Taiwan has been a self-governing nation for the past 69 years; but these seven decades have not been without their challenges, especially in light of China’s desire to ‘reclaim’ Taiwan, even threatening to do so by force.
Officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan recently held its midterm elections, where President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressives, suffered heavy losses. The president has since stepped down as chairwoman of the party.
Although some believe the results of the election reflect neglected local issues and voter views on candidate capabilities, China’s influence also appears to feature as a potential reason for the pro-Beijing Kuomintang to have gained the new footing that it has.
Talk to Al Jazeera spoke to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu amidst election chaos and discussed the frustrating job he has, promoting the country’s ideals abroad while China seemingly continues to challenge its every move.
In every major election here in Taiwan, China is always a factor. We saw that China was gearing up its disinformation campaign or airing support for particular candidates. That might be the small part the China factor is playing in this election.
On the elections, Wu suggests that some dissatisfaction may have resulted from party supporters’ frustration with the rate of change the government has been operating at. He says responsibility and a moderate speed of reform may have alienated some.
“Taiwan is seen as a moderate country, Taiwan is a responsible country, but, of course, that is going to be seen by our own supporters – the pace of reform – is seen as too slow. Therefore, they may be as passionate as before,” says Wu.
“In every major election here in Taiwan, China is always a factor. The China factor plays a part of it but it is not the overwhelming factor in this particular election. [However] China is trying to interfere. We saw that China was gearing up its disinformation campaign or airing support for particular candidates. That might be the small part the China factor is playing in this election.”
Asked about evidence that China did try to interfere with the elections, Wu says there is plenty, starting with action taken by the 50 Cent Army, the name given to internet commentators often hired by the Chinese government to try and sway public opinion in open internet forums.
These commentators have been seen flooding politicians’ Facebook pages, attempting to speak to both voters and the politicians themselves, showcasing the potential “benefits” China can offer.
Wu continues to say that, in spite of attempts to influence the Taiwanese people, China still has no real effect on Taiwan, how it is ruled, or the recent election and that the people’s republic simply does not understand its place.
“If you look at the situation here in Taiwan, PRC does not have any jurisdiction over Taiwan. Taiwan is running by itself. We have a president, we have a parliament, we have free media… therefore, in essence, Taiwan is de facto independent,” he says.
On whether a Trump administration has been positive for Taiwan, Wu is optimistic about where the relationship between the two countries appears to be heading.
“President Trump received a call from President Tsai to congratulate him. Vice President Pence has also been a strong supporter of Taiwan. He has a track record [of supporting Taiwan] from when he was in Congress,” says Wu. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also has a long track record of supporting Taiwan. Altogether, we are seeing a very friendly gesture coming from the Trump administration towards Taiwan.”
When questioned about how reluctant Taiwan’s new “friends” were to provide Taiwan with F35s, a combat aircraft, Wu remains confident and says that the two countries have been in talks about strengthening Taiwan’s defence; a discussion that goes beyond the sale of a particular item.
On how he would “sell” Taiwan to the rest of the world, Wu says: “Taiwan is a mature democracy. Taiwan can be seen as a model of democracy in this part of the world. Taiwan is [also] being seen already as a model of economic development, even though the growth rate in the last few years might not be great. But Taiwan is undergoing transformation, from the old manufacturing-based economy to the now innovation-based economy.”