President Tsai Calls for Dialogue with Beijing in 109th National Day Speech
Even as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) provocatively ramps up activities in and around the Taiwan Strait and concerns over a possible limited conflict mount, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), used the first National Day speech of her second term to call on Beijing to engage in dialogue with Taipei on the basis of “mutual respect, goodwill, and understanding.” Like previous National Day speeches, which past presidents of the ROC would use to contextualize and present their cross-Strait policy, this year’s speech delivered an overview of the administration’s approach to China. However, it undeniably stood out—not because it signaled a major policy change—but because it was seemingly calibrated to carefully signal President Tsai’s even-keeled policy, especially against the backdrop of Beijing’s intensifying pressure campaign against the island-democracy. To the casual observer, Tsai’s speech may seem to simply rehash recurring themes from her previous speeches. However, when the current policy context is taken into consideration, the subtle yet meaningful signals from President Tsai’s address snap into view.
National Day (國慶日) in Taiwan—also known as Double Ten Day (雙十節)—commemorates the start of the Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義) in 1911, which led to the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) that deposed the Qing Dynasty and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC). Reflecting on this momentous occasion in the 109th National Speech, President Tsai stated:
In addressing cross-Strait relations, we will not act rashly, and will uphold our principles. Maintaining stability in cross-Strait relations is in the best interests of both sides. We are committed to upholding cross-Strait stability, but this is not something Taiwan can shoulder alone; it is the joint responsibility of both sides.
At this stage, the most pressing cross-Strait issue is to discuss how we can live in peace and coexist based on mutual respect, goodwill, and understanding. As long as the Beijing authorities are willing to resolve antagonisms and improve cross-Strait relations, while parity and dignity are maintained, we are willing to work together to facilitate meaningful dialogue. This is what the people of Taiwan advocate, and it is a cross-party consensus.
While the remarks themselves do not represent anything breathtakingly new, the occasion is notable, since National Day is an important symbol in cross-Strait relations. Indeed, it commemorates the historical events that connect the formation of the ROC government in Taiwan with China. Moreover, its continued official celebration in Taiwan thus marks the continuous existence of that regime for nearly 110 years. At points in Taiwan’s past—especially in the early years of the island’s democratization—it has been a symbol of controversy within Taiwan, acting as a flashpoint in the long-running clash between those who favored outright independence and those who supported unification with China. Nevertheless, previous Double Ten speeches have included consistent themes, such as calls for unity and the overall welfare of the nation, even as the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) held starkly different approaches to cross-Strait policy. This was not an exception under the previous Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administrations. However, as David Brown notes in his article in this issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, the two political parties’ respective positions on cross-Strait relations appear to be converging. This trend is reflected in President Tsai’s National Day speeches.
In her first National Day speech in 2016—after Beijing froze high-level dialogue with Taipei—President Tsai called on Beijing’s leaders “to face up to the reality that the Republic of China exists” and that “[t]he two sides of the strait should sit down and talk as soon as possible.” Furthermore, she stated that “[a]nything can be included for discussion, as long as it is conducive to the development of cross-Strait peace and the welfare of people on both sides.” While Beijing continued to doggedly refuse Tsai’s overtures and insisted that dialogue be based solely on the basis of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” Tsai used her 2017 speech to implore Beijing authorities to consider “new modes” of cross-Strait relations.
However, the tone of Tsai’s speeches began to shift as China ratcheted up its multifaceted diplomatic, economic, and military pressure campaign to coerce Taipei into accepting its negotiating terms, which included poaching several of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners and significantly increasing its military encirclement activities around Taiwan. In her 2018 speech, Tsai called out Beijing’s “unilateral diplomatic offensive and military coercion [that] have not only harmed cross-Strait relations. They have also seriously challenged the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Yet, she continued to maintain a steady hand in managing cross-Strait conflict escalation, even as pressure continued to build, both externally and internally. “I will not be provoked into confrontation or conflicts that endanger cross-Strait relations, nor will I deviate from the will of the people, and sacrifice Taiwan’s sovereignty,” Tsai insisted.
Those internal pressures found a release valve as political unrest in Hong Kong came to a head when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aggressively clamped down on protests against a controversial extradition law. In her 2019 speech, the Taiwanese president underscored the unviability of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula for Taiwan. “The overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘one country, two systems,’ regardless of party affiliation or political position,” she said. According to GTI’s non-resident senior fellow, J. Michael Cole, “Tsai’s speech [in 2019], perhaps, was intended to appeal to the greatest common denominators within Taiwanese society—freedom and democracy, and opposition to ‘one country, two systems’—while wisely using a combination of “Taiwan,” “Republic of China” and “Republic of China (Taiwan)” to refer to the nation.”
What emerges from a wholistic reading of President Tsai’s National Day speeches over the past several years is the clear evolution in her approach to cross-Strait relations. Carefully calibrated signals found throughout the speeches reflect a convergence of the positions of the major political parties. Making clear this latter point, in a press release further elaborating on the 2020 speech, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會)—the cabinet-level agency in charge of cross-Strait policy—stated: “The MAC noted that the statement conveyed not only the unanimous position and consensus of the people of Taiwan and all political parties, but a responsible approach to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Moreover, in expressing its grievances against Beijing’s recalcitrant position, the MAC did not mince words on the key sticking point:
The MAC expressed strong dissatisfaction and regret over the Taiwan Affairs Office’s consistent responsibility-shirking and criticism, refusal to join Taiwan in promoting cross-Strait peace, and coercion of Taiwan into accepting the premise of the “One China Principle” that leaves no space for the survival of the Republic of China.
As noted earlier, concerns over a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait are mounting. Crucially, this is provoking calls within the United States for greater clarity in its commitment to defend Taiwan, as demonstrated in a recent Foreign Affairs article authored by Richard Haass and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations, which unequivocally called for clarity as a deterrent against rising Chinese adventurism. Furthermore, as Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), recently stated in an interview with the Washington Post: “We need some degree of clarity.”
It is within this context that President Tsai’s measured approach snaps into strategic view. The tenor of President Tsai’s 2020 National Day speech is noteworthy, especially as debates rage in the United States over whether it should shift from its position of strategic ambiguity to clarity. While reasonable concerns remain among those in the United States who oppose such a change in policy due to a lack of predictability in Taiwan’s domestic politics or fears of provoking Beijing’s response, Tsai’s even-keeled approach seems intended to assure allies that Taiwan and, more importantly, its democracy can and should be trusted to make the right decisions.
The main point: President Tsai’s call for dialogue with Beijing in her 2020 National Day speech, even as China ratchets up tension, is a carefully calibrated signal—not only to Beijing, but also to the United States that Taiwan can and should be trusted.
Survey: Taiwanese People’s “Will to Fight” Spikes as China Ties Deteriorate and US-Taiwan Relations Improve
In recent remarks made at a think tank event, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien stated openly that Taiwan should prepare to deter a Chinese invasion. Speaking at the Aspen Institute, O’Brien stated: “I think Taiwan needs to start looking at some asymmetric and anti-access area denial strategies and so on and really fortify itself in a manner that would deter the Chinese from any sort of amphibious invasion or even a gray zone operation against them.” While not directly addressed, a subtext for the broader issue raised by the US national security adviser is Taiwan’s degree of readiness for a Chinese invasion, as well as whether the people in Taiwan are themselves ready and have the will to fight if China invaded. To that end, a recent survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD)—a democracy assistance and research foundation established in 2002—found that nearly 80 percent of the Taiwanese population said that they would go to war to defend Taiwan.
The survey, released on October 16, is the latest in a series of TFD polls on Taiwanese views of democratic values and governance. Though the TFD has been conducting this survey since 2011, the 2020 iteration showed a notable spike in the percentage of people who said that they would be willing to fight to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. In response to the survey question: “Would you fight for Taiwan if China uses force against Taiwan for unification?”, 79.8 percent said that they would—representing an increase of over 10 percentage points from the previous year’s 68.2 percent. Interestingly, according to the same survey, when asked the same question but with a twist: “Would you defend Taiwan if war breaks out due to Taiwan’s declaring its formal independence?”, a significant 71.5 percent also responded that they would—representing a 14 percent increase from the previous year’s results.
Circumstantial scenarios notwithstanding, the will to fight is an integral component of readiness. As Lt. Col. (ret.) Mark Stokes, Yang Kuang-shun, and Eric Lee wrote in their recent report Preparing for the Nightmare: Readiness and Ad hoc Coalition Operations in the Taiwan Strait:
Readiness can be viewed from both strategic and operational perspectives. […] strategic readiness is the degree to which political leaders, their armed forces, and civil societies—individually and collectively—are prepared to counter CCP use of force. In addition to the unity of effort, strategic readiness includes national will, morale, and fiscal resources.
The issue of readiness has been a longstanding and thorny issue for Taiwan. This controversy has been linked both to domestic concerns—especially among the military brass and political elites—about the island’s preparedness for a Chinese attack and the persistent and concerted efforts of Beijing to weaken Taiwanese resolve and “win without fighting” (不戰而屈人之兵). As one US government analyst observed as far back as in 2003:
China places considerable reliance on breaking Taiwan’s spirit of resistance. Indeed, Beijing may overestimate the island’s weakness in this regard. An internal PLA assessment reportedly concluded that Taiwan’s population, long accustomed to a relatively high standard of living, would pressure Taipei for a negotiated surrender if their water and electricity were cut off for two days.
To be sure, as China’s military capabilities grow—and they have done so by leaps and bounds since the early 2000s—the potential effectiveness of Beijing’s psychological warfare should naturally grow as well. Yet, while Taiwan is subjected to ever more psychological warfare, as evidenced by recent military propaganda and probing activities in and around the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s civilian population has only grown more resilient, as reflected in the TFD poll. What explains this phenomenon? As Stokes, Yang, and Lee noted:
National will and morale are also related to perceived international support. The PLA expends significant resources on manipulating morale among the general population and particularly within the ROC armed forces. The degree of perceived international support is a critical yet intangible factor in morale, particularly during a crisis.
To be sure, the current situation across the Taiwan Strait is vastly different from the early 2000s. On the one hand, China has embarked on a breakneck modernization of its military, with two-decades of double-digit growth in its military budget. Increasingly, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is tilting in Beijing’s favor. On the other hand, Taiwan arguably has more international visibility and support than ever before—at least since 1979. In the absence of the more open support that Taiwan has received in recent years—especially from the United States—it is questionable whether the Taiwanese will to fight and resiliency against Chinese psychological warfare would be as strong as they are today.
Yet, there remains reasonable anecdotal evidence, which a survey may not be able to capture, that could cast doubt on the people’s will to fight. According to independent strategist Tanner Greer: “the greatest danger to the security of Taiwan is not the PLA Navy or Rocket Force, but Taiwan’s own demoralizing system of national service.” Greer based his blistering conclusion about the seeming lack of preparedness to fight among the Taiwanese on interviews that he conducted in Taiwan as recently as 2019.
Setting aside the issue of operational readiness, there may be a strong correlation between the TFD poll results, the general negative trend in attitudes toward China, and improved relations with the United States. Amid an escalation of cross-Strait tension over the past four years, a Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) poll from March 2020 indicated that the numbers of people on the island who think China is unfriendly toward the Taiwan government and the public have risen to 76.6 percent and 61.5 percent, respectively. Relatedly, according to a 2020 Pew Survey, 68 percent have a favorable view of the United States, with 85 percent supporting closer economic ties and 79 percent supporting closer political ties between Taiwan and the US.
Also notable in the TFD poll is that it shows that the will to fight in the event of a Chinese invasion is highest among the younger populations surveyed, with 89 percent of those aged 20-29 and 86.4 percent of those aged 30-39 stating that they would be willing to fight. Strikingly, these numbers dropped only slightly—to 86.1 percent and 82.9 percent, respectively—when the scenario in which Taiwan’s declaration of independence provoking Beijing’s attack was included.
Contrary to Beijing’s belief in and concerns in Washington about Taiwan’s internal weaknesses—chief among them Taiwan’s questionable will to fight—more and more polling data indicate that a majority in Taiwan would fight if China invaded. While Taiwan faces other challenges to its defense, such as the budget, operational readiness, and manpower requirements, among others, the will to fight to preserve its cherished democracy does not appear to be one of them. Indeed, the people’s willingness to fight, coupled with society’s overwhelming preference for the status quo, bodes well for the psychological resiliency of Taiwan.
The main point: According to a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of Taiwanese respondents said that they would fight in case of a Chinese invasion. This is likely a function of improved international support, especially from the United States, and deteriorating views of China.l need targeted investments in its military equipment and reforms in its personnel policies to give it the best chance of victory, especially as PLA forces overcome their shortcomings in the coming years.