Taiwan opposition candidate to push US for clarity on defence commitments

The presidential candidate of Taiwan’s largest opposition party plans to push the Biden administration to clarify its commitment to defending his country when he visits the US over the coming week.

“We are allied nations. We stand together,” Hou Yu-ih, of the Kuomintang, told the Financial Times in his first interview with international media since receiving the KMT’s nomination in May.

“I will ask them directly, the US officials, the people from the American Institute in Taiwan [Washington’s de facto embassy] . . . what their attitude is in supporting us and how far that goes,” he added.

Hou’s comments highlighted the significance of the January general elections beyond Taiwan, where the four candidates vying for the presidency disagree over how to counter Beijing’s ambitions to bring the island under its control.  

The Chinese Communist party has never ruled Taiwan but claims it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to take it by force if necessary.

That risk has become more acute as Beijing has increased military pressure around Taiwan with frequent large-scale air and naval manoeuvres. Taiwan’s defence ministry said 68 Chinese military aircraft and 10 warships operated near the island in the 24 hours to Thursday morning.

Washington is obliged under US law to help Taiwan defend itself but has long avoided clarifying whether it would directly intervene militarily if China attacked. This so-called strategic ambiguity aims to discourage changes to the status quo from either side.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy tugboat sails in the Taiwan Strait past tourists on Pingtan island in China’s Fujian province
A People’s Liberation Army Navy tugboat sails in the Taiwan Strait past tourists on Pingtan island in China’s Fujian province. Beijing has ramped up military pressure around Taiwan © Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Although President Joe Biden has said four times that the US would defend Taiwan against an unprovoked Chinese attack, the administration insists that its policy has not shifted, and opinion polls in Taiwan show public confidence is shaky in Washington’s assurances.

Some US officials are likely to bristle at KMT demands for more explicit backing from Washington. The party has often not supported Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen’s efforts to strengthen the armed forces and adopt an asymmetric defence strategy recommended by Washington.

Such a strategy seeks to deter China from invading by relying on cheap, mobile and hard-to-detect weapons, rather than trying to match the People’s Liberation Army in fighter aircraft and warships.  

Hou initially led the presidential race but has since fallen to a distant second behind Lai Ching-te, the candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive party. The latest survey by Formosa, one of Taiwan’s largest pollsters, put Hou’s support at 20 per cent to Lai’s 38 per cent, mainly because two other candidates, including Foxconn founder Terry Gou, have splintered the opposition vote.

However, political analysts and even DPP officials expect the ruling party to lose its legislative majority, enabling the opposition to block policies such as increased defence spending.

Hou will meet officials from the US National Security Council and the state department in Washington through the American Institute in Taiwan. He is also scheduled to attend a closed-door round-table hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in New York on Friday and speak at events organised by the Brookings Institution, the German Marshall Fund and the Heritage Foundation in Washington early next week.

A former police officer who is now mayor of New Taipei, Taiwan’s most populous municipality, Hou’s political career has been limited to local government, raising concerns among some observers that sensitive security discussions with the US could prove challenging.

A former KMT official said Hou’s US interlocutors would quiz him on defence and China policy, subjects that would be “easier for Lai to tackle” as a member of Tsai’s administration who has joined national security meetings and whose party has had a more consistent stance.

At a night market eatery on Wednesday night, Hou was frequently interrupted from his bowl of pig blood soup by enthusiastic passers-by, whom he patted on the back and engaged mostly in his native Taiwanese rather than Mandarin.

“I fear that charisma will not translate in his DC meetings,” the official added.

Hou rejected such claims. “I have worked with police officers from all over the world in combating crime. How do you think I used to deal with them?” he said. “I don’t speak English fluently, but shared beliefs, shared goals, shared values are more important.”

He added that he would not criticise Taiwan’s government abroad but appeared to blame Tsai for rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait. “Over the past seven years, our government has ever so subtly created a new status quo,” he said, adding that the escalating US-China rivalry also played a role.

Hou caused alarm in July when he indicated that he would consider undoing Tsai’s extension of mandatory military service after stabilising relations with China.

Pressed on how he would deal with Beijing, Hou said while China and Taiwan did not recognise each other’s sovereignty, they would not deny their mutual authority to govern — a formula coined by Ma Ying-jeou, a KMT politician who was Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016.

“Regarding sovereignty, we have never been subordinate to one another in the first place,” he added, echoing part of Tsai’s definition of cross-Strait relations.

“In the current phase, a responsible stance demands that we strengthen our defences. But lowering the risk of conflict is the most important thing,” he added. “We need dialogue and exchanges for that. Even the US communicates with China — how can we not communicate? We are neighbours after all.”

Financial Times

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