Dispatch from Taiwan: Countering the Beijing strangler

TAIPEI, Taiwan—At the start of a meeting here with newly inaugurated Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te last week, my mind wandered to an encounter just a year ago with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his fortified Kyiv headquarters, with air-raid sirens providing background music.

The differences are clear enough between at-risk Taiwan and at-war Ukraine. There’s also a world of contrast between the understated Lai, the physician-turned-politician in his Western business suit, and Zelenskyy, the entertainer-turned-leader in his trademark military green fatigues.

Beyond that, however, the similarities between the dangers confronting the two leaders are striking. Both stand on the front lines of the most defining geopolitical showdowns in our fast-unfolding contest over what principles, rules, and countries will define the global future.

Though not yet in a kinetic war, Lai, like Zelenskyy, is managing an escalating conflict against a zealous autocrat—one with a much larger country and military force—who threatens his country’s freedom and democracy in the name of national destiny. And Lai, also like Zelenskyy, recognizes that his survival depends on international military, political, and economic support, and in particular the support of the United States.

And while Kyiv is some five thousand miles away from Taipei as the drone flies, that far-away war has altered Taiwanese risk perceptions.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe
Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te
(Official Photo by I Chen Lin / Office of the President)

Rising conflict in the gray zone

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion in 2022 shook the Taiwanese into a greater and more urgent realization of their own vulnerability. They have digested Ukraine’s lesson that a much smaller country and military can resist forced annexation with sufficient bravery, preparation, and will. The Taiwanese ask themselves, “Are we made of the same stuff?”

Russian aggression has underscored another lesson for Taiwan’s leaders: Ukraine could not have survived into this third year since Putin’s full-scale invasion without significant, costly, and sustained support from international partners.

It is more challenging for Taiwan to win that level of support than it is for Ukraine, given Taiwan’s contested political status and China’s relentless international campaign against it.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) hasn’t ruled out force to bring about unification, while Taiwan insists on continuing the status quo, which is de facto, if undeclared, independence. Under pressure from Beijing, only eleven out of 193 countries in the United Nations, along with the Holy See, provide Taiwan formal diplomatic recognition, while 182 recognize Ukraine.

Still, Taiwan’s leaders are heartened by the democratic world’s growing recognition of their shared plight with Ukraine in the face of an increasingly close confederation of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Taiwan already is consulting more closely on security issues with European, Asian, and North American countries than it was previously, but Taiwanese officials wonder whether that will be sufficient.

“The strength of the authoritarian camp is even greater than it was during the Cold War and World War II,” a Taiwanese official told our visiting Atlantic Council delegation, which included former Latvian President Egils Levits and former Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček.

“The greatest challenge is that the democratic camp hasn’t come together sufficiently,” the official said. “Not all democracies are willing to give up their economic interests to face the authoritarian threat together.”

Taiwanese officials see the intensity of China’s efforts to annex Taiwan as both increasing and changing, with much of it falling under what the Taiwanese refer to as “gray-zone coercion.”

That includes a variety of methods to alter the cross-strait status quo, including military threats, disinformation, economic coercion, and the obstruction of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and forums. Taiwanese officials also speak of twenty years of Chinese efforts to infiltrate Taiwanese society, media, and political parties, which has even included working with organized crime.

“Taiwan is making the best possible preparations for the worst possible scenarios,” the official told us.

Most insidiously, the PRC has argued falsely that through United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, which allowed Communist China to join the United Nations in 1971, the international community accepted that Taiwan is part of China and thus lacks the right to participate in international organizations.

Taiwanese officials have rejected not only that interpretation but also Beijing’s claim that Taipei agreed to its view of “one China” when forming the “1992 consensus” at a semiofficial meeting in Hong Kong that year. The “consensus” term was artificially coined nearly a decade after the meeting. There was no actual consensus, even according to Taiwan’s president in 1992, between Beijing and Taipei about the status of Taiwan with respect to the PRC.

In his powerful inaugural address on May 20, Lai put Taiwan in its global context. “Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and conflict between Israel and Hamas continue to shake the whole world,” he said. “And China’s military actions and gray-zone coercion are considered the greatest strategic challenges to global peace and stability.”

Avoiding silent strangulation

One significant takeaway from a week of meetings with Taiwanese government leaders, military planners, economic policymakers, and business executives is that they worry less about a sudden Chinese military invasion, which they are working hard to deter, than about slow strangulation, against which they lack international support and their own answers.

Joseph Wu, the secretary-general of the National Security Council, held up maps as visual aids to illustrate the military choke hold that the PRC is trying to demonstrate to the Taiwanese and their international supporters. The maps show the persistent daily activity of Chinese ships and planes encircling Taiwan.

“The purpose is not to initiate a military attack on Taiwan anytime soon,” Wu explained. “That is not imminent or inevitable. What they wish to do is force us into submission. They want to crush the enemy without a fight, to strangle us, though we cannot rule out the possibility of war.”

“The purpose is to wear out our resources, so that we are less prepared for an invasion,” he added.

In a compelling new essay in Foreign Affairs, Isaac Kardon and Jennifer Kavanagh write that Taiwan’s major military investments “in recent years—including fighter aircraft, tanks, and an indigenously produced submarine—are not well aligned with the insidious nature of the gray-zone threat.”

They suggest, among other measures, greater efforts to harden communications infrastructure and accelerate foreign direct investment to build economic links that are more resilient against Chinese disruption.

The authors maintain that if the United States and its allies don’t determine better ways to challenge Beijing’s “gray-zone campaign,” then they could find Taiwan’s autonomy and the United States’ credibility “both greatly diminished,” even without war.

Much has been made of the so-called “Davidson window,” named for US Admiral Philip Davidson, who testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2021 that China was accelerating its timeline to unify with Taiwan by amphibious invasion by 2027, the hundredth anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. Since then, that notion of an accelerated timeline has driven US strategy and interactions with Taipei.

But Kardon and Kavanagh argue that the United States must “break its fixation on the prospect of an invasion and become more alert to the dangers posed by a slow strangulation of Taiwan.”

“If Washington cannot alter its single-minded outlook,” the authors warn, “it could end up as a bystander as Taiwan slips under creeping Chinese control in a silent fait accompli.”

Just as Russia’s methods to win in Ukraine are different than those China is employing against Taiwan, so must the United States and its allies adjust their own response for what’s likely to be an extended contest with as many nonmilitary as military challenges.

As the Taiwanese official put it, “China is not just Taiwan’s problem. It is the whole world’s problem.”

President Lai Ching-te meets with a senior delegation from the Atlantic Council on June 18, 2024. (Official Photo by I Chen Lin / Office of the President)

Note: The Atlantic Council delegation’s visit to Taiwan was supported by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO).

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points newsletter, a column of dispatches from a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te visits soldiers and air force personnel in Hualien, Taiwan May 28, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang