Neican Brief: 12 January 2020

Taiwan election, Beijing's thinking on US-Iran, Spring Festival, Indonesia-China, and Wang saga continued

Hi all, this is a big week for China issues. When we say “China” we don’t just mean the PRC, we mean the “Chinese world” or the Sinosphere, a diverse and rich world of cultures, languages, peoples, histories, and societies. To celebrate the spirit of that world, we’d like to give a shout-out to Frankie Huang’s new PutongWords newsletter, which explores Chinese words and culture. Her writing is entertaining, sometimes intimate, and always reflective.

- Yun and Adam


This week we look at Taiwan’s election; China’s response to rising US-Iran tensions; Spring Festival movement; Indonesia’s new tough line against China in the South China Sea; and the continuing Wang saga.

1. Taiwan election: the tide

Taiwan’s democracy was on full display when its people voted for their President and legislators on Saturday.

DPP’s Tsai Ing-Wen won the presidential race against KMT’s Beijing-leaning populist Han Kuo-yu in a landslide (58% vs 39% or 8.1 million vs 5.5 million votes) while the pan-green forces were able to secure an outright majority in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Tsai, during her acceptance speech last night, said:

This election has received unprecedented international attention…

Taiwanese people hope the international community will witness our commitment to democratic values and will respect our national identity. We also hope that Taiwan will be given a fair opportunity to participate in international affairs.

The Republic of China (Taiwan) is an indispensable member of the international community… All countries should consider Taiwan a partner, not an issue.

The results of this election carry an added significance, because they have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back.

(Emphasis added)

Indeed, we should see Taiwan in its own right. Instead of only seeing the island nation in the context of cross-strait relations, Taiwan is a potential partner in an increasingly dangerous world.

To deny Taiwan and its 24 million people a “fair opportunity” to participate in international affairs, essentially due to China’s pressure, may be expedient in the short term but detrimental to the long term interests of liberal democracies.

But of course, cross-strait relations will continue to be an important focus for many of us in 2020. Tsai’s landslide victory is a resounding rejection of Beijing’s overtures and coercion aimed at unifying with the island nation. Here are the key implications:

  1. Under Tsai, Taiwan will not accept unification with China, certainly not under “one country, two systems” model (just look at HK).

  2. Taiwan will continue to assert its identity and independence under Tsai’s clear mandate. Taipei will these moves as “maintaining the status quo” while Beijing will see these moves as measures to undermine the status quo. The problem here is that “status quo” is in the eye of the beholder. Beijing, Taipei and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on what constitutes cross-strait status quo.

  3. Beijing will take measures to deter and punish perceived measures by Taiwan to move away from the “status quo”. These coercive measures will likely contribute to a stronger Taiwan identity and resistance.

Beijing should take away at least two lessons from this election. First, economic inducements, information operations, and people-to-people ties are not enough to win over the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s people. Both HK and Taiwan illustrate that democratic societies are hard to control with an authoritarian mindset and toolkit. Beijing needs to rethink its strategy if it wants to pull Taiwan closer.

Second, coercion, restriction of Taiwan’s international space, and repression of local identity lead to resentment and stronger resistance.

Yesterday’s election is an awe-inspiring display of democracy at work in the Chinese world. It showcased the vibrancy of Taiwan’s civil society and its commitment to the democratic process. At the same time, the results of the election foreshadow rocky cross-strait relations in the years to come, one that will get worse before it stabilises.

A Xinhua commentary characterised the Taiwan election in the following way: “[t]his temporary counter-current is just a bubble under the tide of the times. The basic pattern of cross-Strait relations will not change because of an election.”

The overconfident tidewatchers are often the first to be dragged into the deep.

2. China’s response to US-Iran escalation

China’s official response to the US-Iran escalation of tension has been mostly flat and neutral. China called for calm on both sides to prevent further escalation and abide by the UN Charter. However, it puts the blame mostly on the US, with its “unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA” and “US adventurism”.

Geopolitically, increasing US focus on the Middle East will likely take away resources and attention from Asia, and from the competition with China. Beijing will see this as a positive byproduct of escalating tensions between the US and Iran. However, instability in the region also negatively affect China’s interests, especially its energy security. Much to US irritation, China is an importer of crude oil from Iran, despite the US sanction.

China may also be concerned with the capability and willingness of the US to carry out a targeted assassination in the third country, and the precedent this may set.

Beyond the boilerplate statements calling for calm and non-violence, and criticism of the US, Beijing’s thinking on the escalating US-Iran tensions and its implications for the wider Middle East remains somewhat unclear, at least to us. More to come on this.

3. Spring Festival travel 春运

This year’s Spring Festival (or Lunar New Year celebrated in China, Korea, and Vietnam) is on 25 January, a day before Australia Day. The official 春运 has already started on 10 January. We wish you, the readers, a very happy New Year. (Just so you know, the first suggestion when I searched for Spring Festival on Baidu was pork price stability.)

Spring Festival has always been a huge logistics exercise for China, as people travel back to their home town. For many, this means travelling from urban cities to rural villages, using a variety of transportation methods. It’s a time when the whole country is on the move.

A worry for authorities this year is the new pneumonia-like viral infections first spotted in Wuhan. China has identified the new virus as coronavirus. The virus has now claimed one life. Despite the potential for serious consequences, this is unlikely to dampen the people’s willingness to travel — Spring Festival holiday may be the only time in a year people get to see their family together.

4. Indonesia and China in the South China Sea

In recent weeks, Indonesia has pushed back against China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea by stating that it does not recognise China’s nine-dash lines, which contravenes international law under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 Hague ruling. The Indonesian Government has deployed naval forces and fishing vessels to bolster its presence in the Natuna waters in response to the presence of China Coast Guard and fishing vessels.

The main reason for this is that China’s nine-dash line claim overlaps with the Exclusive Economic Zone extending from Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which is at the southern end of the South China Sea.

Indonesia’s push back against China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea marks a potentially striking turn in Indonesia-China relations. For regional states, including claimants in the South China Sea, Australia and others, it will impose an added cost on China’s maritime expansion and coercion.

Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investment, regional economic integration, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the South China Sea issues all present options for Jakarta to pressure Beijing.

But it remains to be seen whether Indonesia’s new tough line maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea will be sustained, and whether it will take regional leadership and coordinate a regional response to Beijing’s aggressive maritime claims.

5. Wang saga continues

Wang Liqiang saga episode #2: Days before the Taiwan election, the Age reported that Wang, who you may remember as the alleged Chinese spy seeking asylum in Australia, received threats last month implicating Alex Tsai, the current deputy secretary of KMT. According to the report, Mr Wang was asked by Mr Tsai to retract his original story and read from a prepared script falsely implicating DPP, in exchange of repayment of debt and settlement in Taiwan. A businessman, Mr Sun, who coordinated with Mr Tsai, reportedly issued death threats to Mr Wang.

Subsequently, both KMT and DPP held press conferences on this matter. Mr Tsai denied the allegations in the report and said he was only helping his friend, Mr Xiang, who was prevented from leaving Taiwan due to Wang’s previous allegations. DPP demanded explanations from KMT and rejected any links to the case.

Interference from the PRC has been an issue of focus for this year’s election, so this allegation received much attention in the eve of the election. Both parties used this case to seek to discredit each other. Mr Tsai has confirmed that he has contacted Mr Wang directly, which seems to be an odd move, given the likelihood that Mr Wang’s communication would be monitored and his demonstrated willingness to share it with Australian authorities and media, despite the ongoing threats to his personal safety.

Whatever the truth is, for Australia, it’s a great reminder that domestic counter foreign interference work can have important reverberations overseas. No doubt that we will hear more about Mr Wang in 2020 given his usefulness for a range of actors with different agendas.