Implications for Taiwan and Indo-Pacific Security

  • Published
  • By Emilio Jason Angeles

 

Ramping aggression and use of wolf-warrior diplomacy from Beijing raises insecurity in the Indo-Pacific. Flashpoints of conflict along the Southwestern border with India in the Himalayas, the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and the imposition of the nine-dash line have challenged the international community to reassess their relationship with China. Decisive response to the challenge posed by China has yet to deliver on its rapid ascent in the global economy and its military prowess. This is because of China's ability to balance the insecurity caused by its military posturing with the perceived benefits of expanded economic and trade relations with other countries in the Indo-Pacific. Unalignment in the international community in response to China's aggression has contributed to the decline of cross-Strait relations with Taiwan (Republic of China) and the end of the One Country, Two Systems (OCTS) framework in Hong Kong by way of the national security law (NSL) introduced in 2020. The following article observes the impact of the new law in Hong Kong and how it is used to thwart civil unrest by empowering law enforcement officials, weakening the electoral system, and intimidating the international business community. The article then connects how the accumulation of these changes reinforces pro-independence views in Taiwan and challenges the continuation of the One China Policy.

Disruptions caused by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the governance system in Hong Kong demonstrate the extent of state power in defusing civil unrest and exerting control. The NSL accomplishes this in the following ways. First, the law broadens the scope of actions that the PRC views as a danger to national security. These actions including secession, terrorism, and collusion, are all worthy of the maximum penalties under the new law.1 By extension, the law also supports the creation of a Hong Kong Security Force to stifle mass protests by conducting arbitrary arrests and encouraging the use of excessive force. Second, it facilitates the gradual introduction of pro-Beijing legislators into the Hong Kong judiciary and capitalizes on global norms around mandatory lockdowns to prolong and justify its control over the city.2 The dual impact of this approach signaled the end of the One Country Two Systems principle established when the city was transferred to China and gained special administrative status in the 1990s.

The preservation of Hong Kong’s independent judicial system is a contentious subject for Hong Kongers who want to maintain the ability to elect their leaders. In 2014, when mainland China announced that it would only allow voters to choose from a pre-approved list of candidates in the 2017 election, protestors responded in what is now referred to as the Umbrella Movement. After defeating the movement, Beijing advanced its power in 2019 when it attempted to introduce extradition laws requiring the transfer of criminals to the mainland to be put on trial. While civil unrest prevented the bill, in a process referred to as the Umbrella Movement 2.0, it would only constitute a stronger effort from Beijing and affirm its presumption that it was losing control of the city. Returning in June, Beijing would impose the NSL with added provisions to influence the outcome of legislative elections and undermine the pre-existing proportional representation system.

Before the NSL, citizens elected 40 of the 70 legislators through proportional representation-based elections, equaling 53 percent of the seats. After substantive changes to the election process, that number has decreased to 22 percent and highlights the extent that it interferes with the elections and levels of civic engagement in Hong Kong. The changes shift the balance of power in electing city legislators in favor of the 1,500-member election committee. As a result, the election committee may appoint Hong Kong’s chief executive and 40 of its members to the legislature.3 Mounting pressure caused by the PRC's intrusion onto the judiciary also has the added effect of alienating experienced and independent incumbents on the bench, prompting many to vacate.

Private companies have also negatively responded to the incursion of progovernment forces in Hong Kong and have questioned whether the move represents the end of the city's status as a global financial hub. Since the implementation of the NSL, several of Hong Kong's top executives have vacated their positions and headed toward freer global financial hubs in New York, Tokyo, or London. Persistent lockdowns in China have also heightened the risks of conducting business in Hong Kong. Under the strictest border controls and quarantine requirements in the world, many believe that current protocols are used to front the PRC's intentions of preventing further civil unrest. Changing dynamics in Hong Kong have resulted in the departure of 47 regional offices, consisting of companies based in the United States, France, and Japan, and has created opportunities for companies based in the mainland to expand. Already, 14 new regional offices from the mainland have moved into Hong Kong in 2021.4 As countries rush to open borders and facilitate economic recovery plans to offset the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has insisted on maintaining its NSL and lockdown strategy. These actions have prompted a strong response and a reevaluation of Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub and have influenced the way that governments and businesses alike orient their approach with China. The global response to the takeover of Hong Kong represents a divergence of threat perception and China’s influence in the international community. The outcry from many western liberal democracies over concerns about China's aggression was led by the US and other like-minded countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Though united in their statements against Beijing, these countries have used different methods to counter and deter future aggression. The Trump administration was criticized for revoking Hong Kong's special trade status, as skeptics claimed it weakened its financial institutions.5 Comparatively, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong and opened migration options for residents, migrant workers, and students.6 The European Union also responded by limiting exports to Hong Kong that it suspected could be used for repression. Comparatively, China received support from 53 countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, which, just one month after the NSL, signed a statement that was read at the United Nations Human Rights Council declaring their support of China's decision.

Taiwan viewed the NSL in Hong Kong as an attack on the future of its sovereignty and reaffirmed the importance of democracy and human rights to its allies. Pro-independence factions from within Taiwan considered Beijing’s actions as a reflection of the outcomes caused by PRC control in Taipei and affirmed pro-independence notions that an OCTS framework between China and Taiwan can never work. Residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong look to each other's relationship with China to understand how it would behave when confronted. The relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan is demonstrated in their respective Umbrella and Sunflower movements. Mobilized in 2014, both progressive movements demonstrated dissatisfaction with the PRC's behavior in proceeding with intimidation tactics and shadowy methods to force reunification. The end of the OCTS framework prompted a strong reaction in Taiwan and led to the re-election of the Democratic People’s Party candidate, President Tsai Ing-Wen for a second term in 2020, running on a campaign framed by protests in Hong Kong.

President Tsai Ing-Wen quickly denounced the actions of the PRC and called for support from democracies and to preserve the rule of law. The island nation also took steps to support and receive migrants from Hong Kong that increased 150% in the first fourth months of 2020.7 It has also approved 4,000 temporary residence applications in the first five months of 2021, up 44 percent from the previous year.8 However, the Republic of China (ROC) has not implemented a comprehensive action plan for receiving and integrating the mass migration of Hong Kongers. Activists, too, are worried that ROC may eventually revoke Hong Kong's special status that has helped facilitate the migration process for exiles.

As the PRC establishes itself in Hong Kong, its full attention now turns to the final remnants of colonial rule in China and the symbol of the century of humiliation: the ROC. In October 2021, the People’s Liberation Army flew 145 warplanes near Taiwan's air identification zone. The action shows the ramping of gray-zone tactics expressed by the Peoples Liberation Army and has caused further shoring up of defenses in Taiwan. While the island nation continues to receive capacity-building support from the US and Japan, given the scope of the arsenal boasted by the mainland, it is uncertain that the island's armed forces will be capable of withstanding an attack. Whether the US would come to the defense of Taiwan is a question that has raised insecurity in cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China. Without the clear assurance of how the major powers will behave, Taiwan will continue to prop itself through arms sales from the US and capacity-building measures through the Global Compact on Cooperation and Training. These actions will undoubtedly lead to further shoring up of demonstrations in the Strait and will continually raise the stakes in cross-strait relations.

Global perceptions in cross-strait relations also affect the continuation of the One China Policy (OCP). Its preservation charges its proprietors with choosing between alignment with China or Taiwan. For many, the economic benefits of alignment with Beijing means long-term trade and investment ties between their respective countries and can create a one-sided relationship that gives China greater leveraging power across issues of mutual concern. Oppositely, western liberal democracies that have yet to succumb to one-sided trade relations have taken a stance against China. The Czech Republic and Lithuania represent small nations that have openly denounced the actions of the PRC and are actively developing diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These have since included an agreement between Lithuania and Taiwan to build a representative office, and the decision by the Czech Republic to send high-level delegations to Taiwan, prompting threats and intimidation tactics from Beijing, beginning with the withdrawal of its representation in Vilnius.9

China’s actions have also spurred a definitive response from the Biden administration and the shoring up of democratic values by liberal democracies. A counter initiative is no more apparent than in the resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Australia, Japan, and India. This version of the Quad dubbed Quad 2.0 and subsequent plus frameworks that include New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam exemplifies the perceived threat posed by China. Further, other joint endeavors like the New Atlantic Treaty pursued by the US and the UK, and corresponding frameworks like the Summit for Democracy championed by the Biden administration or the Democracy 10 grouping fronted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that call raise uncertainty about the possibility of a new cold war. Still, though, the US remains careful of overplaying its stance on Taiwan, shown in the invitation list of countries to attend Summit for Democracies that included Taiwan, but no representation from its leader, President Tsai Ing-wen.

The continuation of the OCP depends on the ability of Indo-Pacific nations to identify and communicate their threat perception of China. It is the culmination of these competing interests and how the US views its position in the Indo-Pacific concerning China that will determine pathways for the continuation of the OCP. This is despite recent statements made by President Biden and Xi Jinping restating the importance of cooperation denouncing the zero-sum framework. Taiwan may, however, still prove to be the tipping point in US-China relations. Continued harassment and gray-zone tactics in the Taiwan Strait will only pressure the strategic ambiguity that has maintained stability in cross-strait relations since its inception. Taken together, it is the actions of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong that demonstrated the extent that Beijing views the effectiveness of its wolf-warrior diplomacy weighed against its one-sided economic relationships with other countries. This, in turn, requires the international community to reflect on the extent that it is willing to pursue to protect Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific.

Emilio Jason Angeles

Mr. Angeles is a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. Emilio received his BA in political science and governance from Ryerson University in 2018 and is interested in the Canadian bilateral relationship with China and East, and Southeast Asian affairs. Emilio has also worked abroad in both Indonesia and Laos, serving on different international development projects.

1 Human Rights Watch, “China Events of 2020,” https://www.hrw.org/.

2 Human Rights Watch, “China Events of 2020.”

3 Jessie Lau and Shui-yin Sharon Yam, “Patriots Only: Hong Kong’s New Election System in Action,” The Diplomat, 1 December 2021, https://thediplomat.com/.

4 Yiu Pak, “So long, Hong Kong: Asia's business hub loses its luster,” NIKKEI Asia, 17 November 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/.

5 Huileng Tan, “ The U.S. should not revoke Hong Kong’s special status, says pro-democracy mogul Jimmy Lai,” CNBC, 4 June 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/.

6 Lindsay Maizland and Eleanor Albert, “Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down,” Council on Foreign Relations, 17 February 2021, https://www.cfr.org/.

7 Huileng Tan, “Taiwan’s Tsai pledges support for people of Hong Kong after China proposes national security law,” CNBC, 25 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/.

8 Eleanor Olcott, “China threat tempers Taiwan’s welcome of Hong Kong exiles,” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/.

9 Ralph Jennings, “Why Western Countries Back Taiwan Despite Their Pro-China Policies,” VOA News, 1 November 2021, https://www.voanews.com/.


 

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