Taiwan VP’s visit to US might complicate things with China

Updated Aug 16, 2023, 2:02pm EDT
Lai Ching-te
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The world is waiting for what China will do as Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, also the frontunner in next year’s presidential election, makes a stopover in San Francisco Wednesday.

Lai made another stopover in New York this weekend before a planned trip to Latin America, where many countries still hold diplomatic relations with the self-governing island.

Lai’s U.S. stops — which are unofficial visits on paper — are ostensibly done to not provoke Beijing, but the 63-year-old is known for his outspoken views on Taiwanese sovereignty, having recently said that that the world shouldn’t "be afraid … of the increased threat from authoritarianism."1 But the U.S. made sure it was more of a low-key visit to avoid further straining China relations. He worried the Biden administration when he recently said that he looked forward to the day "the president of Taiwan can walk into the White House.”2

The U.S. should "leave enough margin of safety to avoid triggering military conflict,"3 said Hu Xijin, a Chinese nationalist firebrand and former editor-in-chief of state tabloid The Global Times. While Hu's affinity for military intervention has sometimes been too extreme for some CCP members, analysts observed that Beijing has also come to adopt a similar hardline approach to Taiwan in recent years. Responding to Lai's U.S. visit, China called him a "complete troublemaker" and warned that his election "will only bring risks of fierce war.”4

China may "try to pick off one of Taiwan's remaining 13 diplomatic allies"5 in response to Lai's visit, the German Marshall Fund's Bonnie Glaser predicted. She believes it would most likely be Guatemala, where outsider candidate and current frontrunner Bernardo Arevalo has pitched securing closer ties with Beijing.6 Glaser also believes China may conduct more military exercises around Taiwan following Lai's stopover.

But any aggressive provocation from Beijing "may just help Lai to score points,"7 a senior Taiwanese official said, and inadvertently propping up a Taiwanese nationalist candidate like Lai "holds no benefits for Beijing." Previous aggressions from China have boosted Lai's Democratic Progressive Party in polls, and Beijing is hoping that a more China-friendly candidate from the Kuomintang party will win next year's race.

"Responsibility for keeping the peace lies squarely with Xi Jinping,"8 argues Georgetown Center for Asian Law fellow Kevin Yam. While other analysts have questioned whether Lai's approach to cross-strait relations will prevent war, Yam emphasizes that neither Lai nor any 2024 candidate is proposing invading the mainland, meaning it is up to Beijing to avert a war in the region.