Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s Representative in the United States, is a familiar figure in the halls of power but she does not often make public speeches. So a recent talk and press conference by Ms. Hsiao deserve some attention.
The One China Policy, endorsed by the US and UN, does not recognize Taiwan Island as an independent country but as part of China, with the government in Beijing providing the official ambassadors to the US and UN. Hence Hsiao is not an "ambassador" but a "representative," and her organization is known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Her presence and activities in the US are sensitive points in the US-China relationship, which is why she does not often make public appearances.
We might expect therefore that Hsiao had something of considerable consequence to communicate to an American audience. And so she did, but her message did not center exclusively on Taiwan. Hsiao and the reporters in attendance wished to discuss a country over 8000 km away from Taiwan, almost at the opposite end of Eurasia – Ukraine.
The "Tragedy" of Ukraine in the eyes of Taipei’s Representative
In her opening remarks, Hsiao stated: "The Ukraine war has actually generated a lot more attention and interest in … Taiwan’s defense needs. And so there has been an increase in… initiatives to find ways to support Taiwan so that that tragedy will not be repeated in our scenario."
"Tragedy" indeed. Hsiao, like everyone else in the world, is well aware of the devastation that has been visited on Ukraine as a result of Biden’s cruel proxy war on Russia using Ukrainians as cannon fodder. The "tragedy" of Ukraine has focused not only Hsiao’s mind but mightily distressed all the people of Taiwan Island. This led to the landslide defeat in the 2022 local elections of Hsiao’s Party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is the home of secessionist sentiment and hostility to Beijing. The DPP was soundly thrashed by the Kuomintang (KMT), the Party that wishes to maintain the status quo with the mainland, leave in place the "strategic ambiguity" of the One China Policy and take a peaceful approach to Beijing.
The first thing that struck me about the press conference was the unreality of Hsiao’s purpose, bordering on insanity. Here we had Taiwan’s envoy discussing war with Mainland China which has the largest PPP-GDP in the world and 18% of all of humanity. Taiwan’s population is 24 million, and it is the size of Maryland.
The bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, and host of the event, expressed a similar incredulity, asking in the opening question: "Russia versus Ukraine is one thing, but China versus Taiwan is a much more extreme example in terms of proportions…. How do you fight back against that?" The unstated assumption is that Taiwan can succeed with the support of the US. But just how true is that? How sound is Biden’s support for Ukraine?
Asked whether she was "satisfied" with Biden’s commitment to Taiwan, Hsiao demurred.
Was she "satisfied" with Joe Biden’s commitment to defend Taiwan, queried another reporter. Hsiao demurred, did not answer "yes," but instead opined that "in the long run, nothing is ever completely satisfactory." Here Hsiao seemed to be channeling Volodymyr Zelensky, always demanding more, ever disappointed. Such is the unenviable position of a proxy whose function in the end is to be used, not championed.
Hsiao sounded very much like someone who had doubts about US support – doubts perhaps aroused after the resounding and very bloody defeat of the US proxy, Ukraine, in Bakhmut. We can be sure that the same doubts are cropping up in the minds of the Taiwan electorate. And such doubts are likely to play a decisive role in the upcoming elections in 2024 for President and Legislative Yuan, the unicameral legislature for the entire island? Will the more pacific policies supported by the electorate in the 2022 local elections prevail again in choosing island wide officials in 2024?
US arms to Taiwan a Provocation to war
Several reporters raised the question whether the US arming of Taiwan Island could be seen as a provocation. In itself this is a step forward for the US press which might be awakening to the fact that US tactics did indeed provoke the war as in Ukraine. Hsiao dodged that question by ignoring the US dimension and speaking instead of Taiwan’s efforts at increased militarization. Of course, little Taiwan acting on its own can scarcely be seen as a threat or serious provocation to China. But it is quite a different story when the weapons and personnel come from the US. After all the US has an enormous military presence in the region and has declared as a matter of policy that its aim is to bring down China. In this circumstance US weapons, military personnel and actions in Taiwan can be a serious provocation indeed.
Although Hsiao spoke in terms of defense not provocation, she herself undermined that way of regarding the US on Taiwan Island. Asked by another reporter whether there was any evidence for Chinese preparation of an invasion of Taiwan Island, Hsiao said there was none. This is hardly surprising since China’s policy is to reunite peacefully with the Island, a long-term goal.
One clear and simple lesson of the Hsiao press conference is that Mainland China quite reasonably perceives the US arming of Taiwan as a threat and provocation. Thus, the way to peace is to end the arming of Taiwan. This should be a top priority in the US peace movement, but unfortunately, it does not often receive so much as a mention.
John V. Walsh, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for the San Francisco Chronicle, EastBayTimes/San Jose Mercury News, Asia Times, LA Progressive, Antiwar.com, CounterPunch and others.