The recent flurry of diplomatic overtures toward China by the United States has done little to placate a perennially irate Beijing.
The latest object of its ire is Democratic Progressive Party vice president and presidential hopeful Lai Ching-te, who will transit – official parlance for a stopover by a senior Taiwanese official – the U.S. en-route to Paraguay next month.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken – one of three high-level U.S. officials to visit China in the past month – confirmed last week that Lai would touch down in the U.S. but not in Washington.
Washington is typically off-limits to top Taiwan officials due to the U.S.’s “one China” policy, which acknowledges, without endorsing, Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China – favoring maintenance of the status quo, which amounts to a tense standoff in the Taiwan Strait.
It’s as yet unknown whether Lai will meet with any official U.S. representatives, but it’s customary for Taiwan-friendly members of Congress to meet senior Taiwanese politicians when they touch down in the U.S.
Under President Tsai Ing-wen, a quiet but resolute pragmatist, Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. have never been better. Its relations with neighboring China, which claims the democratically governed state as its own, are arguably plumbing new depths.
Tsai’s second term will end ahead of elections in January next year. Her vice president, Lai, is currently leading the polls in an election that sees the opposition divided between the Kuomintang’s Hou You-yi and the former mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, who has been polling ahead of the KMT’s candidate.
Lai, a former health worker, has enjoyed political success in Taiwan – he was reelected as mayor of Tainan in 2014 with a record 72.9% of the vote – and is considered likely to take the Democratic Progressive Party to victory in 2024, which if it happens would mark the first time a political party has won three terms in Taiwan since democratic elections began in 1996.
It would be Beijing’s most dreaded outcome.
Lai is perceived by both Washington and Beijing as more unpredictable than Tsai. He has described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” but publicly cleaves to Tsai’s formulation that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation with no need to declare independence.
Tsai has privately described her role in navigating relations with Beijing as “walking a tightrope,” and some fear that Lai will be less deft-footed than his predecessor if he is elected.
At a recent campaign event, Lai said that “when Taiwan’s president can enter the White House, the political goal that we’re pursuing will have been achieved,” according to reports.
“I think the provocative adventurist moves by the Taiwan separatists should be contained,” said Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Xie Feng, adding, “The priority for us is to stop Lai Ching-te from visiting the United States, which is like a rhino charging at us,” a reference to the gray rhino, a highly probable, but neglected, high impact event.
“Mr. Lai proposes to ‘build up Taiwan’s deterrence,’” the Chinese Embassy in Washington wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “His true agenda is to resist by force the motherland’s reunification. A ‘military threat’ from China’s mainland is the DPP’s pretext for purchasing over $4 billion in U.S. weaponry in two years alone. Squandering 2.6% of local GDP, the DPP is turning the island into a powder keg.”
The last time China’s hostile propaganda machine got so riled up about a democratically elected leader in Taiwan was during the tenure of Chen Shui-bian between 2000-2008.
Chen came to power on an anti-China crusade and vowed to deliver a new constitution to Taiwan, leading Washington to regard him as an unpredictable provocateur and China to label him as a “separatist” as it does Lai as well.
Lai told supporters on July 10 that the upcoming election is a choice between Zhongnanhai – China’s equivalent to the White House – or Washington, adding that his political party, the DPP, embraces the latter.
It is uncertain whether the U.S. has quietly voiced any concerns about what might be considered Lai’s gaffe, although his aides said Lai was simply pointing out that Taiwan had to be clear about who its friends are.
“The administration has to be crystal clear with candidates in Taiwan about U.S. interests and red lines while also demonstrating that the U.S. is not favoring any party in Taiwan’s democratic election,” Zack Cooper, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Financial Times. “We will see the administration engage privately with candidates when they have concerns, rather than airing them in public.”
Lai’s rivals in the 2024 presidential election are campaigning on a platform of peace versus war, arguing that Lai’s election will be a red line for Beijing and will plunge the Taiwan Strait into conflict, an apocalyptic scenario for the region.
Chinese ambassador Xie said at the Aspen Security Forum that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan” and that the country wanted a peaceful “reunification,” but Taiwanese “separatists” were advancing their agenda, seeking U.S. support, Reuters reported last week.
The U.S. is calling Lai’s scheduled transit in the U.S. “routine” but China can be expected to respond with military drills around Taiwan, as it did during former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year and in April, when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen metcurrent House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.