The Taiwan Visit Conundrum
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is traveling the Americas including a “stopover” in the United States for a meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. At the same time, the number of visits to embattled Taiwan has increased. That's not without problems.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is in the midst of a 10-day trip to the Americas. Officially a tour to demonstrate Taiwan’s commitment to democratic values, her trip to Guatemala and Belize is also meant to shore up relations with some of Taiwan’s few remaining official partners.
Amid growing pressure from Beijing, Taiwan’s circle of allies has shrunk continuously over the last few years. Since Tsai took office in 2016, it has lost nine formal diplomatic allies. Just days before Tsai’s departure, Honduras became the latest in a string of countries to end its decades-long relationship with Taiwan and to switch its recognition to the People’s Republic of China, leaving Taipei with only 13 formal diplomatic allies. According to Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, this was the result of China’s “checkbook diplomacy.” The Honduran government reportedly demanded $2.45 billion in financial aid from Taipei to maintain the relationship—a sum that Taiwan did not pay.
As tensions in the Taiwan Strait rise, increasing the risk of conflict, Taiwan’s need for partners has never been greater. Both to increase deterrence and to stand by Taiwan if a conflict does break out, relationships with likeminded partners around the globe are critical to Taipei’s strategy. And visits back and forth play an important role in deepening these ties.
A Contentious Stopover
Not all trips and visits, however, can be said to be equally strategic. And it’s no surprise that Tsai’s “transit” through the United States on the way to Central America has drawn the most attention. The US has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, hence the definition of Tsai’s visit as a private trip and a stopover. Washington, nevertheless, remains Taiwan’s most important partner. Taiwan’s relationship with successive US administrations acts as Taipei’s best deterrent against a potential Chinese attack.
Both sides have walked a fine line to avoid the appearance that this trip is in any way an official visit, with the Biden administration stressing that Tsai is not meeting any government officials. Tsai’s stopover, however, will end with a “bipartisan” meeting with members of Congress hosted by US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on April 5.
Speaker McCarthy announced months ago that he planned to visit Taiwan this year. But Beijing’s escalatory military reaction to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022 seems to have given Taipei pause. Tsai reportedly was the one to persuade McCarthy to meet on US soil instead so as to avoid unnecessarily provoking a similar Chinese response. Presidential elections in Taiwan, scheduled for January 2024, are approaching and some figures in the opposition KMT party are trying to present the party as the one that could bring back calm to the region by reengaging with the mainland. Therefore, domestic political considerations may have also been in Tsai’s mind when making this call.
These “transits” through the United States by Taiwanese presidents aren’t exactly unusual. This is Tsai’s seventh such transit since she took office in 2016, and the 29th by a sitting Taiwanese president since 1994. But the situation in the region has changed. Neither these precedents nor the accommodations made not to provoke China have had the effect of calming Beijing down. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called this trip an attempt to “propagate Taiwan independence,” has accused Washington of “egregiously supporting ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists,” and has threatened “resolute countermeasures” if President Tsai meets with Speaker McCarthy.
This time we are unlikely to witness a reaction of the scale of Beijing’s military response to Pelosi’s visit, especially keeping in mind that the Tsai-McCarthy meeting will take place just as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to welcome French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Beijing. Beijing’s irate reaction, however, is a sure sign of the high level of tensions in the region.
Beijing’s Shifting Stance Drives Up Tensions
Over the last few years, Beijing has become more assertive in both rhetoric and approach to cross-Strait relations. Communication channels between Taipei and Beijing have all but collapsed, and China’s military pressure on Taiwan has also increased exponentially. 2022 saw over 1,700 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ)—almost double the 2021 numbers—and over 500 crossing the median line in the Strait—compared to under 40 in 2020 and zero in 2021.
The starkest change in Beijing’s approach, however, lies in the vision of what awaits Taiwan after “reunification,” as outlined in the White Paper on Taiwan published in August 2022. Previous offers of a “looser form” of “one country, two systems” have given way to language suggesting a governance model similar to the one that has been imposed on Hong Kong. Partly because of this changing approach, Beijing’s prospects of persuading Taiwan’s population to support “reunification” continue to worsen. Fewer and fewer Taiwanese people identify as Chinese (2.4 percent in 2022 vs 3.3 percent in 2013) or support any form of unification with the mainland (around 6.5 percent in 2022 vs around 11 percent in 2013). Beijing’s options are therefore becoming increasingly limited: either pressure and intimidation, or the use of force.
These shifts in Beijing’s position are also taking place against the background of worsening US-China competition and changing geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing has always been concerned that the US will use its presence and its network of partnerships and alliances in the Indo-Pacific to encircle China and prevent its return to its “rightful place” as a global power. But Washington’s efforts in the past were deemed to have only had limited success. Most Indo-Pacific countries were seen as reluctant to “take sides” despite China’s increasingly assertive behavior, thus curbing Beijing’s threat perceptions.
But the dynamics have shifted. Concerned about a potential Taiwan contingency and wishing to push back against Beijing’s more assertive behavior, the US and other countries are stepping up their presence in the region. And regional powers such as Japan or South Korea are increasingly aligning with NATO and Washington. Convinced that the US is intent on containing China and on using Taiwan as a “pawn,” and that its efforts are gaining momentum, Beijing is also changing its posture, driving an upward spiral of tensions.
Not all Visits Contribute to Deterrence
Military action to take Taiwan seems unlikely at present. Despite the continuous increases in its military budget, the latest of which amounted to a 7.2 percent hike compared to 2022, Beijing’s limitations in terms of military capabilities still stand in the way. Additionally, the Chinese leadership will also consider the need to maintain stability at a time of domestic crises, and the tense international environment, which could easily lead to rapid escalation and a conflict of greater dimensions than Beijing feels confident to handle for now. But the high level of pressure on Taiwan is likely to be maintained in the run-up to the January 2024 presidential elections.
Taipei can ill afford to sit back as Beijing steps up efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. With tensions rising and cross-Strait relations all but frozen, international visits and engagements—in whatever direction—are understandably welcomed, even actively sought after, by Taiwanese authorities.
Ever since Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022, Taiwan has welcomed over a dozen European delegations, including a trip by German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger in March 2023—the first visit to Taiwan by a German cabinet minister since 1997. Despite Beijing’s furious reactions—Stark-Watzinger’s trip was called “vile”—these visits can play an important role in strengthening deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. By pushing back against attempts to isolate Taiwan and demonstrating that Taiwan has likeminded partners, the hope is that these trips can help change Beijing’s cost-benefit calculus by increasing the costs of an attack.
But not all visits are made equal. European politicians and government officials certainly should not let Beijing dictate how or when they can engage with Taiwan. But if the goal is to protect the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and deter a potential Chinese attack, the impact of a visit on Taiwan’s security should be the key criterion when considering when and how to organize a trip.
As Chinese pressure on Taiwan rises, so does the risk of conflict in the region. While a conflict does not seem imminent or inevitable, it is no longer an unthinkable proposition. Deterrence should remain the top priority for Europe and for Taiwan’s other likeminded allies and partners around the globe. But purely political visits and photo ops alone will not get us there. They may even prove counterproductive by triggering a rapid escalation of tensions. If we truly want to contribute to deterrence, what is needed are trips that lead to productive discussions and outcomes, and which demonstrate to Beijing that Europe truly is committed to Taiwan.
Helena Legarda is lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERCIS) in Berlin.