TAIPEI – In 2019, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to attend Taiwan’s Yushan Forum, an annual dialogue on cooperation between Taiwan and its neighbors, fearing that acceptance would provoke China — which sees the island as a breakaway province with no business hosting such events.
This year, however, Abbott not only attended the annual forum but used the occasion to criticize Chinese aggression against Taiwan, such as its ramped-up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
Also last week, a delegation of French senators arrived in Taiwan, defying repeated warnings from China to stay away.
One member, Olivier Cadic, went so far as to say that their visit sent a message to the world that Taiwan is not alone in its struggle.
Such solidarity is striking given Taiwan’s decadeslong marginalization by global powers that have sought to appease China to facilitate doing business there.
Smaller countries also have begun to seek closer ties with Taiwan.
Earlier this year Lithuania pulled out of an economic cooperation agreement with China, while announcing in July that it would establish a representative office in Taipei. Taiwan will also be allowed to open an office in Vilnius under its own name, a decision that so enraged Beijing that it withdrew its ambassador.
There are varied reasons why Taiwan suddenly finds itself with so many friends — one of them being economic.
Due to its expertise in critical areas like advanced chip manufacturing, its shrewd developmental policy and a COVID-19 response that has kept the island comparatively unscathed, Taiwan’s economy is projected to grow nearly 6% this year. That’s an achievement that has attracted both foreign investors and governments looking to boost their bottom lines.
Analyst Brian Hioe suggests that, having benefited little from their Chinese ties, smaller European countries like Lithuania may see greater advantage in strengthening relations with Taiwan.
Another reason for Taiwan’s newfound popularity is political.
As international affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria observes, with authoritarianism on the rise, Taiwan is a “rare bright spot” for democracy in the world — the result, he contends, of competent government, public trust and widespread participation in the democratic process.
Aside from reassuring liberals in dark times, he suggests that Taiwan’s success beneath the shadow of Chinese intimidation recalls the struggles of other young democracies, such as those in Eastern Europe with an equally threatening Russia close by.
Finally, Taiwan’s primary appeal to countries like Australia and France is that the island may wind up being their first line of defense, amid a growing realization that the vast power China accumulated beneath the umbrella of global compliance represents a threat to the very nations that made it possible.
What changed Abbott’s mind after 2019, he said, included Beijing’s brutal crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, a deadly brawl between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas, threats toward other claimants in the East and South China seas and spiraling Chinese military aggression across the Taiwan Strait.
Yet China has also made threats toward Abbott’s own country, once an enthusiastic partner in Chinese development.
Australia has become a primary target of Beijing’s “wolf warrior” tactics — diplomatic bullying that has alienated governments around the world perceived to have views hostile to Chinese interests.
“Australia has no issue with China,” Abbott said. “We welcome trade, investment and visits, just not further hectoring about being the chewing gum on China’s boot.”
Hectoring is not the only thing Australians are worried about.
In September, Australia, the U.K. and the United States announced a historic security pact to help Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines, with little doubt as to the object of its security concerns: China’s military buildup in the region.
As many point out, one effect of China’s belligerence has been to drive friendly nations like Australia and France into closer relations with its rival, the United States, which until recently had been largely alone in supporting Taiwan.
Even longtime ally Japan has been cautious of U.S. efforts to enlist its aid for fear of damaging trade and security relations with Beijing. But this too has begun to change.
Keiji Furuya, a Taiwan-friendly politician in Japan’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party, told the Yushan Forum that Chinese coercion has pushed Japan and Taiwan to develop a new model of bilateral cooperation.
“The friendship between our two countries is reflected in our response to these trials and difficulties (created by China),” Furuya said, adding that Japan, the United States and Taiwan must take gradual and substantive steps to establish a trilateral security cooperation platform.
Hioe also suggests that countries donating vaccine doses to Taiwan may be a form of “diplomatic signaling,” a way to demonstrate indirectly “alignment with Western countries that back Taiwan, such as the United States.”
Analysts have asked why Beijing has embraced seemingly counterproductive policies, especially where Taiwan and the United States are concerned.
Only a few years ago, Taiwan was all but isolated and, as Peter Martin writes in Foreign Affairs, Beijing seemed in control — inking a wide range of global deals at a time when then U.S. President Donald Trump was alienating allies.
In Martin’s view, Beijing’s actions stem from overconfidence and “a belief in Western — and especially American — weakness and decadence.”
Others, like Sung Wen-ti, a lecturer at Australian National University, sees recent belligerence as Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s attempt to incite nationalism.
Yet if the rise in military incursions around Taiwan is “more of a show” than an actual threat, as Sung says, it seems to have occurred to Beijing that its approach may have backfired.
Remarking on a speech by Xi earlier this month that was surprisingly muted in tone, U.S. academic and columnist Walter Russell Mead suggests that with China’s own fortunes none too sure of late, “(the) goal is to rattle sabers without starting a fight, while Beijing waits for better times.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he said, “To keep the economy running, China must stroke its neighbors rather than slap them.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.