The island nation of Taiwan is watching warily as China’s National People’s Congress implements stronger measures and a specific national security law on Hong Kong that threatens to rewrite important geoeconomic and security issues in this strategic space.
Taiwan’s nationalist President Tsai Ing-wen, who has just started her second term in office, accused Beijing of the “predation” of Hong Kong through fiscal extraction. Her use of the word predation is important in terms of Taiwan’s sovereignty issues. China sees Hong Kong as a national security priority based on ideas of secessionism, terrorism and foreign interference, which comes from what Beijing views as American and, more specifically, Taiwanese subterfuge. Tsai’s recent landslide election victory was driven by the Taiwanese youth vote against the mainland-friendly Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu, making internal Taiwanese politics an important factor.
No doubt China’s national security law will prompt nationalist Taiwan to revoke the special status it extends to Hong Kong, thus establishing a wall between the mainland and Taiwan. This move could damage interconnectivity for Taipei, which is important for family connections and trade ties. More to the point, such a break in connectivity would bring to the forefront the sharpening divides between Taiwan and China.
Obviously, the ongoing fight between Beijing and Taipei over Hong Kong is not new, but it fits into a larger geostrategic problem. In January 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China, and he meant it. In a speech marking 40 years since Beijing’s call to end the military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, Xi warned that China reserved the right to use force to bring about a reunification.
In the current geostrategic environment, such comments and actions further signal what is to come: The hypothetical takeover of Taiwan in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021. Security experts pore over every detail of this plan. Tsai is constantly reiterating that Taiwan will never accept the “one country, two systems” proposal that America backs. The vast majority of the Taiwanese public also resolutely opposes it.
To be sure, residents’ travel between Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Macau, is arranged with the Chinese authorities. And cultural identity within the Chinese populations across the Taiwan Strait is undoubtedly a powerful driver that allows the mainland to push this agenda with ease against a democratic system that is subject to scandal and personal interests.
With Hong Kong’s urban disturbances and increasing Chinese control of the city-state, there will be breaks in travel, commerce and trade. Taiwan deals with Hong Kong and neighboring Macau under rules that, for example, allow residents of the two cities to visit and invest in Taiwan much more easily than mainland Chinese business interests. What will occur with the implementation of any Taiwanese penalty is a fundamental change in terms of Taiwan-Hong Kong relations.
The economic trade component lies in the fact that Taiwan offers special treatment to Hong Kong, including an investment-immigration program that offers employment opportunities for 10,000s of immigrants. Significantly, the number of Hong Kong immigrants to Taiwan jumped 150 percent to 2,383 in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, illustrating how the changing political landscape is forcing the acceleration of such trends.
Taiwan’s law regarding bilateral relations with Hong Kong and Macau contains a provision allowing Taipei to offer help to residents of those territories who may be subject to “danger or unfair trial and imprisonment due to their political views or acts.” This legal language may be seriously altered given the rising tensions, and it puts pressure on Tsai domestically. Her political acumen is now key and her no-nonsense approach is a considerable benefit.
US reassurances to Taiwan, specifically from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, antagonize China, increasing cross-strait tensions. An impressive set of arms purchases from the US — consisting of $10 billion-worth of F-16 fighter jets, M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, in addition to the possible purchase of 18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes and related equipment at an estimated cost of $180 million — has helped bolster Taiwan’s defensive capability.
Hong Kong and Taiwan fall under particular aspects of US law, including Hong Kong’s special status. China and Taiwan’s collision course will change the fundamental economic and security dynamics between the two countries.
The above is clear from a security and economic standpoint: The US-Taiwan relationship will tighten in support of Hong Kong under increasing Chinese legal domination. Under these conditions, ties will be broken in an already changing logistics and trade system. Importantly, China’s earlier recovery from the coronavirus pandemic gives Xi the advantage in the Taiwan Strait.