After the elections in Taiwan, Beijing's provocations regain momentum

(To Giuseppe Morabito)

The recent presidential and legislative elections of Republic of China (Taiwan) are significant. Given the island's role in the rivalry between the United States and China – which can be understood as one competition between democracy and autocracy – the vote could prove to be a democratic turning point throughout the Indo Pacific area.

That would be good news. Although the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its parliamentary majority to the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), Taiwanese voters chose DPP candidate Lai Ching-te as their next president. Voters have demonstrated a preference for maintaining democratic governance and greater engagement with the world, not least the West, over submission to PRC (and, ultimately, possible reunification).

Not surprisingly, the Beijing government did not welcome Lai's victory. Last year, when then-Vice President Lai visited the United States, China's Foreign Ministry called him a "troublemaker through and through" is "stubbornly adheres to the separatist position of Taiwan independence". As president, according to Beijing, Lai would put cross-Strait relations in jeopardy “serious danger”.

Equally disturbing, while the DPP portrayed the election as a contest between democracy and autocracy, the KMT framed the choice between war or peace. And the day before the vote, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defense pledged to take “all necessary measures” for “nip” separatist plots “in any form”. This has raised fears that PRC will pursue reunification, which Chinese President Xi Jinping considers to be a "Reunification" historical inevitability, with greater force in the wake of Lai's victory, perhaps even launching a military invasion of the island.

PRC's current economic problems – including slowing growth, rising youth unemployment, declining foreign investment, declining exports, real estate market turbulence and deflationary pressure – could make such action more likely.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrated, nothing diverts people's attention from declining living standards like a nationalist crusade.

Forced reunification would have far-reaching consequences. For starters, this would upset the fragile balance of the US-PRC rivalry. The United States has long maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan, but if PRC attempts to invade the island, the United States would finally have to decide: let PRC take what it wants or defend Republic of China (Taiwan), provoking a dangerous clash between the current two major military powers in the world.

Then there are the economic implications. The Taiwan Strait is central to global maritime trade: 88% of the world's large container ships passed through it last year. Additionally, Taiwan produces more than 60% of the world's semiconductors and more than 90% of the most advanced chips.

With this in mind, Bloomberg estimates that a war over Taiwan would cost the world about $10 trillion, or 10% of GDP, much more than the 2008 global financial crisis, the Wuhan Virus pandemic (better remembered as Covid-19) or the war in Ukraine.

Fortunately, there is little reason to believe that Lai's election victory will trigger an immediate Chinese invasion. Indeed, Xi's response to the vote has so far been muted. Perhaps he has decided to limit his "sword attacks" on Taiwan in view of the US presidential elections, for fear that this will give a boost to the probable Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who has made the confrontation with People's China a central theme of the his first term. However, Xi continues with the provocations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the people of the island for having “demonstrated the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process”, US President Joe Biden reiterated that the United States does not support Taiwan's independence.

These tactful responses have, however, unnerved Beijing where, after all, the Chinese Communist Party has long maintained that liberal democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture. In this sense, a prosperous and democratic Taiwan represents the worst nightmare for the Chinese communists and, as many in the West have pointed out, a prosperous and democratic Taiwan is exactly what we have today.

Taiwan's democracy is all the more impressive because it is so young: the island's first presidential elections took place only in 1996, after four decades of martial law under the KMT. Today, Taiwan is considered one of only three established democracies in Asia, along with Japan and South Korea.

As Lai said in his victory speech, Taiwan “will continue to walk side by side with democracies around the world”. If elections elsewhere this year produce similar results, the island will continue to have many comrades.

As a provocation from Beijing, in the last few hours, there was the announcement and theimplementation by PRC of a unilateral adjustment southbound and eastbound flight routes near the island, which was strongly condemned on January 31 by the Taiwanese government (according to the Taipei Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Without holding prior consultations with Taiwan, in accordance with the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the decision taken by the Beijing Aviation Administration on January 30 effectively revoked theStrait Agreement of 2015 and not only seriously jeopardizes aviation security, peace and stability in the region, but also undermines mutual trust and the status quo of the Taiwan Strait,

According to Taipei, the International Air Traffic Services Regulation states that changes to any route network should only be made after being coordinated with all interested parties. In this case, the Taipei Civil Aviation Administration is the sole competent authority for the flight information region near Taiwan. The provocation lies in the lack of prior consultation on the part of People's China which violates international norms and underlines its now unfortunately well-known and consolidated authoritarian and, also, irresponsible nature.

This unconscionable act by Beijing, as well as its surveillance flights threatening Taiwan's airspace almost daily since the presidential election, signify a provocative attempt to change the status quo across the Strait. Logical that the Republic of China (Taiwan) expect the international community to pay close attention to the situation and demand that PRC promptly negotiate with Taiwan to manage potential aviation risks, otherwise it will have to assume full responsibility for any adverse consequences on air traffic.

Photo: MoD China / Xinhua