Published: 23:32, May 22, 2024
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Lai Ching-te’s treacherous gambit is doomed to backfire
By Lau Siu-kai

Taiwan’s new leader, Lai Ching-te, delivered his inaugural speech on Monday, comprehensively expounding his stance on “Taiwan independence”. Unlike his two predecessors, Chen Shui-bian and Tsai Ing-wen, Lai failed to clearly refer to the 1992 Consensus and the one-China principle, indirectly indicating his rejection of both crucial notions. Instead, Lai unabashedly referred to the notions of “two Chinas” and “one China, one Taiwan”, calling the island a “sovereign and independent country”. 

At the same time, Lai no longer views cross-Strait relations as the relationship between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan within “one China” but as that of two countries. Worse, Lai has demonstrated that he is determined to make the island a pawn for the United States to contain the Chinese mainland. He is determined to join the US-crafted “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and yearns for US protection. He depicted the mainland’s military activities as “the biggest strategic challenge to global peace and stability”. He particularly highlighted Taiwan’s “strategic value” to the US. First, he asserted that Taiwan’s strategic position in the first island chain has implications to the development of world geopolitics, and that “Taiwan’s role today in 2024 is even more important.” Second, he emphasized the importance of Taiwan in critical scientific and technological fields to the US and “global security”. He said, “Looking to the future world, semiconductors are everywhere, and the AI wave is sweeping across. Taiwan now masters advanced semiconductor process technology and stands at the center of the AI revolution. It is the key to the ‘global democratic supply chain’, having implications to the development of the world economy and the happiness and prosperity of humanity.” Lai was in effect asking for US protection, suggesting that if Taiwan is taken by force, the US’ security and interests will suffer.

Over the past few years, many US strategic scholars have repeatedly claimed that in the face of China’s increasingly powerful “challenge” to the US, Taiwan Island’s strategic importance to the US is growing. Some hard-line strategic scholars such as Richard Haass, Dmitri Alperovitch and Matt Pottinger have strongly advocated that Washington should abandon its “strategic ambiguity” stance on Taiwan and instead adopt a “strategic clarity” position to expressly warn Beijing not to take Taiwan by force, or the mainland will face a war with the US and its allies. They also opined that at the same time, the US must significantly strengthen the island’s defensive capabilities to prevent the Chinese mainland from using force against the island. Lai’s remarks deliberately echoed the views of these hawkish scholars, who are hostile to China.

However, the current Russia-Ukraine war and the Israeli-Hamas conflict have left the US in a quagmire and a state of international isolation. It has no time to think about anything else. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that the US would want to have a severe conflict with China over the Taiwan question, let alone the outbreak of war between two nuclear powers. Moreover, currently, the US is militarily and economically incapable of winning a war against China. The most reasonable choice for Washington is to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, restrain the island’s authority from provoking Beijing, and thus prevent the US from engaging in a hot war with China. In this context, it is puzzling that Lai arrogantly peddled his “two Chinas” and “one China, one Taiwan” notions to deliberately provoke Beijing. His separatist proposition also violates the “constitutional rules” implemented in the Taiwan region. Most Taiwanese residents are also not likely to accept Lai’s extremist idea of “Taiwan independence”. The Democratic Progressive Party led by Lai is a minority party in the “legislative yuan”, so it won’t implement Lai’s proposition of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” by amending the “constitution”. Any attempt by Lai to declare de jure “Taiwan independence” will prove to be a nonstarter.

Cross-Strait relations will indeed be quite tense and unpredictable in the coming period. Taiwanese residents will undoubtedly have to pay the price for Lai’s reckless behavior. Still, the price paid by Lai and his weak and unpopular government may be even more remarkable

I guess there are several reasons why Lai is desperate to provoke Beijing.

First, in the January election for Taiwan’s new leader, Lai received only 40 percent of the votes, becoming a weak leader. More importantly, the DPP lost control of the “legislative yuan”. As a weak leader, Lai must consolidate his political support base, composed primarily of die-hard “Taiwan independence” supporters. His cabinet is filled with die-hard separatist politicians from southern Taiwan. Against this background, it is not surprising that Lai put forward a set of extremist “Taiwan independence” propositions in his speech because there is indeed a desperate political need there.

Second, Lai should know that his “Taiwan independence” notions will inevitably anger Beijing and trigger robust countermeasures. Unsurprisingly, Beijing severely condemned Lai’s “Taiwan independence” notions. Foreign Minister Wang Yi excoriated “the scandalous behavior of Lai Ching-te and others who betrayed the nation and ancestors” and portended that all Taiwan separatists will be nailed to the “pillar of shame” in history. However, Lai is likely to use the “suppression” from the mainland to boost morale of and unite the “Taiwan independence” forces, in order to strengthen their governance foundation. He may also use the mainland’s “suppression” to further divide Taiwan society, and demonize those parties and politicians who advocate or promote the improvement of cross-Strait relations as “traitors” of Taiwan, in the hope of expanding the political support base of himself and the DPP in Taiwan.

Finally, Lai may use the mainland’s fierce response to force the US to express “strategic clarity” on Taiwan, in the hope that the US will endorse his extremist “Taiwan independence” proposition, or at least will not oppose or express dissatisfaction. The reason why he did this may be because Donald Trump could return to the White House after the November election, and may “abandon” Taiwan or use Taiwan as a bargaining chip with Beijing. If Lai can obtain ironclad security or defense guarantees for Taiwan from the Biden administration, Trump’s Taiwan policy would then be subject to certain constraints in the future.

However, Lai’s wishful thinking may not succeed, and his irresponsible and dangerous gambit will backfire and plunge Taiwan into a more complex and dangerous situation. Suppose he insists on going his own way and continues to carry out various actions to provoke the mainland. In that case, he and the DPP will be increasingly spurned by Taiwan residents. Most Taiwan residents will believe that his government’s actions are highly detrimental to Taiwan and their own interests. The mainland will undoubtedly take major countermeasures against Taiwan politically, diplomatically, militarily and economically, making Taiwan even more isolated internationally and financially depressed. No matter how glad the US is to see friction between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, it is not willing to publicly express its support for Lai’s extremist “Taiwan independence” propositions and actions at this moment to avoid getting burned. On the contrary, even though the US is committed to strengthening Taiwan’s defense capabilities, it should be wary of Lai’s “Taiwan independence” behavior and impose restrictions on him based on Washington’s own interests. I will not rule out that to prevent the situation in the Taiwan Strait from deteriorating sharply, Washington, Beijing, and Taiwan’s opposition parties will impose restrictions on the Lai administration separately and with some tacit understanding.

Cross-Strait relations will indeed be quite tense and unpredictable in the coming period. Taiwanese residents will undoubtedly have to pay the price for Lai’s reckless behavior. Still, the price paid by Lai and his weak and unpopular government may be even more remarkable.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant for the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.