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Event Report on The Prospect Foundation Delegation Visit to MP-IDSA

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  • January 18, 2024
    Round Table

    On 18 January 2024, the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) organised an interactive session with The Prospect Foundation, Taiwan. The delegation from The Prospect Foundation was led by Dr. I-Chung Lai, President, The Prospect Foundation and the session was chaired by DG, MP-IDSA, Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy.  The discussion was followed by Q&A.

    Detailed Report

    The session began with opening remarks from DG, MP-IDSA, Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy. He observed that it is striking that Taiwan has gone into coalition politics and opined that this arrangement is likely to raise certain challenges in the legislature. Enquiring about Taiwanese perception about the election he invited Dr. I-Chung Lai to express his views on a range of issues including resurgence of Kuomintang (KMT) Party in the recent elections, Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and KMT’s present attitude towards the 1992 consensus, One China policy and potential reunification with China. Amb. Chinoy also asked Dr. Lai about Taiwanese understanding of the United States (US)’ commitment towards Taiwan’s defence in the light of present tensions, the unacceptable means of reunification for Taiwan, probable Japanese position in an event of crisis in Taiwan Straits and reversal of recognition of Taiwan by Nauru.  

    Thanking Amb. Chinoy for his observations, Dr. I-Chung Lai expressed that the delegation visit reflected India’s importance in Taiwan’s strategy and Taipei’s intention to convey to New Delhi, its strategic outlook and plans for India-Taiwan ties post the elections.

    Elaborating on Taiwan election results he contented that while William Lai Ching-te received forty percent of the votes, it did not mean that the other sixty percent opposed him. The Chinese interpretation that William Lai Ching-te’s position on China-Taiwan ties represents a minority view is incorrect. He emphasised that the election results do not reflect how Taiwanese feel about China-Taiwan relations. Commenting on the 1992 consensus, which is favoured by China, Dr. Lai informed that majority of the Taiwanese consider the consensus as a thing of past, especially after President Tsai Ing-wen declared in a public address in 2019 that Taiwan never accepted the 1992 consensus. He contended that future cross strait politics will have to take the general public view into consideration as Taiwan is a democracy.

    With regard to US policy towards Taiwan, Dr. Lai, citing the Taiwan Relations Act and US’ Six Assurances to Taiwan, asserted that US does not recognise Taiwan as part of PRC. On Nauru’s breaking off of diplomatic ties, he opined that it demonstrated continuation of PRC’s coercion politics vis-à-vis Taiwan. He observed that Taiwan’s national strength and international standing will not be affected due to Nauru’s actions and that Taiwan will not engage in chequebook diplomacy to gain diplomatic recognition. Dr. Lai observed that the Beijing Government is unlikely to change its policy towards Taiwan, recognising the new political reality. However, due to China’s own internal economic troubles, interest in stabilising ties with the US and lack of military capability to launch invasion on Taiwan, the possibility of military conflict with Taiwan at present is low. Touching briefly on Japan’s position on Taiwan contingency, Dr. Lai opined that although Tokyo will be compelled to act due to alliance commitment with the US and threats perceived to its own security, the extent of Japan’s involvement in active combat scenario is uncertain. He concluded by stating that developing relations with powerful and friendly countries remains top priority for Taiwan.

    Following, Dr. Lai’s presentation, Amb. Chinoy queried whether DPP still subscribed to the notion of ‘One China’ and whether Taiwan continues to engage in developmental activities with the countries who sever diplomatic ties with Taipei.

    Responding to these questions, Dr. Lai informed that the idea of ‘One China’ was once temporarily entertained to facilitate cooperation between Republic of China (ROC) and PRC. However, PRC’s interpretation of ‘One China’ policy is unacceptable to Taiwan. With regard to Taiwan-Nauru ties, he informed that the future of bilateral cooperation depends on Nauru’s future reaction because there is precedent in Taiwan to continue programme assistance to countries who broke off diplomatic ties.

    Finally, Amb. Chinoy enquired about Chinese goals in eschewing military tensions of the type seen in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Dr. Lai affirmed that improving diplomatic ties with the US is one of the major goals. Also, as the repercussions to trade which happened due to the military blockade was serious, Beijing and other major powers like the US and Japan are reluctant to let escalate tensions to that level.

    Mr. Fei Fan Lin, member of the delegation, concurred with Dr. Lai’s observations about lack of public support for the 1992 consensus in Taiwan. He informed that the Taiwanese consider ROC, Taiwan to be an independent sovereign and perceive no need to declare independence again.

    Following the exchange, the Chair then opened the floor for question-and-answer session.

    Q&A Session

    A question from the Indian side concerned the issue of national identity in Taiwan, and the possibility of a ‘reconciliation of hearts’ between the Chinese and Taiwanese people. To this question, Dr. Lai answered by explaining that due to the internationalisation of the cross-Strait issue, other countries, such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Australia, not to mention the United States, have a voice in the resolution of any conflict, and the cross- Strait dispute is no longer a binary one between opposing regimes. He also noted that China’s perception of Taiwan is that it is a vehicle to contain China with the collaboration of the United States. Mr. Lin also added to the answer to the above question by noting that President Tsai Ing-Wen had been careful during her tenure to cultivate a stance of equivocating Taiwan with the ROC. He noted that this was a stance the majority of Taiwanese people support and approve of. In response to another question on the impact of a US-China thaw on Taiwan in the coming four years, Dr. Lai noted that the cross-Strait issue is no longer dependent on the US-China-Taiwan trilateral, but has become truly internationalised. As evidence, he offered the new recognitions afforded to the importance of Taiwan by the leaders of Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and the Philippines, as well as by democracies in Europe.

    Another question from the Indian side concerned the movements of the youth vote in the recently-concluded general election, and whether the return of the DPP to power indicated support among the young for independence. Mr. Lin provided the answer to this question, informing the audience that the DPP had always embraced support from the youth. However, the reason the current election has thrown up surprising results (election of the DPP on forty percent vote share, emergence of the TPP as a third force) is because voters were in general fatigued by establishment parties such as the DPP and KMT. They were not concerned by national security issues, but instead voted on bread-and-butter issues such as housing prices and costs of living. Mr. Lin argued that the TPP, despite the high rates of support it received, does not have a positive policy platform, and revealed that the DPP is well aware of the need to bring back young voters to the DPP.

    Members of the Indian side also inquired about whether China had succeeded in the general election in using disinformation and economic coercion to swing votes. By way of an answer, the Taiwanese side presented a mixed picture. In the field of economic coercion they were willing to concede that there was some limited effect of the suspension of tariff benefits accruing to trade with Taiwan under the ECFA signed with China, but noted that the impact was limited as the share of exports to China from Taiwan are declining as the New Southbound Policy diversified destinations for Taiwanese goods, with marked increases noted in trade with the US, Japan, ROK and Europe. India was held out by the Taiwanese side as a new frontier where trade opportunities could be diversified in future. Disinformation, however, has been successful in the assessment by the Taiwanese side, with Chinese-origin propaganda deepening divides in society that have only partially been filled.

    In terms of future concerns, the Taiwanese side flagged two issues in particular: worries that the KMT, which has majorities in both the national legislature and municipalities, would pursue independent (party-level) negotiations with the CPC; and the legal hurdles standing in the way of repealing or renegotiating important economic agreements with the mainland to counter economic coercion.

    A final query from the Indian side concerned the prospects for US-Taiwan defence cooperation in light of the recent election results. In his answer to the question, Dr. Lai asserted that the impact on US-Taiwan defence ties would become clearer when the identity of the incoming speaker and vice-speaker of the central legislature (the Legislative Yuan) becomes clear. However, he believed, existing projects such as Taiwan’s indigenous submarine programme would continue irrespective of the party in charge.

    Before concluding, Amb. Chinoy took the opportunity to ask a set of questions to the Taiwanese side. Firstly, he inquired about the impact of Donald Trump returning to power in the US in 2024. Dr. Lai answered briefly that Taiwan enjoys bipartisan consensus in the US, and that the previous Trump administration’s record on Taiwan was very good, with several initiatives carried forward by the Biden administration. As such, there was no reason for concern.

    Secondly, Amb. Chinoy inquired as to the Taiwanese side’s assessment of the US response should China attempt to occupy only the outlying islands such as Jinmen or Matsu. Dr. Lai said that whereas the Pescadores Islands are covered under the US-Taiwan Mutual Defence Treaty and the Taiwan Relations Act, Quemoy and Matsu are grey areas. In any case, he noted that an occupation of these islands would be sure to meet an armed response from Taiwan. However, the US response, if any, would be contingent on circumstances.

    Finally, Amb. Chinoy inquired whether there had been any risk assessment of the possibility that Xi Jinping’s China Dream 2049 project would be incomplete without reunification with Taiwan, with the implication that he would take action before that date to ensure reunification. Dr. Lai answered that discussions in Taiwan on the China Dream are divided into two camps, one arguing that the China Dream must be completed before reunification is to be attempted, whereas the other argues that reunification is a necessary precondition to the China Dream. However, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Chinese economy has put a dent in Xi Jinping’s purported legitimacy, which is predicated on continuous economic growth. Dr. Lai held that the China Dream is Xi’s personal project, not a “sacred manifesto” on the lines of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which were party lines followed by all members of the government. As such, should Xi leave the stage in China, there is no guarantee that his successor would follow through on it.

    After the conclusion of the question-and-answer session, the Chair declared an end to the meeting.