. Australia has become the second choice, after the United States, for Taiwanese students to study abroad.


Juan Pablo Bogado, Journalist for 5 Días, Paraguay

Our country has had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1957 and our president travelled to Taipei in 2018 to celebrate the National Day holiday. We are one of the few countries in South America to maintain diplomatic links with Taiwan. In the 1950s, Paraguay’s dictator General Alfredo Stroessner was friendly with the Taiwanese authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek. Both of them were set against communism. Our country became a democracy in 1989 and at about the same time Taiwan made a similar transformation to democracy. Over the years, Paraguay has received a lot of technical and economic support from the island. We are a small landlocked country, located between Brazil and Argentina, so we can relate to Taiwan’s experience of living in the shadow of China.


Simon Allison, Africa Editor, Mail and Guardian newspaper, South Africa

Taiwan and Africa used to have a very strong relationship. At one point, Taiwan had 33 African allies who recognised it as a state but now that number has dwindled to only one country, Eswatini. That shows the influence of China on the continent: it offers generous economic deals, many worth billions of dollars, which come with few strings attached and these are attractive to African leaders. In return, the nations which take money from China must refuse to recognise Taiwan diplomatically. China says it doesn’t interfere in the internal affairs of African countries but I would say that there is strong Chinese interference on some sensitive issues and the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is one of those issues.

Time to talk

His view was echoed by Dr Chiu Chui-Cheng at the Mainland Affairs Council. ‘We hope the two sides can sit down as soon as possible without any political preconditions and discuss the relationship. We want to develop a new model for prosperity and wellbeing for everyone.’

Dr Chiu noted that elsewhere in Asia, North and South Korea are now forging a path to lasting peace through summit meetings and suggested this could be a model for discussions between China and Taiwan.

However, bringing China to the negotiating table will not be easy. There is no peace treaty between Taiwan and China, which leaves them officially still at war. For that reason, the People’s Liberation Army is prepared to attack at any moment and Taiwan stands ready to fight back.

Diplomatic battle

The people of Taiwan are used to this tension. Fortunately, no lives have been lost in conflict, so people go about their daily business without being gripped by fear. But China is ramping up the diplomatic pressure on its neighbour. It cuts ties with countries which formally recognise Taiwan diplomatically, leaving the island’s supporters at an economic disadvantage.

One argument in favour of protecting Taiwan is that it counters Chinese power in the region

Since President Tsai took office in 2016, Beijing has persuaded five of the island’s partners to switch sides. Taiwan is now left with only one ally in Africa – Eswatini – and a few friends scattered around South America and the Caribbean, including Paraguay and St Kitts.

Another institution which has formal relations with Taiwan and a small diplomatic mission in Taipei is the Vatican. However, it is prevaricating about its support. There are signs that if China grants the Vatican more religious influence on the mainland, including the power to appoint bishops, the Pope may agree to sever the Vatican’s diplomatic links with Taipei.

A matter for Asia

For President Tsai, Taiwan’s continued existence as a separate political and geographic entity is non-negotiable and worth fighting to maintain.She is hoping that President Trump will increase his support and that mainland China will not pursue a policy of unification through force. Taiwan also seeks backing from key Asian trading partners such as Japan, which frequently speaks up for it at international meetings.

The rest of Asia has strong reason to support the peaceful maintenance of the stable status quo, while keeping Taiwan’s integrity intact.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC World Service presenter

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