Q&A: Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu talks elections and China

Island’s top diplomat says Taiwan under ‘constant threat’ from Beijing, which has ‘ambitions over a democratic country’.

A portrait of Joseph Wu in his office in Taipei. There is flag behind him.
Joseph Wu pictured at his office in Taipei [Annabelle Chih/Al Jazeera]

Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwan goes to the polls in January to choose a new president, with the candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) currently leading the race.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told Al Jazeera that Taipei is “watching carefully” any attempts by Beijing – which claims the island as its own and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goal – to shape the outcome of the poll.

Wu says he expects China to step up misinformation and disinformation campaigns because efforts to influence the outcome through “forceful” means, such as large-scale military exercises, are likely to backfire.

Beijing has stepped up such activities since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president in 2016. She is not eligible to run for a third term.

Wu, who is a member of the DPP and has been outspoken in his defence of Taiwan’s elected government, sat down with Al Jazeera at his office in Taipei.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al Jazeera: The Democratic Progressive Party is traditionally popular with younger voters but this election cycle, former Taipei Mayor and third-party candidate Ko Wen-je has been drawing younger support. How will the DPP handle this challenge?

Joseph Wu: There are two things I can probably say about this question. The first is about young voters. Back in 2014, there was the Sunflower Movement and then in 2019-2020, there were protests in Hong Kong and the imposition of its national security law.

These events inspired the young people to look for a political party that can safeguard Taiwan’s freedom and the DPP was seen by young [people] at the time as the political party that was able to do it.

But as you know, young people just keep growing up and now, first-time voters might not have the kind of memory as those who are a little more mature. If you look at young people’s preferences, they like somebody who is non-conventional and if you look at all the candidates, Ko Wen-je is [the most] unconventional.

The second factor that I would like to say is that this has been changing in a very dramatic way because the more mature young voters are explaining to their younger [cohort] the real issues in the presidential election and they realise that there are several problems with Ko Wen-je and his [Taiwan People’s Party or TPP]. If you look at polls, young people are fleeing from Ko Wen-je and the TPP.

Al Jazeera: China has been increasingly antagonistic towards Taiwan over the past year. Do you expect this to ramp up more as the election gets closer?

Joseph Wu: It’s hard to say. Different people have different assessments but most people, or most analysts in Taiwan, understand that whenever China tries to interfere into our elections in a forceful way, it tends to backfire. It [test-fired missiles during] the first presidential election in 1996 and every time we go through the same cycle.

If the Chinese are interested in the election results here in Taiwan, I don’t think that they will do anything as major as what we saw last August or this past April like large-scale military exercises. If the Chinese do that, I’m sure that people are going to look at China in a very negative way.

But if you look at the Chinese decision-making system, it’s highly centralised. All the power is central to Xi Jinping. And of course, he is one man. He cannot have all the information he needs. If he makes a wrong judgement by thinking that maybe the election in Taiwan is not going in a way that the Chinese Communist Party would like, there’s a possibility – or we don’t rule out the possibility – that China may resort to military exercises or a military threat against Taiwan.

Other than the military, we should also look at other factors of how China is trying to shape the election result, for example, economic coercion and hybrid warfare.

A view of the interior of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan. There is a screen behind with an urn in the centre and pink orchids on either side.
Taiwan has only a few formal diplomatic allies, but the foreign ministry under Wu has been making unofficial relationships more ‘substantial’ [Annabelle Chih/Al Jazeera]

They’ve been talking about ending the EFA – the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement – reached between Taiwan and China [in 2010]. They are also investigating some of Taiwan’s exports to China and they may do something like ban our mangoes.

Hybrid warfare is something that we are watching very carefully. This does not [involve] aeroplanes or military ships, [rather, the infiltration of] Taiwanese society, free society, through traditional media, through social media.

Let me give you one example. Beginning from the war in Ukraine, the Chinese were pushing the Russian narratives in Taiwan: “The war was started by the United States or NATO and United States is not interested in helping Ukraine. The United States is not interested in peace in between Ukraine and Russia, because the United States continues to provide weapons to Ukraine.” They are pushing that day in and day out. Towards the middle of last year, we did a public opinion survey and the Taiwanese people’s trust in the United States decreased about 10 percent. That’s quite significant.

Al Jazeera: How do you think the world should respond to a more aggressive China?

Joseph Wu: Different countries have different national interests but, overall, if we look at the problems posed by China, we can come to some basic understanding.

The first is economic. If you look at the Chinese economy, it’s slowing down very significantly, to the degree where a lot of international businessmen operating in China right now are looking at alternatives. And if you look at the Chinese government policies, they are creating an economic environment that is not friendly any more. For example, they have an anti-espionage law. They can check business operations, they can detain people, they can prohibit companies from doing certain things.

The second thing that we need to be aware of is what China represents as an authoritarian country. It’s trying to export its authoritarianism through different kinds of mechanisms. They use the Belt and Road Initiative to make connections with other countries, especially in the Global South. At the same time as they are exporting their Belt and Road Initiative, they are also exporting digital authoritarian mechanisms to the Global South – contrary to our shared beliefs in freedom and democracy, protection of human rights, rule of law, and all this.

[With] these two basic understandings, I think we should follow the conclusions of the G7 or EU summit to “de-risk”.

More importantly for Taiwan, or what other countries need to know about the situation Taiwan, [is] our international space has been limited. We are under constant military threat, including grey zone activities, and hybrid warfare.

All this is because China has ambition over Taiwan, an authoritarian country has ambition over a democratic country, and if we have that realisation, we might be able to prevent what happened in Ukraine from happening again. What happened to Ukraine was authoritarian or autocratic Russia was interested in expansion and they looked at Ukraine as a target, so they launched a war against Ukraine.

Here, in this part of the world, China seems to have the same ambition, and if China is allowed to initiate a war against Taiwan, to occupy Taiwan, it will be an attack against our shared values.

And one more factor for friends out there to think about as well is the geo-strategic position [of] Taiwan. Taiwan is located not just in the central part of the First Island Chain but Taiwan is also located in one of the major international trade routes. About 50 percent of the world’s cargo goes through the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan is also a semiconductor hub. About 60 percent of the semiconductor products come from Taiwan and about 90 percent – to be more precise 92 percent – of the highest end of the semiconductor chips are produced here in Taiwan.

If you look at the war in Ukraine, we ended up with a food crisis, energy crisis, inflation everywhere and if you think about the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the economic impact throughout the world is probably going to be much, much more serious than Ukraine.

For us to deter China from thinking about using force against Taiwan, we need to do several things. For Taiwan itself, we need to have a very rational, very moderate policy to prevent China from having any excuse to launch a war against Taiwan. But at the same time, it is also necessary that we need to arm ourselves, we need to have advanced capabilities, so that China understands that using force against Taiwan will not be an easy task.

Al Jazeera: Besides the US, Taiwan’s other major unofficial ally is Japan. The DPP meets with the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) at a party-to-party level to talk about security issues. Can you give us an update?

Joseph Wu: Japan is a very good friend of ours. If you have an opportunity to read some of the public opinion surveys released by us or released by Japan, I think it’s about 50 percent of the people surveyed think that Japan is their favourite country and I think the US is a very far number two.

It’s also rather unique, whenever there’s a natural disaster over here, the Japanese politicians, the Japanese people, would always show sympathy and support for Taiwan, and vice-versa. It seems to me that Japanese politicians in the National Diet [Japan’s national legislature] are competing on how to be nicer to Taiwan. So that is very good but we also understand that there’s a legal limitation or a constitutional limitation for the two militaries to be in touch with each other to deal with hard security issues.

Nevertheless, we are trying to find alternate alternative ways to cooperate with each other. The parliament-to-parliament type of cooperation, their ruling party and our ruling party are engaging in something we call “two plus two”: this security two plus two, and then economic security, two plus two.

And other than this quasi-official or not-so-much-official type of interactions on security matters is Coast Guard cooperation. Japan is also very aware of the security environment in this region. They understand that Taiwan’s security may be inseparable from Japanese security.

If you look at the Chinese movements, their air force or their naval force, there are two channels that they can go through: one is the Bashi channel, and the other one is Miyako Strait. And whenever they pass through the Miyako Strait, they can threaten Taiwan and whenever they pass through the Bashi Channel to go north, they threaten Japan.

Towards the end of last year, they [Japan] revised their three national security documents and they have decided to double their military budget and fortify some of the outer islands that are close to Taiwan. And I think all these efforts are part of the international effort in deterring China from using force against Taiwan.

Joseph Wu seated on a beige leather sofa in his office
Wu has been outspoken in his defence of Taiwan’s elected government [Annabelle Chih/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: How can Taiwan maintain its few formal allies and do you have any updates on surprising new unofficial allies beyond Lithuania, Eastern Europe and the Czech Republic?

Joseph Wu: We treasure our relations with all these diplomatic allies. They are the ones who can speak most forcefully in international organisations where Taiwan seeks participation and we treasure them and will continue to support them.

And the way to support them is to make sure that Taiwan’s assistance to them is benefitting the people directly. For example, [Guatemala’s] President [Alejandro] Giammattei, he’s a medical doctor in training and he’s interested in providing people with better medical care. We discussed it with him and we built a hospital for him in Chimaltenango, and the hospital was completed and it was a very good hospital and that benefits the people directly.

The Taiwan model of assistance benefits the people directly, rather than the Chinese very flamboyant type of promises. But in the end, either they are not able to deliver, or in the end, it becomes a debt trap. We do not do [things] like that.

But for any country that shows real interest in developing closer ties with Taiwan, like Lithuania, we are also trying to make [our] existing relationship even more substantial than before. For example, we negotiated with the Czech Republic to have a direct flight in between Taoyuan and Prague, and we are also discussing with various countries in Central and Eastern Europe – Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland – about how we can work together to help the Ukrainians.

Other than that, we want to set up regional offices in the countries where we already have representative offices. For example, in Canada, we announced the establishment of a new office in Montreal. We have also announced our new office in Milan, and a couple of years ago, we also announced our new office in Provence. We also announced the establishment of a regional office in Mumbai, India.

With more offices in these countries, relations with these countries are going to be more substantial than before.

Source: Al Jazeera