Taipei should try to revive low-level talks with Beijing to reduce heightened tensions between the two sides, Taiwan’s former foreign minister Jason Hu said in an interview today.
“Mainland China might not say this publicly, but I think they wouldn’t object if (Taiwan President) Tsai Ing-wen started a dialogue or some form of low-level interaction between the mainland China and Taiwan,” the former retiree said. foreign policy chief, government spokesman and mayor of Taichung, one of Taiwan’s largest cities.
Talks between the two have stalled since President Tsai’s election in 2016 and her Democratic Progressive Party’s break with earlier approaches to the mainland backed by the rival Kuomintang, or KMT. Hu is a former vice president of the KMT; he retired last year as vice chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, a media company controlled by billionaire Tsai Eng-meng seen as fostering closer ties between the mainland and Taiwan.
The economic stakes between the two parties are significant. Heightened military tension between the two this year after a visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has raised concerns about Taiwan’s role as a world leader in advanced semiconductor chips. Taiwanese companies are among the largest investors on the mainland with more than $200 billion in projects approved by Taipei over the years; those with a strong presence include iPhone supplier Hon Hai Precision, run by billionaire Terry Gou.
Hu, 74 and now retired, said by telephone from Taichung that Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping emerged stronger from the recent party congress, G20 meeting and APEC summit, and that Taiwan “should be more careful in cross-strait relations”. Edited excerpts follow.
Flannery: The Chinese Communist Party Congress, the G20 meeting and the APEC summit are over. How do you assess the state of cross-Strait links?
Hu: After the G20 and APEC meetings, and especially after the party congress, President Xi seems more confident than before, and Taiwan should be more careful in cross-Strait relations. There is no doubt that President Xi is stronger in many ways, both domestically and externally. The United States knows it too.
Flannery: Taiwan should be more careful in what way?
Hu: His position as the top supremo in China has been extended. The way he treated Hu Jintao surprised many people. I think he gets more “respect”, in quotes, nationally. He will therefore be a solid leader in the years to come. He may feel more responsible for dealing with the Taiwan issue.
Flannery: What do you mean by “more responsible?”
Hu: He wants to solve it.
Flannery: How can he do that?
Hu: People always talk about a military conflict. I don’t think he really wants a military conflict because he doesn’t need a military conflict. He has a lot of cards in his hand. If he did something that affected Taiwan’s economy, investment and foreign trade, Taiwan would not be what it is today. People would then really start to worry. He doesn’t need to send the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).
The Taiwanese government – Tsai Ing-wen – is preparing for a PLA landing and ground combat. I think it is for home consumption. It will show weapons, missiles and many things that are not so useful in the event of a conflict, because Beijing is catching up with the United States.
Flannery: Do you think the United States would support Taiwan militarily in the event of a blockade?
Hu: First of all, he would be very worried about a blockade. It is very difficult for the United States to deal with a blockade. Who would shoot first?
Second, if you look at Ukraine, the United States can supply a lot of weapons to Taiwan, but I don’t think an American leader would sacrifice American lives like in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iraq. I don’t think it would be supported by American public opinion.
Supplying arms for a possible military conflict would help Taiwan sustain itself longer. But as in Ukraine, Taiwanese and mainlanders will be killed. Many people will be killed. I think the United States wants to avoid that. That’s why Biden recently wanted to meet with President Xi. They both want to avoid a possible military conflict between the big two.
Flannery: What could Beijing do to try to improve relations? A blockade would be a big stick. And the carrots? In the 1990s, when you and I first met, there was more optimism about some sort of integration.
Hu: Mainland China may not say so publicly, but I think they wouldn’t object to Tsai Ing-wen starting a dialogue or some form of low-level interaction between Mainland China and Taiwan. . I think China wouldn’t oppose it, but China wouldn’t take the initiative because Taiwan opposes the 1992 “one China” consensus and a lot of interaction.
If America is doing everything possible to ask both sides to resume interaction or communication, it must devote power or energy to Tsai Ing-wen.
Flannery: But wasn’t it Beijing that broke off the conversation with the Straits Exchange Foundation after Tsai was elected?
Hu: Yes, because Tsai’s public remarks did not accept what the KMT had done with mainland China earlier in terms of what you call “consensus” or agreements. Beijing said there was no need to meet because you refused to accept what we had agreed on.
Flannery: So what do you think of the future of US-China relations?
Hu: Mainland China basically has no intention of confronting the United States in military terms because it is weaker. He doesn’t want war. They have red lines, of course, like Taiwan declaring independence de jure. But I’m fundamentally optimistic that if (the United States and China) start talking to each other and visiting each other, it would be better because the United States right now sees China as a growing threat both militarily and economically.
Flannery: What do you think of the future of US-Taiwanese relations?
Hu: I think the United States is very, very cautious and trying to ensure that there is no military conflict between Taiwan and mainland China. But I also think that Taiwan — especially the leader of Taiwan — may not want to see too much improvement between Beijing and Washington. If your relationship is too good, Taiwan may fear being victimized. When (Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party) cites the mainland as a serious threat, it gets more votes. It’s a card they’ve been playing for 10-15 years in every election.
Flannery: Speaking of elections, local elections are approaching in Taiwan on Saturday. You campaigned this week. What are the prospects?
Hu: The general trend is that the DPP cannot stand firm. The central government is criticized almost daily in the media. However, the polls are unreliable because they use traditional phones and young people do not use traditional phones. So we have to wait to see.
Flannery: How strong is the KMT now?
Hu: We promote young people. The KMT had become a “big old party”. The government has not been handling the pandemic well lately. But we’ll have to wait and see.
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