Ever since Russia began bombing Ukraine four months ago, the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan have been eyeing the war nervously, worried that Beijing might want to launch its own invasion.
Such fears are not unfounded. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe warned that “China will definitely realize its reunification” with Taiwan. If anyone tries to stand in the way, he went on, “We will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs.”
While Taiwan is clearly not Ukraine, the similarities are glaring: a small democracy seeking strong ties with the West is threatened by a giant nuclear-armed bully that claims sovereignty over its territory.
Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, acknowledges the anxiety back home.
“We’re all trying to learn lessons from this war, with the ultimate goal of deterring it. We have to fortify our own deterrence capabilities, but the resilience of the Ukrainian people and their ability to fight the Russians with determination has inspired the Taiwanese people,” she said.
Hsiao, 50, heads the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), as the mission has long been known. But she’s not officially an ambassador—a diplomatic distinction that is crucial to China, which views the democratic, Maryland-sized island as a renegade province. Any perceived recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign entity is a red line for Beijing.
That delicate balancing act made headlines in late May, when President Joe Biden warned that the United States would respond “militarily” if China attacked Taiwan. The White House quickly walked back Biden’s remarks, as has become customary, but Biden clearly made his point: he no longer wishes to maintain the policy of “deliberate ambiguity” long maintained by Washington.
“The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 obligates the US to support us in our self-defense, to maintain capabilities, and to resist coercion,” she said. “Of course, in light of the situation in Ukraine and heightened anxieties, we are getting an overwhelming level of concern and support from our friends here in Washington.”
Hsiao spoke to The Washington Diplomat at Twin Oaks — an 18-acre estate off Woodley Road that functioned as the official residence of Taiwan’s ambassador from 1937 until 1979, the year President Jimmy Carter switched US diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.
First woman to head TECRO’s Washington mission
The product of a Taiwanese father and an American mother, Hsiao speaks unaccented English and went to high school in New Jersey. She’s also the first woman ever to occupy the post, and she represents Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen.
Born in the Japanese city of Kobe, Hsiao grew up in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from Ohio’s Oberlin College, and a master’s in political science from New York’s Columbia University.
A former four-term legislator in Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Hsiao—a cat lover who brought her four felines with her to Washington—became Taiwan’s top envoy to the United States in July 2020, after serving as a senior advisor to the president at the National Security Council of Taiwan.
“All we want is to preserve the status quo,” she told The Diplomat. “Survival and peace is in everyone’s best interests.”
Beijing may see things differently. Recent moves by TECRO to change its name to simply “Taiwan Representative Office” have been met with fury by the Chinese Embassy here, with one official warning the United States to “stop any official interaction with Taiwan, refrain from sending any wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces or attempting to challenge China’s bottom line.”
The proposal has bipartisan support in Congress as well as backing from the National Security Council and senior officials at the State Department’s Asia desk.
China’s pushback on the TECRO name change coincides with attacks on media outlets that run stories it doesn’t like. Last month, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned in an exclusive interview with Israel’s Jerusalem Post that the Jewish state was relying too much on China. After the story ran, a top Chinese diplomat warned of dire consequences unless the Post retracted the article.
“Didn’t take long,” the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Yaakov Katz, later tweeted. “Got call from Chinese embassy. Apparently I’m supposed to take down the story or they will sever ties with the @Jerusalem_Post and downgrade relations with the State of Israel. Needless to say, story ain’t going anywhere.”
“China understands that in societies like the US and other advanced democracies, it’s harder to pressure the media,” said Hsiao, recalling that last year, Beijing threatened a newspaper in India that had carried a full-page advertisement celebrating Taiwan’s National Day. “But the paper refused to let the Chinese dictate to them. An Indian TV station later did an interview with our foreign minister. That became such an incident that ultimately an Indian politician decided to post the Taiwan flag at the Chinese Embassy.”
Wu quickly tweeted a response to his Chinese counterparts, telling them to simply “GET LOST!” and signing his initials so it was clear the tweet came from him personally.
Only 14 states recognize Taiwan today
Despite those small victories, Taiwan is clearly losing the diplomatic war; recent defections to China include Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
At the moment, only 14 sovereign states maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, down from around 30 in the 1980s. The largest of those 14 are Guatemala, home to 17 million people, and Haiti, home to 11 million. Except for Honduras and Paraguay, the rest are mostly Caribbean and Pacific microstates: Belize, Eswatini, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu and the Vatican.
“We’re grateful that these 14 countries have all been very supportive of Taiwan’s international participation in the WHO [World Health Organization] and in in other ways that countries which don’t have officials ties with us can act upon,” she said. “They also provide opportunities for Taiwan to showcase our soft power in agriculture and technology by working together toward common sustainable goals.”
But Chinese money is winning the upper hand, especially in Africa, where Beijing has made enormous investments in countries like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. In 2020, despite the COVID-19 economic downturn, Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa reached $2.96 billion, up 9.5% from the year before.
In fact, Eswatini—formerly Swaziland—is the only African country that still recognizes Taiwan, now that Burkina Faso, São Tomé e Principe and The Gambia have all decided that China is their real friend instead.
“It’s very difficult for us to have a presence in Africa. China is trying to keep us out,” Hsiao conceded. “Despite that, through cooperation with the US and other partners, we’ve contributed to health initiatives such as combatting Ebola in Congo. Our goal is to be a force for good.”
She added that a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan—perhaps not so hypothetical given recent events in Ukraine—would devastate the global economy.
“I can’t speak on the psychology of the Chinese, but the lesson we hope they’ll learn is that Russia is paying a heavy price for this,” she said. “Ironically, Europe is more unified than it’s been in decades.”
Hsiao added: “A lot of attention is put on semiconductor chips, because Taiwan makes more high-end chips than anyone else in the world,” Hsiao said. “Chips are not easy to produce. It’s not as simple as picking up a factory and moving elsewhere.”
‘One of the most dangerous problems in the world’
Asked if TECRO has any relationship whatsoever with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, she said, “Well, no we don’t, but they’re always on our mind.”
They’re always on the Pentagon’s mind too. Indeed, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
In an article in the July/August 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs titled “The Consequences of Conquest: Why Indo-Pacific Power Hinges on Taiwan,” Georgetown University’s Caitlin Talmadge and University of Cincinnati’s Brendan Rittenhouse Green argue that “as the place where all the dilemmas of US policy toward China collide, Taiwan presents one of the toughest and most dangerous problems in the world.”
No matter what Washington does, it’ll be forced to run risks and incur costs in its standoff with Beijing.
The authors argue that deterring Beijing would “probably require abandoning the long-standing US policy of strategic ambiguity about whether Washington would come to the island’s defense in favor of a crystal-clear commitment of military support,” but warn that this shift would “almost certainly heighten pressures for an arms race between the United States and China in anticipation of a conflict, intensifying the already dangerous competition between the two powers.”
Columnist Josh Rogin of the Washington Post went further, warning in a June 16 opinion piece that China is racing to become the dominant military power in Asia in the next few years—and if it succeeds, Beijing is likely to use force to attempt to subdue Taiwan’s democracy.
“Russia’s attack on Ukraine has dispelled any notion that revisionist dictatorships can be deterred by anything short of a superior opposing military force,” Rogin wrote. “China is building the capability to use nuclear blackmail to deter a US intervention if it invades Taiwan, following Russia’s model. China’s regional military presence is expanding, including a secret naval base in Cambodia and a secret military cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands. China has developed new technologies, including hypersonic missiles and antisatellite lasers, to keep the US military at bay in a Taiwan scenario. And now, China no longer recognizes the Taiwan Strait as international waters.”
Though she declined to comment specifically on Pentagon policy, Hsiao said that in her view, Taiwan’s partnership with the United States is among the key pillars of her country’s prosperity.
“US support for Taiwan is critical to our survival. We are a democracy, and we exemplify the same values the American people cherish: freedom, democracy, market entrepreneurship, innovation and technology,” she said. “We’re grateful for bipartisan friendship, and we hope that support will continue.”