Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has started 2021 by confirming her willingness to talk with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while not ignoring the mounting military pressure from Beijing at the Taiwan Strait. On her New Year’s Eve speech, President Tsai stated that Taiwan is ready to have “meaningful” talks with China as long as they are willing to put aside confrontation. The PRC still regards Taiwan as a part of its own territory; however, it has no sovereign control over it.
The year 2020 was indeed eventful for Taiwan. Taipei has come under increasing pressure from Beijing, which has ramped up military activities and drills near the island. In the speech, President Tsai criticized the near-daily patrols of Chinese military ships and aircraft in the Taiwan Strait. For Tsai, Chinese military actions near Taiwan have threatened peace and stability in the Indo- Pacific region. She has also requested Beijing to restore the formal talks mechanism, which China cut off in 2016 after Tsai first won office. Since then, China has repeatedly rejected Tsai’s advances and has refused to conduct any talks with Taiwan unless she accepts the “one China” principle. Since 2016, President Tsai has tried to place her democratically elected government as a bulwark against increasing PRC’s influence in the Indo- Pacific region.
In 2020, Taiwan has increased its international reputation through its timely and efficient handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike many other countries in the Asian continent, Taiwan’s success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic has won global appreciation and created a space for Taipei to elevate its international profile. In addition, Taiwan has renewed its attempt to push for its membership in the World Health Organisation (WHO). If we review 2020 for Taiwan, it was rewarding both diplomatically and economically for the tiny island. It has also maintained closer ties with the United States throughout the year.
Compared to other neighbouring countries, people in Taiwan in 2020 enjoyed a normal and lockdown free life at a time when the majority of the countries were been under severe restrictions and curfew. Here, the effective and efficient leadership of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen must be noted.
Tsai won a landslide victory in the Presidential election in January 2020 for the second term and pledged to maintain peace with China. After her victory, Tsai acted immediately to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Taiwan was able to eliminate COVID -19 transmissions through its quick, capable and strong leadership-led action plan. In fact, for her efforts, President Tsai was recognised among the twelve most influential and efficient women leaders in 2020 by the Financial Times. Taiwan achieved commendable success with only 7 deaths and 802 active COVID 19 cases as on 1 January 2021.
Being a new and vibrant democracy, Taiwan displayed transparency and created a bond and trust between the government and the public. Taiwan’s administration has tried to utilize positive publicity to push for its well-deserved recognition internationally during the pandemic. Taiwan donated 54 million face masks to the countries hit by the pandemic and medical aid to around 80 countries, which resulted in a number of countries acknowledging Taipei formally for its kind gesture. Due to its active role, more than 1,700 legislators from over 80 countries had openly supported Taiwan joining the World Health Assembly (WHA). Previously, Taiwan joined WHA as an observer between 2009 and 2016 during the tenure of Ma Ying- Jeou who was known for his pro-China position.
Despite troubled relations, the bilateral trade volume between China and Taiwan has increased to 13.8 percent from January to November 2020. Ignoring the positive developments in trade, Beijing has tried to contain Taiwan’s international position, persuading its diplomatic partners to switch allegiance and leaving the island with only 15 allies.
Many mainland-based Taiwanese businessmen relocated to Taiwan as relocation and foreign investment in Taiwan were made more attractive compared to the deteriorating investment environment in the mainland. According to Taiwan’s Industry and Trade Ministry, mainland-based Taiwanese have in 2020 invested more than NT$1.1 trillion (US$39 billion) in Taiwan by relocating, creating more than 100,000 jobs. In addition, global giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon also invested heavily as Taiwan is crucial in the global supply chain in semiconductors and other high-tech industries.
The US- Taiwan bilateral relations also advanced in 2020. In fact, Taiwan’s increasingly close ties with Washington have lent Taipei sizeable support in countering Beijing’s influence at the Taiwan Strait. During the Trumps administration, a number of positive bilateral developments happened from sending senior cabinet level officials to the island and permitting multibillion-dollar weapons sales to Taipei. Alex Aza, US Health and Human Services Secretary, visited Taiwan in August 2020 and became the highest-ranking American official to travel to the island since 1979. Since May 2020, the Trump Administration has approved six batches of sales worth US$5.58 billion of arms to Taiwan, including MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, M142 launchers, Harpoon coastal missiles, MK48 (Mod 6 AT) torpedoes and AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER missiles.
Those positive developments happened due to a bipartisan Taiwan policy, which was passed in the US Congress before the COVID19 outbreak. The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act passed in 2019 called for more high-level official dialogue, boosted support for Taiwan’s involvement within international organisations and called for a US–Taiwan free trade agreement (FTA).
At the end of the year, US President Donald Trump further annoyed China by signing two laws to further US support to Taiwan and Tibet on 27 November 2020. Beijing was furious as Trump signed Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020 and Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which were included in the USD$ 2.3 trillion COVID 19 stimulus aid package for coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the Act provided an additional $3 million for activities of US- Taiwan Global Corporation and Training Framework.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian officially declared that Beijing was “resolutely” opposed to both acts as both the acts included language objectionable to Beijing and interference in China’s internal affairs. He further stressed that Washington should not put parts in acts which “target China” to avoid damaging Sino-US ties as the acts include US support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations and regular weapons sales. Positively, the Taiwan Assurance Act 2020 aims to tighten ties between Taiwan and the US and encourages Taiwan to increase its spending on arms procurement. Since the act passed, President Trump has approved eight arms sales to Taiwan, including anti-ship cruise missiles and drones. Even, Tsai administration praised the US move recognizing Washington as an “important ally” for sharing values of “freedom and democracy.”
Overall, there was no improvement in the cross-Strait relations in 2020 despite President Tsai’s continuous attempt to reach out to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tsai’s Democratic People’s Party (DPD)’s repeated attempt to improve ties, Beijing still troubles Taiwan both within the Taiwan Strait and on international platforms. With the US showing open support to Taiwan and selling high-tech weaponry to Taipei, China has increased its military operations and drills in the region. There is no doubt that China will continue its attempts to isolate and marginalize Taiwan by blocking it from joining international organizations as it pursues the “one China” principle.
Despite China’s attempt to trouble Taiwan, the political stability under the leadership of President Tsai and her success in containing COVID 19 outbreak has highlighted Taiwan’s global image in 2020. There is no doubt that 2020 is an unusual success story for Taiwan, which has emerged as one of East Asia’s strongest democracies. With these positive developments in the last year, we could expect that the US–Taiwan bilateral ties under President-Elect Joe Biden will have a positive start. Further, with her effective leadership qualities, President Tsai will be in a position to roll into 2021 confident in Taiwan’s firm global standing.
**The author is an Assistant Professor at the Royal Global University, Guwahati**