Taipei and Beijing are exploring different ways to mitigate the persistent threat of North Korea while China and Taiwanese diplomatic relations are at a historic low, experts said at a Heritage Foundation event Friday.
In answer to a question at the Washington, D.C. think tank, panel discussion, Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, said, “North Korea has found the building of an illicit counter-economy is a good counterbalance to sanctions.”
He pointed to North Korea’s dealing with other Asian and African countries in development projects and trade to raise money to pay for its military programs.
“Taiwan is well-positioned to play a more active role” in disrupting trade that falls under U.N. Security Council sanctions and seize those cargoes, Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, added as one way to become more actively involved in shutting down North Korea’s ambitions.
But another way of looking at North Korea’s actions would be for countries like China to use new tests as a way to gauge American reactions and responses to their defenses and weapons systems.
Earlier in his presentation, Cronin said should North Korean fire four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters off Guam, a United States territory with an air base for long-range bombers and naval facilities for attack submarines, could provide show China how effective its own weapons would be against American defenses.
Cronin suggested bringing Taiwan into security exercises with Japan and the United States as a way to help stabilize the region against the North Korean threat. At the same time, he pointed out Taipei itself is vulnerable to possible and unintended attack from the peninsula. He termed Kim Jong-un’s ballistic missiles of “unknown reliability” and “who knows where those might land.”
“Integrated [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is critical” and “very conducive to maintain regional security,” Hsaio said that goes beyond the immediate North Korean challenge.
As for the continuing challenge from Beijing to Taipei, he said China is putting on a full court diplomatic press to squeeze Taiwan’s space on the world stage. It is applying economic pressure on a number of countries to sever whatever ties they have with the island and also is using its power in international organizations to further isolate Taipei.
The pressure from China has dramatically increased since President Tsai Ing-wen and her party took control of the executive and legislative branches of Taiwan’s government. Her party is associated with eventual independence, an increasingly popular view in Taiwan, especially among the younger population.
After her election 18 months ago, Beijing broke off almost all high-level negotiations with Taipei and has flaunted its military strength by sending its aircraft carrier through the straits and having military aircraft circle the island as they would in an attack.
“China can still afford to be patient” in its relations with Taiwan, Scott Kastner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said, because it is a rising military and economic power so time is likely on its side.
“Taiwan’s long-term situation is pretty tenuous” if China chooses to exercise its broad powers, but “I don’t think the long-term situation is hopeless.”
Taiwan itself needs to be careful that it maintains its relatively new democratic principles, Chung-Chian Tang, a professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, warned. Democracy “is not just the peaceful transfer of power” from one party to another” as has occurred. It is the maintenance of institutions — a free press, open social media, independent judiciary, rule of law, etc. from bottom up.
“We like that messy bottom-up” aspect of democracy, Cronin said.
Cronin said he expects the administration of President Donald Trump to “not just wait and see” what happens between China and Taiwan, “but we want to change that in the other direction” to become more engaged with Taipei in a large number of areas.
One of those areas could be naval port calls, which the United States has not made in Taiwan for decades, he added.