Survey on US and Taiwan experts: William Lai’s presidency will see a turbulent Taiwan Strait

Commentator Gu Erde looks into a recent survey on China experts from the US and Taiwan, which reveals, among other things, that the Taiwan experts perceive a lower military threat from China than the US experts, but a higher proportion of the US experts is confident that the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in a conflict.
People walk past a Taiwanese flag in New Taipei City on 13 January 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
People walk past a Taiwanese flag in New Taipei City on 13 January 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks in Bangkok, Thailand, on 26-27 January 2024 as a follow-up to the meeting between the leaders of the US and China in San Francisco last year. The talks are part of high-level communications to implement the San Francisco Vision, with Taiwan being one of the main topics. 

The Taiwan presidential elections have just concluded with the victory of the team of William Lai and Hsiao Bi-khim, labelled by Beijing as the “dual-separatist combination”. Consequently, the Taiwan Strait has attracted much attention and the world wonders how the US and China would manage the risks in the Taiwan Strait after the Taiwan presidential elections.

China reiterates stance

In November last year, when Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party was preparing to field the Lai-Hsiao duo for the presidential elections, the spokesperson for China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Zhu Fenglian responded by saying that the Lai-Hsiao combination is “separatist upon separatist”. She warned, “I believe every person in Taiwan clearly knows what this means for the Taiwan Strait, the lives of the people in Taiwan, and the future and destiny of Taiwan”. 

However, after the outcome of the elections was confirmed, Beijing’s reaction was relatively mild. The TAO merely said, “The elections cannot change the basic pattern and the development of cross-Strait relations …”

What are Beijing’s current plans, and how will the US and China confront each other on this issue? According to Sullivan’s readout issued by the White House after his meeting with Wang, both sides held “candid, substantive and constructive” discussions on global and regional issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, the Middle East, North Korea, the South China Sea and Myanmar. The same adjectives were used when they met in May 2023. The readout especially mentioned that both sides discussed the Taiwan Strait and that Sullivan underscored the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

... the Taiwan experts perceive a lower military threat from China than the US experts, but a higher proportion of the US experts is confident that the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in a conflict.

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim wave as they hold a press conference, following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan 13 January 2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim wave as they hold a press conference, following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, on 13 January 2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The media release issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Wang reiterated the TAO’s stance during the talks with Sullivan, and that “the elections in Taiwan cannot change the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China”. He emphasised, “Taiwan independence poses the biggest risk to cross-Strait peace and stability and is the biggest challenge to China-US relations.” Wang urged the US to “translate its commitment of not supporting Taiwan independence into action and support China’s peaceful reunification”.

Based on the texts issued by both sides, they were stating their established positions without particularly harsh words. However, China continued to use spy balloons and military aircrafts to disrupt Taiwan during its presidential elections, and even dispatched fighter jets, drones and warships for many days thereafter. At one point, its military aircrafts were only 42 nautical miles away from Keelung in northern Taiwan. Will there be a gradual increase in military interference? What will be the post-elections developments in the Taiwan Strait?

Biden-Xi meeting has not eased Taiwan Strait tensions

After the Taiwan presidential elections, the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a renowned US think tank, published a report that surveyed the experts on China from the US and Taiwan. The survey shows that most of these experts believe that the November 2023 US-China summit did not ease the Taiwan Strait tensions and that Beijing will wait to assess if the new president implements significant policy changes before taking action. 

However, the experts also do not think that Beijing would be in a hurry to increase military threat against Taiwan before Lai takes office on 20 May 2024. What is more interesting is that the Taiwan experts perceive a lower military threat from China than the US experts, but a higher proportion of the US experts is confident that the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in a conflict.

Most of the experts, regardless of whether they are US or Taiwan experts, believe that China will most likely execute a blockade and a quarantine of Taiwan in the next five years.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, US, 15 November 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, US, on 15 November 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

This survey was conducted on 52 US experts and 35 Taiwan experts in November and December 2023, before the Taiwan presidential elections. It was done in collaboration with Taiwan think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research, which selected the interviewees that covered the political spectrum of the political parties.

Most of the Taiwan experts believe that Beijing has an unfavourable view of the election outcome and would most likely respond by increasing its non-military pressure on Taiwan. However, the US experts are more concerned that Beijing would again conduct military exercises around Taiwan, like what happened after the Taiwan visit by then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022. Overall, more than half of the experts believe that a Taiwan Strait crisis in 2024, similar to that in 1995 to 1996, is possible.

Most of the experts, regardless of whether they are US or Taiwan experts, believe that China will most likely execute a blockade and a quarantine of Taiwan in the next five years. According to the survey’s definitions, a quarantine is “a law enforcement operation led by non-military actors (e.g., the China Coast Guard, maritime militia, etc.) that is focused on limiting the flow of commercial goods into Taiwan”, and a blockade is a more severe isolation of Taiwan led by China’s People Liberation Army (PLA). In fact, these are the tactics adopted by US President John F Kennedy to deal with Cuba during the Cold War.

The majority of both sets of experts believes that Taiwan would not be able to resist a China blockade for more than three months.

Niall Ferguson, a Harvard University historian, predicted in May 2023 that China would impose a blockade or quarantine against Taiwan in the next five or six years, resulting in a global chip crisis. In 2022, a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which focuses on foreign policy analysis and public opinion research, found that 62% of respondents supported the use of the US navy to prevent Beijing from imposing a blockade against Taiwan.

Taiwan soldiers take part in an anti-infiltration exercise in Taitung on 31 January 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
Taiwan soldiers take part in an anti-infiltration exercise in Taitung on 31 January 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

The CSIS survey found that most of the US experts believe that a quarantine imposed by China against Taiwan would mean that China would not undertake more serious military action. The Taiwan experts believe, however, that a quarantine may be a prelude to a blockade or an invasion. The majority of both sets of experts believes that Taiwan would not be able to resist a China blockade for more than three months.

If China invades Taiwan, almost all the US experts (96%) are confident of US military intervention, but only 71% of the Taiwan experts think so. Sixty percent of the US experts and 52% of the Taiwan experts think the US allies would send troops.

US experts confident of US military intervention

Having lasted for a third year, the protracted Russia-Ukraine war is beyond most people’s expectations. More than 70% of the US experts believe that China could be willing to sustain a high-intensity conflict for at least one year if it invades Taiwan, but only half of the Taiwan experts believe that China could do so for more than one year. More interestingly, 44% of the US experts believe that China would be willing to detonate nuclear weapons against the US or coalition forces in a Taiwan conflict, but only 11% of the Taiwan experts think so.

The US and Taiwan experts believe that the various actions to ease tensions after last year’s Biden-Xi meeting have not significantly reduced the likelihood of a potential Taiwan conflict. In the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis, will the US and the US-led coalition forces intervene to defend Taiwan?

If China invades Taiwan, almost all the US experts (96%) are confident of US military intervention, but only 71% of the Taiwan experts think so. Sixty percent of the US experts and 52% of the Taiwan experts think the US allies would send troops. In the event of a low-intensity quarantine by China against Taiwan, the majority of the experts think that the US would not send troops to intervene.

... with China’s economy going downhill, 50% of the US experts think that there will not be any major change to the likelihood of China using force against Taiwan, while 37% of the Taiwan experts think so...

China has declared its military modernisation goal for the PLA by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Most of the experts believe that the achievement of this goal would not impact upon China’s decision on the use of force against Taiwan.

In addition, with China’s economy going downhill, 50% of the US experts think that there will not be any major change to the likelihood of China using force against Taiwan, while 37% of the Taiwan experts think so, which is slightly higher than the 34% that think that this would decrease the likelihood of any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.

In 2024, the turbulence at the Taiwan Strait awaits the new Taiwan President William Lai. In Beijing’s eyes, outgoing Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen is a “war criminal” who helped former President Lee Teng-hui establish the “two states” theory. 

As Lai has already been characterised as a clear-cut Taiwan separatist, many experts predict a Taiwan Strait crisis this year. When Tsai was elected Taiwan president eight years ago, Beijing cut off communication with Taiwan after she took office. She has dealt with and survived many threatening situations. We will be watching whether Lai can be as steadfast and unprovocative as Tsai, withstand Beijing’s intimidations, military or otherwise, and survive these trials and tribulations.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “台海汹涌波涛迎接赖清德”.

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