Observing Taiwan’s Social Mood During China’s Military Drills

Observing Taiwan’s Social Mood During China’s Military Drills

Observing Taiwan’s Social Mood During China’s Military Drills

Dr. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao is chairman of the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, and chairman of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at National Chengchi University. He served as national policy advisor to the president of Taiwan between 1996 and 2006, and is currently senior advisor to the president of Taiwan.

In comparison to the previous Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996, the recent military pressures from China between August 4-10 did not result in serious drops in stock value or evident emigration waves from Taiwan. On the contrary, the public in Taiwan appeared to be very calm and disciplined, and very little public panic was shown in most social circles. Similarly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) administration was not criticized for its welcoming of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and no attribution was openly made to Pelosi’s visit for the occurrence of the military crisis. 

Meanwhile, public confidence in the government remained stable and high, with no obvious inter-party political strife or controversies. Civil society and advocacy organizations and their leaders kept themselves calm, as they were aware that the sensitive situation required social consensus and solidarity behind the government and the military. From street interviews done by the media, most of the public seemed to be quite confident in Taiwan’s military and its defense capability. “Our national forces (國軍) will protect us,” many said. It is true that the current Taiwanese military and its capabilities have advanced a great deal since 1996. In other words, the Taiwanese might not have necessarily greeted Chinese intimidation with parties, but they have by and large kept their daily lives normal.

China’s military drills around Taiwan were viewed by most Taiwanese as an overt reaction to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, while also being targeted to punish Taiwan and warn Japan. Pelosi, in her first public remarks following her visit, condemned Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) for behaving “like a scared bully.” It is also evident that many Taiwanese citizens viewed both Russia and China as aggressors committed to the invasion of neighboring countries, an international crime. Moreover, as Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Jaushieh Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) pointed out, China attempted to lay claim to the Taiwan Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. In doing so, Beijing threatened to interrupt the international community’s freedom of navigation by controlling the stretch of water linking the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea.

To Taiwanese, the military aggression as demonstrated by the large-scale exercises, missile launches, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and economic coercion are clear practice for an invasion. More than 65 percent of respondents supported extending compulsory military service to one year amid escalated military hostility, as the most recent poll conducted by the Foundation for the People has revealed. Asked whether Taiwan should bolster its military deterrence capabilities or diplomatic efforts in the face of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military threats, 55.9 percent said that both were necessary, 24.7 percent maintained that only the latter was needed, 9.6 percent said that only the former was needed, and 6.6 percent expressed that neither was necessary. 77 percent of those interviewed believed that the government should notify the public if Chinese missiles fly over Taiwan, while 11.8 percent thought otherwise. On the other hand, the poll once again demonstrated the growing public preference for independence: with 23.1 percent favoring independence vs. 7.7 percent for unification, while a majority of 65.3 percent still preferred the “status quo.”

In Japan, over 80 percent of the Japanese citizens surveyed by NHK also expressed their grave concerns about China’s drills and missiles landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), suggesting that Chinese actions have already affected Japan’s national security. This Japanese public reaction has clearly verified late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assertion that “Taiwan’s emergency is also Japan’s emergency.”

On August 5, United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC, 聯華電子) founder and former Chairman Robert Tsao (曹興誠) surprised many by pledging to donate NTD 3 billion (USD $100 million) to help Taiwan protect itself from CCP aggression. He severely criticized the PRC as a gangster regime, which bases its rule on cheating and lies. He suggested that the donations be used for national defense education, as well as efforts to counter CCP cognitive warfare, cyberattacks and hacking activities. Tsao’s promised action was encouraging and symbolically significant to many pro-Taiwan political groups and leaders, considering his background as a mainlander who had led sizable investments in China. 

Moreover, to many Taiwanese citizens, the recent PRC military drills around Taiwan also provided precious experience and lessons for a potential future Chinese invasion. For the militaries in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, it was an opportunity to gain familiarity with China’s future course of strategic moves and tactical actions.

Taiwanese political observers also took note with interest that the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, Australia, and the G7 separately issued joint statements demanding that China not unilaterally change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait—while emphasizing that their respective “One-China policies” and stances toward Taiwan had not changed. However, they deliberately added “where applicable” after “One-China policy,” intending to inform China that their policies come with conditions. Of course, many Taiwanese citizens also very much welcomed the proactive statement issued by ASEAN, which demanded that China stop its aggressive and provocative military exercises, which it described as harming regional peace and stability. The foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada also criticized China for finding an excuse to stir up potential military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. In addition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned China for overreacting to Pelosi’s visit and coercing Taiwan. According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics, 40 nations’ executive branches, more than 300 parliamentarians from 50 nations, and the European Union have all voiced their support of Taiwan during the crisis. As a result of this international support, Taiwanese citizens deeply felt that they were not left alone this time.

Right after the conclusion of its military drills on August 11, China immediately issued its third White Paper on the Taiwan Question and Chinese Unification, restating its “One China, Two Systems” (一國兩制) formula. It was viewed by the Taiwanese public as more empty and broken political propaganda without any substantive appeal. It is critical to note that in this new white paper, not only did Beijing not rule out unifying Taiwan by force, but it also canceled its previous promises not to send troops and administrators to Taiwan. With Hong Kong’s fatal experience and the ongoing military “blockades” of Taiwan, there is little reason for any Taiwanese citizen to accept China’s unification scheme. As President Tsai Ing-wen correctly pointed out, China issued its white paper based on wishful thinking, disregarding the reality of the cross-Strait situation. The Taiwanese would not cave in safeguarding their sovereignty, she added.

At the same time, many Taiwanese voters were upset about Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia (夏立言) leading a delegation to China on August 10 in the midst of China’s intensive military drills against Taiwan. Hsia’s unwise trip also sparked protests and anger among some local KMT councilors and younger party members, who started a petition called “Stop the Visit, Listen to Public Opinion.” Most of the intra-party resentment focused on party elders, who were condemned for selling out the KMT’s political future in Taiwan. The concerns of lower-level KMT figures are genuine, as the KMT being labelled a pro-China (or “red”) party could cost their political careers in the coming November local elections. Many local political observers tend to believe that it was the CCP that pressured the KMT to make such trip to China, in order to demonstrate its political loyalty and to support the PRC’s military drills and white paper. Given that backdrop, many political critiques have speculated as to why KMT decision-makers, especially Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫), would dare to risk Taiwanese public distrust by seeming to follow CCP directives at this extremely sensitive juncture. President Tsai Ing-wen also openly criticized the KMT’s trip to China, stating that it “not only disappointed Taiwanese, but also could send a wrong message to the international community.”

It is also interesting to hear the creative suggestions coming from Taiwan’s civil society in regards to deterring China’s military aggression and cyberattacks. One of these includes a request that chip manufacturers halt or reduce their sales to China. The rationale behind this suggestion is that Taiwan controls more than half of China’s chip imports. Such a move would certainly test the political beliefs and patriotic sentiment of Taiwan’s chip-makers. Some even argue that at a time when China is prepared to invade Taiwan, there is no room for Taiwanese business tycoons to still think of money and profits.

In many Taiwanese citizens’ eyes, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) and his ambassadors have acted like gangsters in making irrational remarks, even as the international community calls for China’s restraint so as to maintain regional peace. The Taiwanese public also did not understand why various PRC government spokespersons spoke with such fury, particularly with statements such as “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Taiwanese people also wonder why US officials have to keep saying “strategic ambiguity” when Taiwan is under attack by China, providing an unnecessary impression to the world that the United States is not really committed to defending its democratic ally when it is in need. Taiwanese citizens wonder about the value of repeated US promises that its support for Taiwan is “rock solid.” 

Taiwanese citizens are pragmatic and realistic enough to understand it is Taiwan’s main duty to defend itself, though we also need to receive all the support we can from our democratic allies in the world. Though the military drills are scaling down for now, China’s threats of force are undiminished. As emphasized earlier, the military threats, unification propaganda, economic coercion, and cyberattacks will not press Taiwan’s public to easily accept any cross-Strait framework that was solely dictated by authoritarian China.

When President Joseph Biden announced his intention to postpone his original plan to adjust US import tariffs on Chinese products, local Taiwanese political observers and civil society groups believed that it was because China’s military aggression has changed everything. The Taiwanese public also took a positive note toward US House Speaker Pelosi’s statement in her first official news conference after her Asia trip, where she stated: “What we saw with China is that they were trying to establish a new normal, and we just can’t let that happen.” Many Taiwanese, of course, side with President Biden and Speaker Pelosi on this matter.

The main point: In spite of China’s well-publicized displays of aggression following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the majority of Taiwanese citizens remain calm and pragmatic. Nevertheless, most recognize the need for international support against China’s coercive measures.