First sparks fly between the US and China after Taiwan elections

Beijing has accused Washington of violating the ‘one-China principle’ after Antony Blinken congratulated the election winner, Lai Ching-te

Lai Ching-te Taiwan
Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's vice president and presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at a polling station during the presidential and parliamentary elections in Tainan, Taiwan, on Saturday.ANN WANG (REUTERS)
Guillermo Abril

Tensions remain high in the Taiwan Strait. The first diplomatic sparks between the United States and China erupted the day after Taiwan’s election. The presidential ballot on Saturday was won by Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who Beijing considers a “troublemaker.” The results showed that Taiwan — a self-governed island which China considers an inalienable part of its territory and that counts the United States as its main ally — is committed to staying on the same path.

Following Lai’s victory, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement to congratulate the winner. “We look forward to working with Dr. Lai and Taiwan’s leaders of all parties to advance our shared interests and values, and to further our longstanding unofficial relationship, consistent with the U.S. one China policy,” he said. “We are confident that Taiwan will continue to serve as an example for all who strive for freedom, democracy, and prosperity.”

When questioned about the results, U.S. President Joe Biden added briefly: “The United States does not support the independence of Taiwan.”

But Blinken’s congratulatory message angered China. On Sunday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it “strongly” deplored Blinken’s statement, arguing it “seriously violates the one-China principle” and “sends a gravely wrong signal to the Taiwan independence separatist forces.” In the statement, the Foreign Ministry added that it had “made serious representations to the U.S. side.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned on Sunday that any initiative in favor of Taiwanese independence will be “severely punished” for trying to “split China.” “Regardless of the outcome of the election, it will not change the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China,” he added during a press conference on his visit to Egypt.

The tension, as expected, began on Saturday night, when a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued its first statement on the election results. It argued that the results showed that the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion,” and claimed that the elections “will not impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification.”

Taiwan also waded into the war of words. On Sunday, it called on China “to respect the election results, face reality and give up its oppression against Taiwan.”

Meanwhile, the United States has sent a delegation of former senior officials to travel “in their private capacity” to Taiwan, according to a statement from the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto U.S. embassy. The delegation plans to meet with “leading political figures” on Monday, as they have done after previous elections.

Taiwan’s new president received congratulatory messages from numerous countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union. But it is the statement from the U.S. secretary of state that has aroused China’s ire.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Blinken’s message violates the “one-China principle and the three joint communiqués of China and the United States” — the delicate and highly complex diplomatic architecture that resolves the Taiwan stumbling block and governs relations between Washington and Beijing, which resumed in the 1970s.

The statement argued that the message also “goes against the U.S.’ own political commitment to maintaining only cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. The Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s interests and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations,” it added.

In the statement, Beijing demanded that Washington not use the island as a tool to “contain China” and urged it to “stop interactions of an official nature” with the island. In the recent meeting in San Francisco between Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, Xi said that Taiwan remained “the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”

Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te — who will take office on May 20 — has said that he will follow the path paved by the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, also of the DPP, who leaves power after reaching the two-term limit. Her administration has been marked by lack of communication with China, growing tension in the Taiwan Strait, and the island’s rapprochement with Washington.

“It is my important responsibility, as president, to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Lai said Saturday in his first media appearance after winning the election. He stated that he would try to seek dialogue with China on the basis of “dignity and equality,” but also signaled that he would increase Taiwan’s current deterrence strategy. “We are also determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China,” he said. “Between democracy and authoritarianism, we still stand on the side of democracy.”

With Lai’s victory, the DPP has become the first party to win a third consecutive term since Taiwan’s first democratic elections in 1996. The party’s victory has destroyed China’s hopes of an eventual rapprochement, similar to the one forged under the administration of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016). His party, the nationalist Kuomintang, once again came in second place in the presidential elections, although it won more seats than the DPP in the legislative elections.

Beijing — which sees Taiwan as a rebellious province that it intends to reincorporate peacefully, although it has not ruled out using force — argues that Lai has secret plans for independence, which harm the population of Taiwan and “jeopardizes” peace in the Strait. “In order to get more votes, Lai tries to hide the fact that, as a supporter of Taiwan independence, he is essentially a troublemaker and instigator of war,” Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said in November according to China’s state press.

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