"Manila’s leaders should take lessons from the ongoing row between China and Taiwan."
As a country that has to engage China’s aggression on multiple fronts, the Philippines should pay attention to the ordeal that Taiwan is currently facing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently called attention to the increasingly assertive economic and military threats from Beijing under Chinese President Xi Jinping. The rest of Asia, she said, should open its eyes and see what was happening.
“I want to remind the Beijing authorities that a superpower must act with the demeanor and take the responsibility of a superpower, and international society is watching China to see if it can make changes and become a trustworthy partner,” Tsai said.
The Taiwanese leader made the remarks in the context of a speech by Xi that proposed a “one country, two systems” scenario for Taiwan, a setup that Tsai said Taiwan will never accept: “The vast majority of Taiwanese also resolutely oppose ‘one country, two systems,’ and this opposition is also a ‘Taiwan consensus.’”
China, which has long pushed for a so-called “One China” policy, for its part has never accepted Taiwan’s sovereignty and considers it a runaway province. But Beijing’s coercive behavior, Tsai said, undermines whatever negotiations are possible, not to mention the country’s “democratic position.”
For her part, Tsai, who came into power on a wave of anti-China sentiment, had also expressed alarm over another Xi speech in which he called Taiwanese independence as a “dead end” and didn’t rule out “the use of force” in asserting reunification.
But instead of kowtowing to Beijing’s whims, the threats would only push the island away from the superpower, she added.
“The development of cross-strait relations … requires that China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China [Taiwan,] and not deny the democratic system that the people of Taiwan have established together,” she said, adding that “cross-strait differences” must be handled “on the basis of equality, instead of using suppression and intimidation to get Taiwanese to submit.”
She hinted at the range of tactics that Beijing employs to make Taiwan submit to its demands, from corporate pressure and diplomatic maneuvers to outward military aggression: “Pressuring international corporations to change their designation for Taiwan won’t bring about a spiritual union, nor will buying off Taiwan’s diplomatic allies or circling Taiwan with military aircraft and naval vessels.”
Chinese bombers and reconnaissance aircraft flew around Taiwan in April last year, in what Beijing said were regular military drills but which Taipei argued were attempts to provoke tensions in the region as well as a warning to those pushing for Taiwanese independence.
Short of calling Beijing’s tactic undemocratic and coercive, Tsai finally sought to emphasize the value of “democratic values” and urged China to “bravely move towards democracy.” This is the only way, she said, that China will understand the Taiwanese people’s aspirations.
In a separate interview, Tsai issued a warning to Asia and said Taiwan’s current predicament should serve as a cautionary tale in relation to Beijing’s audacious stance against any perceived opposition to its regional, perhaps even global, dominance.
“If it’s Taiwan today, people should ask who’s next? Any country in the region—if it no longer wants to submit to the will of China, they would face similar military threats,” she told CNN. “Our challenge is whether our independent existence, security, prosperity, and democracy can be maintained. This is the biggest issue for Taiwan.”
This aggressive side to China is, of course, something that Manila only knows too well. The Philippines’ 2016 victory in the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague over some disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea has been summarily ignored by Beijing, which is instead responding with even more aggressive militarization of the already tense region.
Like the Philippines, Taiwan is on paper looking across the Pacific to the United States for a possible counter to Beijing’s political and military might. Washington has long provided Taiwan with a tacit guarantee of protection from Beijing, something that received a boost under US President Trump.
But, as in Manila, Taipei is also taking matters into its own hands by strengthening its own defense capabilities even as Beijing’s military itself modernizes. “We have to be prepared at all times,” she said.
More crucially, Tsai’s defiance comes alongside a terse warning for the rest of the democratic world: “If a vibrant democracy that champions universal values and follows international rules were destroyed by China, it would be a huge setback for global democracy,” she said.
Interestingly, this championing of adherence to international law echoes the perennial line of rebuke against Beijing’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea, especially in the aftermath of the arbitral ruling and Manila’s victory in 2016. Tsai is thus correct in asserting that the Beijing-Taipei tussle is far from an isolated scenario and speaks volumes about China’s overall aspirations.
“I believe this is not just an issue of Taiwan under attack, but a reflection of China’s willingness to use force for its expansionist policy. It’s not just Taiwan’s interest at stake, it’s the whole region’s or even the whole world’s.”
With such close parallels, Manila’s leaders should take lessons from the ongoing row. If Taiwan’s democratic republic falls to Beijing’s attacks, who else could be next?