14 June 2022

How China is trying to isolate Taiwan

China is trying to isolate Taiwan on the international stage. An analyst at FOI has investigated and compared how the Chinese regime is pressuring four democracies.
“In Sweden, there are several examples,” says Johan Englund, an analyst at FOI and author of the report, Isolating Taiwan Beyond the Strait: Chinese Pressure Tactics in Four Democracies.

Flags of China and Taiwan behind chess board. The first pawn moves in the beginning of the game. Political rivalry conceptual 3D rendering.

Taiwan is a thorn in China’s side. Taiwan has great value, perhaps above all because China sees it as a matter of prestige to incorporate the island under Chinese rule again. Image from Shutterstock.

Johan Englund is an analyst in FOI’s Defence Analysis Division, in Kista. In his report, he has looked at how China is working to isolate Taiwan in four democracies. The democracies are Germany, Sweden, South Korea and Japan. He has also examined the impact of China's influence campaigns.

The conflict between Taiwan and China dates back to 1949, when the ruling Nationalists fled the Chinese Civil War and the Communists on the mainland. The political leadership took refuge on the island of Taiwan. Decades later, Taiwan, under the name of the Republic of China, has developed into a consolidated democracy, while the one-party regime in Beijing claims Taiwan as one of its provinces.

Taiwan is a thorn in China’s side. Taiwan has great value, perhaps above all because China sees it as a matter of prestige to incorporate the island under Chinese rule again. Taiwan also has geopolitical value, as the island can serve as a security buffer between China and the West.

“China has been running a campaign of isolation against Taiwan for a long time. They are trying to use a variety of means, such as disinformation and threats, to isolate Taiwan economically, politically and militarily,” says Johan Englund.

China’s aggressiveness toward Taiwan has increased since 2016, when Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, came to power. Tsai represents a party born out of the independence movement. Under her rule, Taiwan has consolidated its democratic system, while China is becoming increasingly repressive.

Official and unofficial channels are used in influence efforts in Sweden

How do China’s methods work in democratic countries that are sympathetic to Taiwan and how do they act?

“In Sweden, we have among other things the high-profile case where the Sheraton Hotel backed out of Taiwan’s plans to hold their National Day celebrations at the hotel. The celebration was then moved to the Historical Museum, and they also received calls from China. But they stood their ground,” says Johan Englund.

Johan Englund believes that China uses both official and unofficial channels in its influence efforts. In addition to journalists and politicians, the Chinese turn to civil society, business and academia.

“Quite similar methods are applied in all countries. On the one hand, you have public signalling via the Chinese embassy, where they react to actors in Sweden who have done something together with Taiwan. When something about Taiwan is written in the media, China quickly retorts its disapproval over how the media ‘offers a platform for separatists’ and so on,” says Johan Englund.

Covert activities are also conducted, for example against individual journalists, newsrooms and members of parliament who have mentioned Taiwan in positive terms in a motion. China may insinuate that there might be consequences for the relationship between Sweden and China, and that the recipients will themselves have to bear the consequences.

“The number of unreported cases is probably large. When a large state like China threatens with personal responsibility, it is clear that people can be afraid,” says Johan Englund.

Attempts to influence often have the opposite effect

Despite its attempts to exert influence, Johan Englund believes that China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan often have the opposite effect, as democratic countries want to show that they stand up for Taiwan.

Johan Englund has also investigated how Germany, Japan and South Korea react to Chinese pressure on the issue of Taiwan. He has concluded that Germany is tackling the problem in much the same way as Sweden. However, there seems to be frustration within the German Foreign Ministry over what is perceived as excessive caution towards China.

Japan’s and South Korea’s relationship with China is nonetheless more complex. Japan is offensive while South Korea is more careful to maintain a good relationship with Beijing.

“Of the four, South Korea is the country that seems least likely to enter into conflict. Japan seems to be the opposite. Japan has many U.S. military bases, and Taiwan is strategically very important to it. If China were to take over Taiwan, it would be able to control a large majority of Japan’s transport routes, energy, imports and the like,” says Johan Englund.

“South Korea is very focused on North Korea and that issue trumps everything else. China has a very big impact on North Korea,” he continues.

The report was largely completed in 2021, before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It is a world event that will of course affect China’s relationship with Taiwan, the only question is how.

“The situation is more critical than ever, although I do not believe there will be an armed conflict in the next few years. But Putin and Russia have shown that you can never be sure when it comes to one-party states,” says Johan Englund.