By Josh Rogin, Columnist
April 5, 2023
Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, speaks in New York last Thursday. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Reuters)
When Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen meets a group of senior U.S. lawmakers including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday, Beijing will try to shift the focus to its own anger and perceived grievances. Instead, Americans should listen to what Tsai has to say: She is calling for more help to counter China’s efforts to intimidate Taiwan and interfere in its democracy.
Tsai’s meeting with members of Congress in Simi Valley, Calif., is referred to by the governments in Washington and Taipei only as a “transit” stop — a way of playing down the diplomatic significance of the trip. (She’ll be arriving in California from a tour of Central America.) This is indicative of the kind of nonsense Taiwanese leaders must go through to avoid provoking Beijing’s ire each time they visit the United States. The Wall Street Journal called her visit “purposely low-key.”
But Beijing’s response is never “low-key.” And Tsai’s restraint can mute her message, especially in an information environment awash with Chinese government propaganda. This dynamic was on display when Tsai visited New York last week to receive an award from the Hudson Institute. After discussions with the Biden administration, Tsai agreed to keep most press out. But my Post colleagues published some of her remarks, working from a recording they obtained.
What hasn’t yet been reported from the event is how Tsai described China’s escalating daily campaign of political, economic and psychological aggression against Taiwan, which is the main message she came to the United States to deliver. Tsai urged her American audience to understand that while the threat of military invasion can’t be ignored, China’s real plan is to force Taiwan to submit through nonmilitary means.
“I think the Chinese have this belief that the best way to win the war is without war,” she said at the Hudson event, which I attended. “So what they want to do is to harass us, to apply pressure on us and to continue to do whatever that they can do to make us feel uneasy and scared. That’s their strategy.”
Tsai said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “wake-up call” that forced Taiwan to think hard about how it would respond in a similar situation. But while military preparations proceed, she said, the international community needs to help Taipei fight the tactics Beijing is using right now, including cyberwarfare, information warfare and interference in domestic Taiwanese politics. And more countries must make it clear to China that nonmilitary aggression is also unacceptable to the international community and will incur serious economic costs.
“Our strategy, while also making the [military] preparations, is to tell [China] that is very costly and these nonmilitary means that you are taking are not going to be useful,” she said. “So Taiwan and the rest of the world have to get together to find a way to tell the Chinese that war is not an option.”
New Yorkers got a glimpse of Beijing’s efforts to demonize Tsai and drown out her message last week. Protesters, including groups connected to the Chinese Communist Party’s influence network, shouted insults outside her hotel. Chinese officials then cited those same protests as evidence that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party are “troublemakers” who are using the United States to seek independence from China, aided by “some forces in the U.S.”
None of that is true. Tsai is a sober, sophisticated, strategic leader who has done her best to balance defending Taiwan’s democracy in the face of enormous pressures with the need to avoid all-out confrontation with China. The Chinese Communist Party has done Taiwan and China an extraordinary disservice by refusing to engage with her over the past seven years. Now Beijing is trying to pick her successor in next year’s election and courting her political opposition.
“We have neighbors who also want to participate [in our elections],” Tsai said in New York. “So you end up having an additional party in our democracy and in our politics.”
Beijing is also trying to interfere in U.S. politics, planning to retaliate after the U.S. lawmakers meet with Tsai. The McCarthy meeting in California is meant to be less provocative than his planned trip to Taiwan (which might still happen), but that didn’t stop China’s top diplomat in Washington from warning last week that it “could lead to another serious confrontation in the China-U.S. relationship.” The saber-rattling has already started; 10 Chinese aircraft crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait on Saturday — a typically bellicose reaction to her stop in New York.
The Biden administration is trying to minimize Beijing’s reaction while working quietly to deepen cooperation with Taiwan and rally other countries such as Japan to the cause. But there are real concerns about the pace of defensive preparations, a backlog in weapons deliveries, disagreements about defensive priorities and a lack of U.S. attention to the trade and investment side of the relationship.
“We haven’t focused enough on the political and economic realms of how to support Taiwan and combat the type of coercive campaign that the PRC is constantly engaged in,” Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, told me. “We need to think more holistically about the ways in which we support Taiwan.”
By threatening war, Beijing plays into Washington’s reflex to think of Taiwan as an irritant in U.S.-China relations rather than as a proud but vulnerable democracy struggling for survival and a crucial contributor to the world economy. Beijing’s gaslighting must not distract Taiwan’s partners from the realization that the fight over Taiwan’s future is already well underway.