Skip to content

The Missing Piece of the U.S.-Taiwanese Relationship

In the latest episode of the Eurasian Connectivity podcast series, New Lines’ Senior Director Kamran Bokhari dives into the latest in Chinese strategic thinking vis-à-vis Taiwan, CHIPS technology, and both Chinese and Taiwanese politics with expert Kai-chun Wang.

Kamran Bokhari:

Hello everyone. My name is Kamran Bokhari. I’m the senior director for the Eurasian Security and Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. This is another episode of the Eurasian Connectivity Podcast, and today I have a special guest. He is Kai-chun Wang. He goes by the name of Steven, we call him Steven. He’s a policy research fellow for the Johns Hopkins University, Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies. He’s also obtained his MA from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Previously he has worked in the Taiwan legislature as a foreign policy advisor to the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee. He has also worked for the country’s largest opposition party, the Kuomintang, also known as the KMT, specifically their Department of International Affairs. Welcome to the show.

Kai-chun Wang:

A pleasure to be here.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you. Thank you for doing this. So we’re going to just kick off from the very top. This is a very exciting time to be studying Taiwan, China, US relations, given everything that’s happening geopolitically, and you were just there. So based on your trip and your vantage point, tell us what we in the policy community here in DC should be looking at and that we’re not focusing on. Obviously, there’s a lot that we are talking about, the threat of China invading Taiwan. There’s a lot of talk about semiconductors, but I will let you take the mic and take it from there.

Kai-chun Wang:

Thank you so much, Kamran. Again, it’s a pleasure to be here. And you’re correct. I was back in Taiwan this year, I think for almost the entirety of August, and I went back and also I had the pleasure of briefing some legislators and went back to the Taiwan legislatures to meet some old friends and also had the opportunity of talking to various scholars, political operatives in Taiwan. So basically means people that are involved in campaigns, involved in policy planning and everything. But yeah, also at the same time, when I was back in Taiwan, a lot of folks and friends from Washington, and I think overall the United States, took that opportunity, which includes the Congress, basically to have some interesting delegations coming in. Also, you have think tanks’ delegations coming in Taiwan, trying to talk to whoever they can find, talk to prominent members of all the major political parties in Taiwan to try to get their perspectives on what a lot of people in and outside of Taiwan are paying attention to.

So as you pointed out, energy security is definitely one of the issues that people are interested in. You also have people trying to understand what are the different policy directions and positions that they want to take when it comes to defense policy, when it comes to other forms of domestic policies such as you can say, economic policies or some social security policies. But overall, I would say given how complicated both the cross-strait situation, US-China relations/competition, but also with this very unprecedented and also becoming increasingly unpredictable presidential election in Taiwan coming up in January 2024, a lot of the attention is focusing on Taiwan.

Kamran Bokhari:

It’s like every other day we hear that X number of Chinese fighter aircraft along with naval vessels are basically doing exercises, to put it mildly, in and around the island nation. How is this being perceived? At some point when it happens too much, it creates a sense of, oh, this is just routine and normal, and that could have really dangerous repercussions if you routinize things and you tend to become lax. But what is the view in Taipei about this, what seems to be a growing trend of Chinese military, both air and naval operations, in the straits?

Kai-chun Wang:

That’s a very good question, and I think back in Taiwan there is a division between how the general public and also how the policymaker views all these different things that the PLA, the CCP, are currently doing on Taiwan. So I think from the general public’s perspective, they do view this as being a very counterproductive thing for the PRC in terms of whatever goals that they’re trying to achieve. But from a policymaker’s point of view, it does have a lot of implications. So this is something that I also want to spend some time to talk about, but from a policy person’s point of view or from a military’s point of view in Taiwan, let me put some conclusions at the front. So number one, I think all of these different gestures, meaning that PLA is trying to simultaneously carry out two strategic objectives that complement each other but also at the same time create difficulties for themselves.

I think the first one is they’re trying to accumulate the capacity and experience to try to pave whatever foundations they can. In the scenario where the leadership in Beijing, maybe one day Xi decided that, okay, this is the D-Day, this is the time they want to invade Taiwan. So the PLA is trying to use whatever opportunities they can. They’re trying to familiarize themselves with the Taiwan theater, the place that they want to, eventually one day might engage with hostile assets.

But also another implication I would say is that they’re trying to essentially create, or, fighting Taiwan on a attritional front. So from the datas available that has been published by the Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense on Twitter and also on their own official websites, but we can see a clear growing trend of PLA intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, both on the air but also at the sea. But typically our data is more transparent when it comes down the air. So I mean you have less than 200 sorties in 2020, but to be fair, the number started counting from September all the way to December 2020. That was around less than 200 of that. But in 2021 we’re talking about a number that is approaching, if my memory serve me correct, we’re talking about 700 to 800, but then 2022 numbers increased to now four digits. We’re talking about above 1,000, I think it’s 1,200 or 1,300 of that. And at the same time, the Taiwanese Air Force-

Kamran Bokhari:

The four digits is for 2023?

Kai-chun Wang:

The four digits is for 2022, because we haven’t passed 2023 yet. But I am fairly confident that that is just going to increase. I mean, given that I would say several days ago, there’s a record-breaking of 103 sorties of planes intruding into Taiwan’s ADIZ in just one day. Because one of our protocols right now in the air force is we need to respond to them with our own fighter jets, with our own planes, air assets. So I would say the PLA is trying to ramp up that frequency to exhaust our air force and to also exhaust the limited defense budget that we have.

And on the second element is I would say they’re trying to conduct three warfares. I’m not going to go into too details about that, but basically they’re trying to use psychological warfare, legal warfare, and rhetorical warfare to try, and you can say impact the confidence of the people of Taiwan in their own society, in their own government, in their own defense capability. But this also comes into the counterproductive side. So whenever China is conducting all these different exercises, you’re only just making the people of Taiwan to become more resolved. For example, you are also seeing a re-extension of military service from four months back to a year. And this is also with public support. So whatever the PLA is trying to do, they also need to realize it is actually counterproductive when it comes to trying to impact the morales of Taiwan. So those are the things that they’re trying to do.

Kamran Bokhari:

No, thank you for elaborating on that. Just to follow up on that for you, in terms of Chinese intent, and I know it’s hard to gauge it, but I can’t think of anybody better than yourself to ask this question, given where you are and the kind of work that you do. They certainly know that, look, the United States is not just going to look the other way and allow them one day to invade Taiwan. That would mean war, and a war that would hurt the Chinese economy and of course the US economy as well. But the Chinese will get hit far harder because they’re so dependent on exports and good relations with the United States. So I get that they’re, with these sorties and with these naval operations, they’re gaining that practice. But they have to know that exercises are one thing and actual invasion, deploying, and it would mean an amphibious landing. And that’s very hard to do for a regime that’s not fought a war other than with India and that was on the high altitude mountains. In the light of all of that, there’s this big debate, is China posturing, or is China actually preparing for invasion? What’s your sense?

Kai-chun Wang:

That’s a million-dollar question right there. Nobody understand what Xi Jinping is thinking fundamentally, but I will definitely say they are trying to do these two things together. But also it is kind of ironic that when you’re trying to do those two things together, you are also being counterproductive. These two goals are actually contradicting each other, because on the one hand, if China is trying to posture, and they are doing that in various instances. So for example, too, a most obvious example in the past year and this year, is number one, you have the massive Chinese exercise when former speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan, when you had several missiles shot directly above Taipei City. And the second one basically happened after President Tsai met with the current speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. So CCP leadership felt compelled to redraw that political red line trying to, we can say warn the United States, also to warn Taiwan, and perhaps indirectly to other countries as well, the red line that the Chinese are accepting when it comes to high ranking official interactions.

But that is counterproductive because by doing those things, you are also, you meaning Beijing, is also making other countries around Taiwan uncomfortable. So you have, for example, maybe one of the backlashes from other countries is that they’ll be more determined to try to get closer to the United States when it comes to security cooperation. For example, you have the Philippines opening up some of their military bases to the United States. You also have some high ranking officials in the DOD talking about expanding AUKUS. And not to mention what China is worried the most is the Camp David spirit, the Camp David announcements and all these different documents. They have been very consistent. A lot of these bilateral statements talked about the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. So by doing those sort of posturing, I think the PLA also needs to realize, or the Chinese leadership also needs to realize they’re making the second part, which is back to your question Kamran, is they’re making the part about actually maintaining that capability to launch a full or, far less likely, a partial invasion of Taiwan increasingly difficult, because they’re making their, you can say opportunity cost to become incredibly complicated with all these new regional initiatives and a ramping up of US direct or indirect support for Taiwan in the forms of cooperation, or speeding up the delivery of arms sales.

Kamran Bokhari:

I would agree with you. And then just to add that when you do these kind of operations and others are watching you, so if basic logic dictates that, military logic, that if you are going to plan something, you definitely don’t show how you’re going to do it to the world. So there is that aspect as well. But let’s move on and let’s talk about semiconductors for a while.

Taiwan is a major producer, is a major supplier for the world. China at the same time is trying to acquire technology to be able to get to that stage where it can say, yes, we are also producing advanced level chips that are necessary for pretty much everything that people own these days, but it’s now being encumbered, put it mildly, by US sanctions and restrictions. So how are the Chinese trying to a) interdict the manufacturing of these chips by Taiwan and b) what do you see as sort of the workaround, what are they trying to do? I mean we always talk about here in the West, Chinese intelligence gathering information and even hardware for reverse engineering purposes. Are the Chinese targeting Taiwan for that purpose as well?

Kai-chun Wang:

Oh yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, there’s an increasing trend for policy makers around the world to talk about how semiconductor is a valuable strategic resource to have. And in terms of what China has been doing, I mean commercial espionage by the Chinese is a open secret. I would say that in Taiwan there are definitely some cases being reported by the media about how China is trying to use some sort of shell company to attract, you can say, talents to work for them or to actually do some sort of research for them when it comes to, for example, the market potentials, what are some of the future directions for Taiwan semiconductor industries? But I would say that Taiwan, under this administration, I’m also very confident in the next administration after the current one, after the election, Taiwan, especially on a legislative body, there is a bipartisan consensus that we need to increase our legal infrastructure and legal tools to try to safeguard some of the core technology, some of the core knowledge that Taiwan currently possess.

So one of the difficult things is about trying to safeguard all these knowledge is the fact that these knowledge are not only stored on the hot wire, but also is in the brains of the talents. So it’s one thing to try to secure the hot wires, it’s trying to secure whatever digital information we can have, it’s another thing to try to secure the knowledge stored in a human being. I mean people move around, you have all these talents moving around. But one thing is clear for Taiwan, is that there is a bipartisan consensus that Taiwan needs to maintain its competitiveness when it comes to semiconductors. But also at the same time, Taiwanese firms understand the importance of trying to friend-shoring, of trying to get the other countries to also get a stake of it. But it is very clear for Taiwan that one of the things that makes this island not only economically prosperous, but also at the same time maintaining Taiwan as a critical player in the world, core technologies, some of the advanced chips and the developments, are probably going to be staying in the island.

Kamran Bokhari:

So before I jump into Taiwanese politics, I want to get your sense, and I’m assuming here that you and your colleagues in Taiwan are keeping a close eye on what’s happening with the economy in China with all the bad news of real estate related bank loans, the slowdown of the economy, consumer confidence. What is your sense of what’s really happening with the Chinese economy? And then of course there’s political weirdness that’s taking place, especially with the disappearance of so many different civil and military top officials. It seems like Xi has this hands full and is struggling because, in other words, the economic crisis is spilling into political realm. But would love to get your thoughts on that.

Kai-chun Wang:

It is definitely important to understand China, especially when you’re Taiwan. So according to my shallow observation and understanding, and number one, the economy, some of the things that I would say the observers in Taiwan are paying close attention to is actually the current economic difficulties suffered by the younger people in China. So as we may know, China essentially hidden away the figures of youth unemployment. They decided not to keep publishing it because I mean the reality might actually be very, very bad for them. And one of the things that Beijing is trying to do, and this is also again actually counterproductive, actually falls them into some sort of vicious cycle on an economic sense, is they’re trying to keep the youth in universities. So they’re trying to essentially delay the timing in which they enter the labor force. You are starting to see more Chinese undergraduates when they graduate from universities, they’re encouraged to continue their studies in the masters, also into the PhD.

What is happening now, actually, some big Chinese companies, manufacturing companies or labor-intensive companies, they’re actually pushing out some commercials to try to advertise themselves in China that look at our new workforce, all of them have master’s degrees, but they’re also doing intensive labor works. And that is some sort of underemployment that is happening in China. And I mean, number one, that is not good for the economy because they’re not using your talents properly in the best way to generate whatever values they can. But also secondly is psychological. You’re going to have more youth in China to be disillusioned about higher education. You’re going to have more people, when you get a MA, when you get a PhD, you might expect yourself to get a higher earning job. You might expect yourself to get the job that you were trained to do in university. And once they enter the real society, once they step outside of school, they realize that’s not the case. So that actually might increase the sense of disillusion within the younger people in China, which is actually quite important because they are becoming increasingly opinionated. One of the most recent cases, the White Paper Protests.

And pertaining to the second part of your question, which is the current confusing state of the Chinese military leadership, Xi Jinping has been pushing something that is really not good for the Chinese military, which basically means is personal loyalty and perhaps/the party. I mean, he basically represent the party now. Personal loyalty/loyalty to the party over professionalism, over the degree of professionalism they have. And I do believe that is starting to cause some cracks in the military. So I mean, one of the few prominent cases is number one, we still don’t know where the defense minister is. And number two is the sudden change of leadership in the Chinese Rocket Force, which is actually one of the most critical force branch of the military that Xi Jinping is actually caring about right now. So those things probably demonstrated that Xi Jinping, number one, he wanted to use his own men, but also at the same time, their either loyalty or their profession has been compromised, leading to these changes of leaderships that we’re seeing right now.

Kamran Bokhari:

Just to follow up on that, there is this weird civilian supremacy over the military in China where the CCP basically controls with the PLA, but you have to assume that in a system where Xi Jinping is personalizing authority and converting what used to be a collective bureaucratic institutionalized autocracy into pretty much a dictatorship that’s around his personality, that in that context, especially with what you’re talking about, sacrificing professionalism in favor of loyalty. Do you see some sort of rift happening or pushback from the PLA to the CCP?

Kai-chun Wang:

I would say that there are numerous publications, I cannot recall a few right now, but there’s definitely a consistent trend that the Chinese military, the PLA, is slowly becoming more and more professional. You can say the non-commissioned officer level and also on the commissioned officer’s level, given how they’re trying to ramp up their military education by expanding or upgrading their military academies and everything. So I will say this, as the NCOs and the COs in the Chinese military becoming increasingly professional, becoming increasingly subscribed to the idea that it’s more about strategy, it’s more about policy compared to political sensation or ideologically driven political objectives, they will increasingly have reservation when it comes to politically driven or politically settled military objectives or thresholds that they’re trying to meet. But also they clearly understand that under the Chinese system is basically the CCP control of the People’s Liberation Army.

You won’t necessarily see a huge pushback, but you are probably going to see more debate happening internally when all these NCOs and COs, increasingly educated, struggle with the how do you balance the two together. Maybe one day you’re going to have a closed door meeting between Xi Jinping and all the other generals, which are highly educated at this point compared to maybe decades ago. He’s going to say, “Tell me, can I invade Taiwan now? Can I do this and do that now?” Or, “I want to do this and do that.” Now maybe they will say something to make the boss happy, but maybe deep down they will have reservations given the professional educations they have.

Kamran Bokhari:

That’s fascinating. So I want to switch to Taiwan domestic politics. You and I had a conversation not too long ago in where you were explaining to me this paradoxical situation in the current climate, where you have the ruling party that’s more hawkish about Taiwanese identity and independence, and how that fits in the current climate where it’s almost like irritating China and potentially provoking it to do something drastic. Whereas the party, and the KMT is a party of more pragmatism, though it’s in opposition. And so tell us what the public mood is right now in terms of public support for the different narratives, the different approaches to how best to safeguard Taiwan’s national security interests.

Kai-chun Wang:

This coming election has been described by many you would say foreign media, and also Taiwanese will generally agree with this, as being one of the most unpredictable and energetic election that Taiwan has had for several years, because typically what you had in Taiwan is very similar to the United States, where you have two major political parties clashing each other. So the analysis and the observations are quite simple, looking to these two parties. But now apparently you have four, I would say presidential contendents. You have the DPP one, the current incumbent government, and the current Vice President William Lai. You have the KMT’s one, the mayor of New Taipei City, Hou Yu-ih, and also a rising force of the former mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je and his Taiwan People’s Party. And you have the independent candidate who is also the founder of Foxconn, Terry Gou. So right now, the mood in Taiwan or what the voters or the general public are actually focusing on, remain domestic, most of them still remain domestic.

So right now you’ll see most of the discussions in Taiwan are actually about public safety issues because a few days ago in the most southern county of Taiwan, there was a massive factory fire incident that actually, unfortunately killed several firefighters in Taiwan. I can sufficiently describe that as a scandal at this points where you have imported eggs that are impacting the consumer’s confidence of the qualities of some of the eggs that are being sold in Taiwan. You also have controversial political discussions and cases happening in Hsinchu City, which is actually the home of TSMC. The mayor over there is a Taiwan People’s Party member. She’s also into some sort of complications right now. So a lot of the focus are on domestic issues, but it doesn’t mean that cross-straits issues, it doesn’t mean that the positions of unification, independence, or status quo are not going to come out, because currently we’re still more than 100 days away from the election.

And typically these issues will gradually becoming more and more prominent. But one of the things that I would say is, and I encourage people to look into the National Chung Cheng University’s election research center, they have been consistently publishing the opinion polls of Taiwanese identities. How do you identify yourself, only Taiwanese, and Chinese or Chinese only or not? And also positions on the future discourse of this nation. Are you going to remain status quo forever, status quo now and then independence or unification, or something like that? But in general, when it comes to identity recognition and also party recognition, I think these two metrics are actually all really fascinating because right now we’re seeing almost 70% of people in Taiwan say they’re only Taiwanese. Well, you still have around I would say 29%, 28% of people in Taiwan says they’re both Taiwanese and Chinese, and very low percentage of people in Taiwan says they’re only Chinese.

Naturally, some people might say DPP is advocating for Taiwan independence, is advocating for a Taiwan identity orientated political position. Similarly, around 30% of the people in Taiwan says they’re both Taiwanese and Chinese, might be more subscribed to the ideas of supporting the KMT. But what we’re seeing right now when it comes to party recognition is [inaudible, 25:32] around 30%, and the KMT is around 15% or 16%. And the largest chunk of people remain without any specific party affiliation, which is actually very healthy for Taiwan. But also at the same time, making parties incredibly challenging when it comes to attracting voters, because they are now more issue orientated and also swing voters in Taiwan, where they don’t necessarily fixate on the ideas of because you support independence, because you support unification, ultimate unification, I’m going to support you regardless of anything else. Now it’s about how can a party comes up with policy positions on issues that independent voters are really caring about.

Kamran Bokhari:

So basically what you’re saying is that there’s sort of a maturing of public opinion attitudes in Taiwan, moving away from the macro level issues and dealing with more, would it be fair to say, bread and butter issues that affect them? Follow up on that with a brief question. If asked, do the polls, and I haven’t looked at them, I’m sure you have in far greater detail, what do the polls suggest is the public attitude towards the threat from across the straits? You mentioned energy security as a major concern earlier on in the episode, and so, things like that. They’re also not very high level concepts. They affect the daily life of people. So what does public opinion data suggest on those two matters?

Kai-chun Wang:

I would say I think right now a lot of the polling, and companies are doing those polls, are fixated on the support rate and the approval or disapproval rate of not only just the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, but also on all these major candidates that’s happening. So when it comes to major policy issues such as conscription, such as, are you satisfied with the current energy policies and everything? Unfortunately, I don’t have the most recent poll, but I am confident that maybe they did that around the beginning of this year or sometime last year. But I can definitely say this, that the people of Taiwan, they are beginning to care more about, I would say, energy stability. And you have the businesses in Taiwan, especially the semiconductors and also other kinds of, you can say power hungry businesses, enterprises on Taiwan, they’re gradually starting to care about future energy policy for Taiwan, because you already have in the past seven years, numerous nationwide blackouts.

But to be fair, those were resolved I would say within 24 hours. But from the perspectives of some small business owners like restaurant owners in Taiwan or food stand owners in Taiwan or just whatever small businesses you can think about, having your electricity shut down for several hours, it does create some annoyance. It does create some complexity that maybe the people of Taiwan think if you just subscribe to another policy direction, maybe this can be easily solved. Or maybe for example, increase the percentages of nuclear power being generated, improve the efficiency of the electricity grid in Taiwan. So those are the things that I think people are starting to be aware of.

Kamran Bokhari:

So lastly, could go on and on, and I would love to keep chatting about this with you. We’ve come to the end of our time, but one last question. What is it that Taiwan requires from the United States? If you had to do a top four list or a top five list, given the climate, given the need for energy security, given where domestic politics is, what is it that any government, regardless of whether it’s DPP or KMT, what would they be asking the United States in the current moment, given everything that’s going on?

Kai-chun Wang:

So I would say that for the people of Taiwan, we have to focus on ourselves first. I think number one, come up with a clear resolve and a clear position when it comes to how are we going to address all the issues that we are currently doing before we can actually start close consultation or close discussion with the United States. So some of the things that Taiwan is very happy to see is the fact that US is currently finding more creative ways to support Taiwan to try to increase what the current administration in Washington calls the integrated deterrence, for example.

I think this is actually the first time since 1979 or way before that where US has given Taiwan foreign military financing in the forms of a grant to Taiwan, which typically is only given to a sovereign state. And also we’re seeing more substantial cooperation between the US National Guard and also with our own military. I mean, the news just came out I think less than 24 hours ago or more than 24 hours. Our Ministry of Defense has no comment on that, but they were also joined, I would say, military exercise in Palau, air defense assets. So those are the things that I would say Taiwan is very happy to continue. Primarily, fundamentally, we meaning Taiwan, need to first understand and try to give the United States a clear sense, where we’re heading when it comes to all these different security issues.

Kamran Bokhari:

Thank you so much, Steven. It’s been wonderful chatting with you. You really enlightened us about what’s really happening right now in Taiwan, between Taiwan and China, and what the US should be focused on. I guess we’re going to have to focus in the short term on the election that’s coming up very fast, and so we’re definitely going to have you on again very soon.

And folks, that was Steven Wang who was my guest today. He’s a policy research fellow at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He’s also in the past worked for the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee of the Taiwanese legislature as a foreign policy advisor, and he also worked for the Opposition Party’s Department of International Affairs. This is Kamran Bokhari signing off for now, and hopefully we will be back soon with another exciting episode of Eurasian Connectivity. Stay tuned and take care.

Related Articles

Countering the Growing Threat of Drone Attacks on Energy Infrastructure 

Countering the Growing Threat of Drone Attacks on Energy Infrastructure 

The proliferation and growing sophistication of UAVs puts the ability to wreak havoc within anyone’s reach, making addressing security vulnerabilities in energy systems imperative.

Dubai’s Floods and the Future of Climate Change

Dubai’s Floods and the Future of Climate Change

In this episode of the Contours podcast, host Eugene Chausovsky talks with New Lines Senior Fellow Chaouki Ghenai about their experiences with the recent flooding in Dubai. They also discuss steps the UAE and wider world can take to adapt to the changing global climate and mitigate its effects.

The Complex World of Russian Economics

The Complex World of Russian Economics

In episode 3 of the Russia in Context series, host Jeff Hawn sits down with Nick Trickett and Yakov Feygin, associate director of the Berggruen Institute. In addition to the modern state of the Russian economy, the trio discusses the evolution of the post-Soviet Russian economy, cyclic trends in its development, and how Russia has reacted to sanctions regimes.

Africa-Europe Energy Connectivity

Africa-Europe Energy Connectivity

In this Contours episode, Carolyn Moorman talks with Chaouki Ghenai about the challenges, benefits, and emerging opportunities presented by increasing green energy connectivity between Africa and Europe.