Taiwan’s participation in the APEC forum offers a rare opportunity to break China’s bonds

Taiwan will participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco this week, a rare opportunity for the self-governing island republic of 23 million people and its high-tech economy to break a diplomatic embargo imposed on it by authoritarian China.

Taiwan's chief representative will be a politician rather than a government or head of state, under an unwritten rule that satisfies China's contention that the organization's members participate as economic entities rather than state players.

For the seventh time, Taiwan will be represented by Morris Chang, the 92-year-old founder of world-leading Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. Chang is known as the godfather of the industry that has put Taiwan at the forefront of high-tech manufacturing and personal electronics.

Taiwan has been a member of APEC since 1991 under the name Chinese Taipei. It started participating just two years after the group was founded and in the same year that China and the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong joined.

Taiwan has relied on retired ministers — and, in Chang's case, industry leaders — who are well connected to the government but do not carry the weight of official office, which could draw protest from China. But that doesn't mean the Taiwanese government won't be represented. Finance Minister Chuang Tsui-yun will attend a meeting chaired by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who recently visited Beijing, and two other ministers will participate in meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

TAIWAN TO BE MAIN TOPIC OF XI-BIDEN MEETING

A Japanese colony until the end of World War II, Taiwan seceded from mainland China amid a civil war in 1949. China continues to claim the island as its territory, only to annex by force if necessary, a threat that almost daily sending ships and warplanes to areas around the island. These acts of civilian intimidation have the potential to erode the operational resilience of the island's military equipment and personnel. Taiwan has only a fraction of the air, sea and missile power of China's People's Liberation Army, not to mention its ground forces, and relies heavily on young men doing their mandatory national service to fill its ranks. .

However, Taiwan has in recent years invested heavily in upgraded arms purchases from the US, while boosting its own defense industry, notably building submarines that could undermine the Chinese naval threat. That came partly in response to Chinese shows of force, such as sailing aircraft carriers through the economically critical Taiwan Strait and sending aircraft and drones to circle the island.

Although the US does not have a military treaty with Taiwan, it is required under federal law to ensure that the island can defend itself and to treat all threats to the island as matters of “serious concern”. This, along with Washington's array of alliances from Japan to South Korea and the Philippines, and its refusal to recognize China's claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, make the Taiwan Strait a potential powder keg if the Chinese leader Xi Jinping seeks to do it well. his determination to unite what he sees as China's historical territory and to consolidate his political legacy.

China primarily wants an end to US arms sales to Taiwan, including the latest F-16 fighter jets, and an assurance that it will not give an electoral boost to the pro-independence ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

POLITICS IN THE GAME

Even with China's weak economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, including high youth unemployment and massive debts born of an overextended housing sector, Xi is promoting his vision for China to regain its historic position as the center of cultural, political and economic life in Asia-Pacific.

Taiwan, with its multi-party system focused mainly on local issues and a broad consensus favoring political separation from China, presents a unique challenge for those calling the shots inside the cloistered Qing dynasty leadership compound at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Almost entirely male and shielded from the media, they have brought Hong Kong to heel after pro-democracy protests erupted in the former British colony in 2019.

China has tried to influence Taiwan's politics through military threats, but also by using a “carrot and stick” approach to economic opportunities on the mainland and luring politicians, mainly from the main Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, to meet. with high-ranking officials in Beijing. Taiwan's media has also been persuaded to publish stories critical of the status quo of de facto independence, mainly through its ownership structures, which include significant investments in the mainland.

Ultimately, it depends on the voters in Taiwan. January's presidential and legislative elections will be the best determinant of whether the people wish to stay the course or seek a greater degree of accommodation with Beijing. Current Vice President William Lay appears to be able to win at least a plurality of votes in his presidential bid, while his opposition appears fractured and unable to form coalitions that could put the US-trained medical professional under significant pressure, despite huge sums spent on advertising by competitors such as electronics tycoon Terry Gou.