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Panorama of Taipei downtown at sunset, Taiwan
Panorama of Taipei downtown at sunset, Taiwan
November 8, 2023

Taiwan’s Position in the World

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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Debates over the potential for conflict in Taiwan often overlook the island’s domestic political dynamics and how its contested status impacts its engagement with the outside world. 

Moreover, security should not be the only lens through which Taiwan’s position is assessed: its economic exchanges—not only to the People’s Republic of China, but to other Asian-Pacific countries and the United States—are important linkages for the global economy. Christina Lai and Lev Nachman join the U.S.-China Nexus to unpack trends in Taiwan’s domestic politics and the island’s economic statecraft.

Eleanor M. Albert: Today we are joined by two wonderful guests based in Taipei for a discussion on Taiwan’s place in the world: Christina Lai and Lev Nachman. 

Christina Lai is an associate research fellow in the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica. She is also an adjunct faculty in global security studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is interested in U.S.–China relations, Chinese foreign policy, and East Asian politics more broadly. 

Lev Nachman is a political scientist and an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council Global China Hub and the National Bureau of Asian Research. His research examines how Taiwan’s contested status motivates people to vote or protest. He is also author of the new book Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat (2023).

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to start off this conversation by just getting a little personal and asking you both how you entered this journey into studying Taiwanese politics, or how Taiwan factors into [your] research. Why don't we start with Lev, and then Christina.

Lev Nachman:  I'm actually very unoriginal. I'm not the first one in my family to come to Taiwan. My uncle actually was a Chinese major in the 1970s when Americans couldn’t go to China to study Mandarin. So, he came here. And he still lives here. He’s lived here on and off for 35 years. His wife, my aunt, is Taiwanese; my cousins are Taiwanese-American.

In college, I thought they would get a kick out of me learning Mandarin, so I took Mandarin 101. And then when it came time to study abroad, I obviously came to Taiwan for family connections. The first place I lived in Taiwan was actually not in Taipei; I lived in the middle of Taiwan in Taichung. One day, I was randomly walking down the street, where I accidentally made friends with a group of Taiwanese musicians who were very involved in local politics.

They took me to my very first protest. And I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. They really gave me a crash course on Taiwanese politics, cross-strait relations, Taiwanese identity, and I stumbled into this sort of research agenda. All my friends that I had made, and contacts I made over the years, they were involved in the Sunflower Movement in 2014, have gone on since to become politicians or organizers. That was my gateway into Taiwanese politics, and all these years later, I'm very lucky to still be here.

Eleanor M. Albert: Wonderful. How about you, Christina?

Christina Lai: First of all, I want to thank Eleanor for hosting this podcast. I was born and raised in Taiwan, and I went to the United States for graduate school. Throughout all these years, I have friends and family both in Taiwan and United States. Therefore, U.S.-Taiwan relations and Asian security are not only important topics in international relations, but also matter a lot to my personal life.

I studied international relations in my undergraduate because I care deeply about the important and diverse problems the government face. So in my own research, I seek to understand how foreign rhetoric or official statements matter to threat perception and try to find concrete solutions to facilitate cross-cultural communications.

So in this sense, I do not really see a rigid distinction between academic research and the policy world. I strive to remain open to learning from my colleagues’ work, think tank, policy analysis, or even documentary in Asian history. I've often found myself to be a great beneficiary from them as I learned something important about my research, about Asia, about China, and about the world.

Eleanor M. Albert: So, let's dive right in. Taiwan has been a hot topic in recent years, in both the broader U.S.-China relationship, but also unfortunately in the context of the war in Ukraine. There have been lots of people trying to gather lessons learned, what could this tell us about a potential conflict. But I really want to start by trying to situate Taiwan itself, its politics, and the role that it plays in geopolitics more broadly. So, I thought we could turn to Lev for a little breakdown.

Lev Nachman: Taiwan, today, is a democracy, but Taiwan was not always a democracy. Once upon a time, China was in a civil war, and the long story short is one of those fighting factions, the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT (Kuomintang), lost the civil war. They fled to Taiwan and established an authoritarian government. Now, of course, before the Chinese Civil War, there were lots of people living in Taiwan. Before then Taiwan was a Japanese colony, and before that it was a part of the [Chinese] Qing empire, and before that it had colonies from the Dutch, and before that there were indigenous people living in Taiwan for a very, very long time.

We often think of Taiwan's history starting with the KMT and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), but there's actually a lot more to Taiwan than just the end of the Chinese Civil War. But unfortunately, when we think about Taiwan's democratization, it really is beginning with the civil war because it's democratizing away from the authoritarian government that the KMT had brought to Taiwan.

Now, democratization began in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and officially Taiwan became no longer under martial law in 1986, and the first free and fair elections started in 1992, but the first real big election was in 1996. And today, Taiwan is a robust democracy, one of the freest in East Asia, and has really become a role model for democracies around the world.

That being said, there's a giant elephant in the room, which is that Taiwan is a contested state, meaning that it is a de facto independent state, it acts like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, but we don't call it a duck. It has its own passports, its own laws, its own citizenship, but it is claimed by the People's Republic of China [PRC] still. And the PRC's claims over Taiwan are emphatic, it's a fundamental core value of the PRC that Taiwan is part of the PRC's territory.

Even though the PRC has never actually had any governing power over Taiwan, it is still a fundamental part to not just the PRC's political goals, but also of PRC nationalism, and part of PRC identity. The PRC's claims over Taiwan are so far-reaching that it actually goes so far as to stop Taiwan from having any sort of formal relations with other countries: Taiwan can't participate in the UN (United Nations). Even during COVID-19, it wasn't allowed to be a member of the World Health Organization.

It's not just international; it's also about Taiwan's domestic [politics]. Domestically, Taiwan is different from places like the United States or Western Europe because the political spectrum here is not defined by issues of left/right, but instead by issues of Taiwan's future because of its contested status. So, what does Taiwan want for its future? Does it want to become an independent Taiwan? Does it want to become part of the PRC? Or does it want to maintain this uncomfortable de facto independence gray zone status that currently exists, which we call the status quo? And that is the very uneasy world that we live in today.

Eleanor M. Albert: I think the geopolitics are an important part, but it's not the only element through which Taiwan interacts with the world. Taiwan's economy, particularly the electronics and the semiconductor industry, they hold a really important place in the global economy. Taiwan was also one of the Asian tigers that experienced all this rapid industrialization... I'm curious to understand how Taiwan has approached building and diversifying its economy. So, Christina, I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about Taiwan's economic statecraft. What kind of policies does it pursue to maintain these economic ties with the world?

Christina Lai: The Taiwanese government has responded to China’s economic pressure by diversifying its trade and investment in Southeast Asia to lessen dependence on China. However, it will still take quite a long time for [the] Taiwanese economy to achieve such structural change. As of now, I think Taiwan has remained reliant on China's economy, making it vulnerable to economic coercion and political pressure. By enhancing our understanding of how and under what conditions that economic coercion can impact the probability of conflicts, scholars and practitioners can effectively assess the current development of China-Taiwan relations and Taiwan’s use of economic statecraft.

I want to first highlight one important elements of Taiwan's economic statecraft. That's its diversification strategy. When Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in 2016, Beijing imposed limits on the number of Chinese tourists allowed to travel to Taiwan. The economic loss suffered [by] the Taiwan tourism industry led to street protests, urging President Tsai to mend relations with China.

The Tsai administration adopted a diversification strategy by attracting visitors from Southeast Asian countries and encouraging domestic travel to support local businesses. Although such policy measures could not completely offset the loss from Chinese tourist banned, Taiwan's tourism industry has gradually lessened its dependence on Chinese tourists and expanded its clientele to be more diverse. In 2018, the tourism bureau offered [a] travel subsidy program to boost domestic tourism, and most of the natural wonder sites were included and [it] applied to both independent and group travelers. It has lowered the visa requirements for Southeast Asian countries and promoted greater exchange in education and cultural tourism.

Beyond tourism, Taiwan's New Southbound Policy also employ its economic statecraft to diversify Taiwan's commercial ties to South and Southeast Asian countries. That has helped to lessen the negative impact of China’s economic coercion and to promote innovation in Taiwan's economy.

Specifically, [the] Taiwanese government offers special loans to companies wanting to do business with ASEAN countries, New Zealand, Australia, India. Taiwan has implemented several initiatives to create new profit in [a] key sector. For example, there are five flagship programs, including innovative industry, medical industry, policy forums, and regional agriculture and talent cultivations programs to showcase Taiwan’s soft power appeal.

This new policy offers Taiwan [a] great opportunity to foster substantive tie with India. For example, Taiwan's industrial talents cultivation program has helped India to advance technology in semiconductor and smartphone design. And Taiwan's initiative of incubating industrial talents can carry great potential to reach out to other Southeast Asian countries.

Taiwan securitization strategy is another feature for its economic statecraft. Taiwan securitization strategy can be traced back to the debates over the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that sought to strengthen ties with China.

At that time, Tsai adopted a pragmatic approach in assessing the long-term effect of deepening economic integration with China. In particular, her framing strategy was raising awareness among the Taiwanese public as to the cost of underlying Taiwan's sovereignty in exchange for the ECFA. Specifically, Tsai stressed that Taiwan's people need to understand the negative impact of economic dependence on China as [it] will not only make Taiwan more vulnerable, but also seriously undermine Taiwan’s democratic government.

When President Tsai and the DPP won overwhelmingly in the 2016 election, the Taiwanese government actively addressed China's economic and security threat to Taiwan's cherished values. The Tsai administration has gained legitimacy through securitizing China-Taiwan trade. And President Tsai was able to convince the general public that over-reliance on China's economy could be detrimental to Taiwan's democratic system.

So I think over these few years, China has executed a series of economic incentive and coercive measures to Taiwan. But these measures don't always achieve Beijing's desired outcome. Just to be clear, there is no quick remedy or one-size-fits-all strategy encountering China's economic coercion. As the target country, Taiwan [has] to take a long-term approach such as structural adjustment, sectoral reforms to cover the economic loss. In the long run, securitization and diversification strategies adopted by the Taiwanese governments or the weapons of the weak encountering China's economic sanctions.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to follow up a little bit on how dependent Taiwan's economy is on China. Historically, the roles were kind of reversed. Taiwan was a source of important investment into China when China was starting its gǎigé kāifàng, open and reform policies. Now things have obviously changed in part just because of pure size of China's economy, right? But I'm curious about the dependencies? How important [is] mainland China's economy in the scope of Taiwan's economic situation?

Christina Lai: The economic dependency, I think it [did] take quite some time. Right after the Tiananmen Square, it's kind of the turning points where a lot of Taiwanese businesspeople started to go to China and doing business at that time, because China suffered from economic sanctions imposed by the West. I think that's a starting point when a lot of Taiwanese business or mid-sized business owners started to want to do business, first in the coastal area of China, and later on they wanted to move into the midwest part because the labor, the cost will be cheaper there.

As of now, Taiwan's export to China has gradually decreased now, and its import to the United States have grown steadily, starting from 2019 until now. But I think together, the trends indicate that Taiwan's trade diversification strategy could be somehow successful; it’s supported by the growth of export from other partners such as Southeast Asian country and United States. Even though China has a growing economic scale, rapid economic growth, but its economic scale does not really make China's leverage in coercing Taiwan always successful, right? We need to put into perspective the power of symmetry between economic scale and how China wants to execute its leverage.

Eleanor M. Albert: Great. I want to turn to Lev and ask about how tensions between Beijing and Washington have an impact on domestic politics in Taiwan. How does this manifest itself in domestic politics?

Lev Nachman: It's important to situate what exactly motivates Taiwan voters. Political scientists in Taiwan have been studying how people vote in Taiwan ever since Taiwan was a democracy. So we often ask, what is it exactly that Taiwanese people want? We should really be asking Taiwanese people more. The good news is we actually know the answer to that question because we conduct so many public opinion polls in Taiwan. The political spectrum that exists here is often framed around what people want for Taiwan's future. On one far end is sort of this desire for republic of Taiwan. On the other far end is immediate reunification with the People's Republic of China. In the middle is the support for Taiwan's de facto independence as the [Republic of China] that is not formally recognized that we call the status quo.

This is a spectrum which means that there's lots of different positions and not everyone neatly aligns. So, some of the challenges that we run into as social scientists is when I say independence and you say unification, are we talking about the same thing? Or what's even more fraught is when I say status quo and you say status quo, does that mean the same thing? But broadly speaking, we know these terms to mean independence to be a formal change in Taiwan status, unification to be a formal change in Taiwan status, and status quo to be no formal change.

Overwhelmingly, we know that Taiwanese voters want the status quo. They do not want a formal change in Taiwan’s status. There's been public opinion data ever since… I believe 1992 was when the first wave was conducted, that has shown that support for the status quo, and multiple interpretations of the status quo, I will add, make up about 75% of what Taiwanese people want.

Now that's very important because that means if you're running for office and you know that the vast majority of people in Taiwan want the status quo, that means you're not going to campaign on a formal change. We often hear things like the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is pro-independence and the KMT (Kuomintang) is pro-unification. Those aren't entirely correct.

Both of these big parties are pro-status quo parties because... well, their voter bases want the status quo. Now how they go about enforcing the status quo and how they see Taiwan's eventual future? Those might vary, those might be different. For example, the DPP is pro-status quo, but its interpretation of the status quo is to maintain Taiwan's de facto independence and hedge more on the United States and diversify away from the PRC.

The KMT’s interpretation of the status quo is to continue for Taiwan to be a de facto independent state, but try to create better relations with the PRC, that Taiwan's continued existence as a de facto independent state is reliant upon good relations with the PRC.

Now it’s important to keep in mind that the KMT is also not opposed to relations with the United States and the DDP is not opposed to relations with China. Ever since Tsai’s administration began almost eight years ago, Tsai Ing-wen has actually repeatedly tried to have relations with the PRC; it's the PRC that doesn't pick up the phone when the DDP is in power.

Every presidential candidate, especially in this election, is explicitly pro-status quo. Whether or not you look at some of the writings from the DDP or the KMT, all parties acknowledge that they do not want a formal change in Taiwan status, and they all acknowledge the need to maintain strong relations with the United States, and the need and hope for dialogue with the PRC.

Those three things: the lack of desire to change the formal status, good relations with the United States and a hope for dialogue. No presidential candidate or party disagrees with any of those features. It's how they would go about implementing those features that's the difference between these parties. We know from, again, public opinion data that when people go to vote in Taiwan, it is this issue of “What's our relationship with China? What's the future of Taiwan?” that motivates how people decide for presidential elections. 

Now, when it comes to how different generations vote, this is a really important question that public opinion data has not really been able to give us a clear answer on. There's this sort of assumption that there's clear generational differences in how older versus middle-aged versus younger people vote, and we don't really understand those differences. The most common wisdom you'll hear in discourse around Taiwan today is that the youngest generation doesn't support either big party and instead they want to vote for this guy who's running for president, who is the former mayor of Taipei who's an independent.

Now even though public opinion polls show that he's more popularhis name is Ko Wen-jewe can't really explain why that is or how representative that is around Taiwan. Because a lot of these public opinion polls can't really speak broadly for all young people, but we're working on it. I'm also working on focus groups right now with young college students to try to better understand what exactly their reason is for why they might not support one of these big parties or how young people in Taiwan feel these days.

But we know that by and large about one third of Taiwan's voter base supports the DPP, one third of Taiwan's voter base supports the KMT, and about one third is independent or swings between the two depending on the election. Naturally that means that the parties are trying to appeal to that middle vote.

Eleanor M. Albert: In the context of this idea of maintaining tiesstrong ties with the United Stateshow have the series of high-profile visits been received? In the U.S., they're often heralded as, "We're giving Taiwan recognition," but also that generally tends to elicit a very strong response from China, which could in many ways impede this hope for dialogue between Taiwan and China.

Lev Nachman: Taiwan is in a position, at least from the government's perspective, that it doesn't get to be picky about who its friends are a lot of the time. Because, from Taiwan's perspective, it is incredibly marginalized. And it's true, Taiwan on the international stage is incredibly marginalized. It doesn't have rights like most states; it doesn't have access like most states. Often the Taiwan foreign policy attitude has been, "We will take whatever friends we are willing to get because we need friends." A lot of the time that puts Taiwan in a position where it feels like it cannot say no to certain visitors who want to come, especially from the United States. Now that's not saying that Taiwan didn't want Nancy Pelosi to come. Big Taiwan experts did a lot of tea-leaf reading about did the Tsai government want her to come? Did they not want her to come?

Ultimately at this point, doesn't matter. She came. We know that when she first got here, the visit was very widely well received across parties; both blue and green voters were positive about Nancy Pelosi's visit. As time's gone on, there have been more public opinion polls asking about her visit and the support for the visit has gone down a little bit.

When it comes to American politicians, if they express pro-Taiwan attitudes, people here will support them. I think my favorite fun fact about Taiwanese voters is this is a very special place in which Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pompeo are both extremely popular at the same time. But it's true. That's how it works here in Taiwan: if you're willing to be an ally to Taiwan, Taiwan will very much welcome it because again, from Taiwan's perspective, it doesn't have the privilege of being able to be picky when the PRC is making such drastic military threats towards Taiwan on a daily basis.

Eleanor M. Albert: That makes a lot of sense. Christina, I'm curious about your assessment. How are these visits received?

Christina Lai: I agree with what Lev said about both KMT and DPP, or people in Taiwan in general, welcoming Nancy Pelosi's visit as Taiwan has always been kind of diplomatically isolated from [the] international community. From my view, Taiwan's diplomatic isolation or political marginalization could be something pretty important that has largely been overlooked by scholars and practitioners in Asian politics or Indo-Pacific area. I think high-profile visits could help increase Taiwan's profile, but that's only a part of the solution. Embedding Taiwan into the regional networks, really helping Taiwan to get meaningful participation in international, regional organizations could be a more sustainable way to go in the long run.

Eleanor M. Albert: So I mentioned that Beijing's response is generally to give a military show. It also likes to use a lot of very strong rhetoric to chastise any voices that might be supporting the extreme end of the political spectrum for the future of Taiwan that Lev was talking about. But they also have other tools at their disposal, and that's in the economic realm. Christina, you were talking about economic coercion from China vis-à-vis Taiwan, and I'm curious what some of these tools are? What has China done that has been effective coercively toward Taiwan, and what hasn't exactly had its intended effect?

Christina Lai: Taiwan is at the forefront of China's economic and military coercion as Beijing will not renounce the use of force to deter Taiwan’s independent movement. Private business sectors in Taiwan who are heavily dependent on bilateral trade have a strong preference in maintaining stable China-Taiwan relations. Therefore, China’s economic statecraft toward Taiwan can best exemplify the analogy of carrot and sticks because Beijing's use of economic coercion and selective incentives will further shape Taiwan's policy options in future.

In 2011, for example, China signed a deal purchase of $4.5 million worth of milkfish from Tainan County. It is a traditionally pro-DPP district. Although this purchase at that time drew much media attention, it did not return into substantive votes for the pro-China candidate in a 2012 election. And the main reason why such a strategic purchase did not turn into electoral support was due to the limited number of fish farmers that benefit from the deal.

More importantly, China’s purchase of Taiwan's milkfish was not sustainable in nature as it was only a one-time thing that failed to develop long-lasting relations with the Taiwanese fish farmers. So Beijing’s attempt to win Taiwan's hearts and minds in the south through specific purchase agreements and preferential policy have been quite limited because China has failed to foster farmer support for the pro-China candidate in a local election.

More recently in September 2021, China's general administration custom imposed [a] ban on Taiwanese sugar apple and wax apple claiming that there were harmful pests found in the produce imports on multiple occasions. But in fact, this was not the first time that Taiwan's tropical fruit has suffered from Chinese import restrictions. That February, Beijing also suspended the importation of Taiwanese pineapple using a similar justification. Beijing's unilateral move left no room for negotiation or investigation. Being kind of ambushed by this import ban, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen encouraged people to eat more pineapple, and the Ministry of Agriculture also allocated government funds to subsidize the losses faced by Taiwanese farmers.

In the international arena, China’s use of economic inducements has successfully flipped several of Taiwan's diplomatic allies. The Taiwanese government increasingly faces this challenge of political isolation. For example, China has offered a huge amount of financial assistance to the Dominican Republic in exchange for breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Just a few years ago, I think during the [COVID-19] pandemic, Beijing adopted [an] increasingly tough stand toward Taiwan by actively rejecting Taiwan's diplomatic presence in international institutions such as World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. It has also pressured several multinational companies not to identify Taiwan by its name [on maps]. Beijing asked those companies to treat Taiwan as a province of China. Beijing has made such demands to Marriott, Delta, and United Airlines to list Taiwan as part of China on their official websites.

As of now, China is highly selective in choosing the instrument of economic sanction because it has always refrained from damaging its own domestic economy. But it is also exactly the reason why China’s exit option has led to the responding strategy from, for example, Japan, Australia, Taiwan encountering its economic coercion. So given this growing awareness, I think countries in Asia-Pacific are in better position when they adopt securitization policy for their national economies and diversifying their trading partners in Asia and beyond.

Eleanor M. Albert: On this note, how has the U.S. and its view on semiconductors affected the Taiwanese economy? Has it leveraged Taiwan's economy to be more important for the world? Does it give it a greater presence?

Christina Lai: U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen has proposed [the] idea of friend-shoring to address this trade vulnerability, amid this increasing geopolitical rivalry. Yellen's call for countries that share common values about global trade and economy to work together in competition against China’s unfair trade practice, right? Although she was referring to the critical idea of diversifying a supply chain of rare earth material, but I think Taiwan’s diversification of its trade policy and its currently cutting-edge development technology could also help U.S. and others to reduce economic reliance on China.

For example, the Taiwanese government and the semiconductor manufacturers: they're also well positioned to contribute to a resilient of global supply chain for computer chips. In that sense, Taiwanese government’s economic statecraft or semiconductor industry can really pave the way for greater economic stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Eleanor M. Albert: Great. I want to use this time to conclude. What facet of this Beijing, Taipei, Washington nexus worries you the most in the near to medium term? Or what aspect of this triangular dynamic is most overlooked or misunderstood?

Christina Lai: Thank you, Eleanor. That's a really great question. In my view, China's economic coercion has significant impacts on U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region, and I think it will shape U.S. policy option towards its allies in Asia and beyond.

More importantly, I think Beijing is likely to explore more options to apply economic coercion in maintaining or advancing its foreign policy objectives. China’s use of economic coercion has important implications for the United States now, and it's likely to be even more significant over the next five to 10 years. Even if China generally refrains from targeting coercive measures directly at the United States, China can shape the action of U.S. allies.

For example, Asian countries considering closer military relations with Washington over the next several years certainly will weigh China's coercive economic measure against South Korea after the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment. Asian countries will have to assess whether they wanted to bear the potential economic costs from China as a price for working closely with the United States. So even when countries choose to pursue closer U.S. security relations, despite the potential costs, they will likely factor [in] the possibility of Chinese coercion into decision about the timing and the nature of specific defense cooperation, right?

These countries may even begin to expect assurance from the United States of compensation or some kind of assurance if they are targeted by Beijing, raising the cost of U.S. security relationship. In that sense, I think the United States really needs a sophisticated apparatus to track and understand China economic coercion.

As of now, tracking this activity has been quite limited in U.S. policy planning circles. It has been insufficiently coordinated within the U.S. government, and it's been absent from a high-level diplomatic engagement between the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Understanding Chinese economic coercion of the future is really the first step toward effective response strategy.

Eleanor M. Albert: Lev, what worries you in this triangular dynamic?

Lev Nachman: When we take a step back and think more broadly about discourse around Taiwan, I think we have both a tendency to both overstate and understate. When it comes to overstating, if I look at headlines back in the United States about Taiwan, you would think that war is happening tomorrow. That's not true. We do a lot of damage to understanding Taiwan by sensationalist headlines that depict Taiwan as the most dangerous place on earth, or that people here live in a constant fear of war, or that any day now the war is imminent.

Something we need to be able to do when we talk about Taiwan policy is be a little bit smarter about it and be a little bit more pragmatic, and try to understand that the PRC has constraints, the United States has constraints. Even though we see headlines like “going to be prepared by…” a certain year or a certain date, one of the most fundamental things that's misunderstood is that there's a very big difference between capability and intention.

Just because the PRC may be capable of enacting war, [it] doesn't mean they're intending to enact war. It's important to keep in mind that war is a policy choice, often a very bad one. And one that the PRC is not going to make just because it's a certain year, a certain time.

That being said, something we should not understate is the seriousness of what exists within the Taiwan Strait. Ever since Nancy Pelosi's visit, the PRC has pretty much unilaterally changed the status quo within the Taiwan Strait, and both the quality and the quantity of the military threats it makes against Taiwan. Things like military jets flying over the median line within the Taiwan Strait isn't new since Pelosi's visit, but the frequency that it happens and to what extent it happens has most certainly changed in a much more dangerous way. The types of jets that are flying over are also much more dire, and we see way more activity from the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) that infers that they're at the very least becoming more prepared.

Now again, just because they're becoming more prepared doesn't mean they're going to push the war button tomorrow. But the more that there are these flyovers and the more jets that fly over, the more there could be accidents. The more that there's a possibility that someone sees something the wrong way, someone pushes the wrong button, someone turns the wrong way at the wrong time. The risk of miscalculation increases as these things go on. It's really important to keep in mind that there is a real danger of conflict happening over Taiwan; that's not fake. But the idea that it's imminent, the idea that it's going to happen no matter what is not true. It's important that we stay levelheaded when we think, talk, and learn about Taiwan.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.