In a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last Thursday in Uzbekistan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin offered support for China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan. “We intend to firmly adhere to the principle of ‘One China,’” he said, adding: “We condemn provocations by the United States and their satellites in the Taiwan Strait.” Perhaps with the need for “a stable strategic supporter at its back as it faces challenges from the sea” in mind, the gesture appeared to be successfully priced in for those who wished to make deals with Beijing during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting of Central Asian states at which Putin spoke, with the New York Times reporting that “one leader after another pledged support for China’s territorial claim to Taiwan.”
However, there is a danger in looking at this neat picture and imagining that it is representative of the whole story. Elsewhere, the success of China’s influence attempts over Taiwan are easily overblown, with influence attempts and successful influence regularly conflated. The relative failures are often ignored (in part at least because something not happening does not make for great headlines.) With this point in mind, a Swedish Defense Research Agency report published without much fanfare in May provides a useful corrective to anyone beginning to imagine that China is an all-powerful influence machine.
Across Japan, South Korea, Germany and Sweden, the report found that Chinese embassies and consulates do the most public work of policing Beijing’s red lines over Taiwan, with a stream of public statements published to counter events, policy documents, reports or other statements they deem as expressing support for Taiwan. The same institutions are also shown to apply quieter, background pressure. When Japan wanted to send COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, for instance, the report describes how the Chinese embassy in Tokyo “made daily protests and pressured Japan’s foreign ministry to refrain from delivering the vaccine to Taiwan,” which the report speculates may have eventually been behind the Japanese decision to send the vaccine directly to Taiwan, rather than working through the WHO’s global initiative COVAX. Or, more insidiously, consulates in smaller cities are identified as routinely making phone calls to critical newspapers or inviting journalists to dinner in order to exert pressure on what they publish.
Added to less well-substantiated detail of the work of China’s united front system — “a network of party and state agencies that works towards the [Chinese Communist Party’s] goals by influencing groups outside the party” shown to operate through organizations such as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (中国和平统一促进会, CCPPNR) in each country — there are easy headlines about Chinese influence to be had here. Particularly when “weaponized” investment strategies which can be used for geopolitical leverage are mentioned, and in both Germany and Sweden, intelligence agency reports noting concerns about Chinese espionage are listed.
But looking at the responses to the Chinese efforts, the report first and foremost describes an unevenness in all four cases. None of the four countries studied has an entirely unambiguous response to the pressure.
South Korea is described as being most cautious in expressing any support for Taiwan, Shows of support such as backing Taiwan’s bid to join the the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) appear alongside notable rejections such as declining to support Taiwan’s aspirations to join the WHO. Perhaps the prime example of how a mix of positions ultimately falls towards caution is the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, holding a phone call ahead of the 2021 G7 summit. It is reported that “Wang explicitly cautioned South Korea to not become entangled in the United States’ confrontational ‘Cold War mentality,’ as he stressed the importance of ‘political consensus’ with Seoul.” Then, at the end of the summit, South Korea pointedly did not sign a statement referring to security in the Taiwan Strait.
Japan on the other hand is described as being the boldest in expressing support. Informal efforts like support provided to Taiwan’s submarine industry by Japanese experts, or key shows of support for Taiwan’s efforts to observe WHO meetings, do still occur alongside key rejections — in 2019, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen proposed a Taiwan-Japan Security Dialogue to discuss regional security issues, which was rejected, for instance. But the report concludes that Japan has increasingly tied its own security to Taiwan’s in public, as part of a wider trend of Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing becoming increasingly tense.
Lastly, there is the case of the two European countries studied. Germany, the report concludes, is extremely cautious in dealings around Taiwan, but has reluctantly supported statements of support and backed its entry into the WHO, the ICAO and INTERPOL. Moreover, in known incidents where Beijing attempted to police Germany’s actions, “German actors did not comply with Chinese pressure.” Sweden, on the other hand, has seen some symbolic successes for Beijing, such as “when Swedish government authorities changed Taiwan’s designation from “The Republic of China (Taiwan)” to ‘Taiwan, province of China.’” This, allegedly, stemmed from outside influence. However, again, within international institutions, or in real policy terms, the effect is not seen. “Swedish politicians have also significantly increased their attention to Taiwan in the parliament in recent years. They mostly seek to enhance ties with Taiwan and deepen parliamentary support to the island,” it says.
The report isn’t comprehensive — no report could be — but it does at least do some work in demystifying China’s efforts. This isn’t some supernatural occurrence. It’s an ongoing, moving discourse, which can shift in multiple directions.
Image: I, Yann, Wikimedia