Sui Generis

Eyes on Taiwan

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Eyes on Taiwan
If there is one country in the world where the threat from China pulses and throbs, it is Taiwan

On the streets of central Taipei, in the open-air night markets heaving with food and the covered bazaars lined with foot- and body-massage parlors, life goes on in this island nation that has been receiving overwhelming attention from the world.

I asked a Filipino who has been working in Taipei for seven years what the mood has been like in the capital, how he felt with all the buzz about China’s malign intent on Taiwan. His demeanor relaxed, he told me life was normal and he didn’t feel anything different or extraordinary.

A young Taiwanese employee, in her 20s, said there is no feeling of anxiety among her friends. The only time a bit of nervousness creeps in, she says, is when she watches TV news on China.

Cityscape of central Taipei. Photos by Marites Vitug

In March, as President Xi Jinping was handed an unprecedented third term in office, he said in a speech to the National People’s Congress (NPC) that “national reunification” was a priority, stressing the need to oppose “pro-independence” influences in Taiwan. 

“We should actively oppose the external forces and secessionist activities of Taiwan independence,” Xi said. “We should unswervingly advance the cause of national rejuvenation and reunification.”

While “reunification” has always been a goal, a new context prevailed: Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and China had taken a neutral stance, abstaining from voting for UN resolutions calling for Russian troops to withdraw from Ukraine. 

Moreover, days after Xi spoke to the NPC, he went on a state visit to Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin,  a “dear friend,” showing China’s support for Russia.

The big question that has been hanging heavy in the air is: Will China do a Russia and invade Taiwan which it considers its province?

Parallels: Taiwan and Ukraine

If there is one country in the world where the threat from China pulses and throbs, it is Taiwan. “No country in Asia feels as acutely the impact of the Ukraine invasion as Taiwan,” Vincent Chao, foreign policy advisor of Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – the  frontrunner in the presidential race – said in the 30th anniversary meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) held in Taipei last week.

I caught up with Vincent and asked him to talk more about Taiwan’s affinity to Ukraine. “Taiwan, like Ukraine, stands in the frontlines of defending democracy,” he said. “We feel the threat of authoritarianism and [the invasion of] Ukraine is an acute reminder…We have to be vigilant.”

When President Tsai Ing-wen traveled to the US in March, she said in a private gathering that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call to us all, and served as a reminder that authoritarianism does not cease in its belligerence against democracy.”

Taiwan, a thriving democracy, has shown its support for Ukraine by sending medical teams, tons of equipment and aid.

China’s influence operations

Taiwan has also been at the receiving end of massive disinformation from China, part of what is called “influence operations” of the global superpower. One of the goals is for the Taiwanese to shift support to China.

“China wants to change the status quo, create a new normal conducive to China and authoritarian rule,” Lo Chih-cheng, member of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, said in the CALD meeting. “China’s influence operations are a clear and present danger.” 

The methods, Lo said, have included “monetary inducements to politicians, business leaders, academics, local grassroot organizations, media, cyberspace influencers.”   

The ruling party, the DPP, has been assertive of Taiwan’s sovereignty. The DPP’s Lai, who is leading the presidential race, has described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.” 

Election will be held in January 2024. China has been framing it as a choice between war or peace, said Andrea Yi-shan Yang, a DPP official. This false narrative portrays DPP as favoring violence to resolve issues with China while the opposition Kuomintang or the Nationalist Party, which is pro-China, is taking a peaceful path.

Taiwan VP Lai Ching-te, frontrunner in the presidential election. Photo by the Democratic Progressive Party

Taiwan is not alone. Countries in Southeast Asia, to a lesser extent, have been experiencing the arsenal of China’s influence operations which stem from the Communist Party of China’s united front work. “The aim is to seduce and co-opt various groups like the media, academia and think tanks, political parties, civil society groups and the diaspora,” said Karel Jiaan Antonio Galang of the Asia Democracy Network (ADN). 

The ADN, a regional organization of various civil society groups, has done studies on China’s influence operations in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Fiji. 

At the CALD meeting, how to battle China’s influence operations was a key concern. The discussions highlighted the need for groups that monitor such activities to share information and intelligence with others and, in a broader way, to strengthen international alliances to counter China’s moves to undermine democracies.

As Lo aptly put it, “Any democratic country that wants to stand alone against China’s influence offensive is doomed to fail.”

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.