Continuing PRC efforts to intimidate Taiwan and its friends

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping.  (AP photo)

“Big Nations Should Not Bully the Small”

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) always refers to its Three Communiqués with the United States as if they were the Ten Commandments, but it both selectively quotes and unilaterally interprets them as it wishes. There is, for instance, one passage from the 1st Communiqué of Feb. 28, 1972, that we never hear repeated by Beijing:

The Chinese side stated: "…All nations, big or small, should be equal: big nations should not bully the small and strong nations should not bully the weak. China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.”

In retrospect, the idea behind this passage was short-sighted and the words used were ill-chosen because the PRC did not foresee it would become the economic and military superpower that now seeks global dominance. The fact is that the PRC now bullies or tries to bully other countries all the time.

But Remember “China is a Big Country and Other Countries are Small”

There were early indications of this shift in the PRC posture of equal treatment for all. During the Foreign Ministers' Meeting of the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23, 2010, then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi — now Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — became enraged when 12 of the 27 countries at the meeting expressed support for then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a multilateral approach to the South China Sea dispute. Feeling blindsided and clearly angry by what he probably assumed was a coordinated U.S. initiative, Yang abruptly left the meeting. When he returned, he famously said, looking directly across the table at his Singaporean counterpart, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

Do as We Say or Spend Years in the Cold: The Case of Norway

In fact, as it has grown in power, the PRC has increasingly behaved like a bully. A classic example was PRC retaliation against Norway for the Oct. 8, 2010 decision by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee to award jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize. The sad irony of Norway's ensuing punishment is that the independent Peace Prize Committee members are selected by the Norwegian parliament and take no instructions from the Norwegian government. Norway was the location of a decision over which the Norwegian government had no control.

As always, Beijing was unwilling to understand that democratic countries do not operate as authoritarian states do. Beijing was evidently especially upset by the announcement of the Nobel Committee explaining that the prize had gone to Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Following the announcement, moreover, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee explained to the press that the committee felt a strong need to shine a spotlight on human rights issues in China.

The net result, however, was that the PRC put Norway in the “doghouse” for the next six years. Free trade talks were indefinitely suspended, bilateral diplomatic and cultural visits, meetings, and events were cancelled, and restrictions on the purchase of Norwegian salmon were imposed. When Oslo called, Beijing did not answer. It was no surprise therefore that when the Dalai Lama visited Norway in May of 2014, no Norwegian government officials met with him.

When the PRC finally resumed “normal” relations with Norway on Dec. 16, 2016, public statements were very much on Beijing’s terms. PRC foreign minister Wang Yi sanctimoniously observed that “Norway deeply reflected upon the reasons bilateral mutual trust was harmed and had conscientious, solemn consultations with China about how to improve bilateral relations.” The Norwegian statement, in turn, genuflected to Beijing, noting Norway “fully respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.” Norwegian human rights advocates could only express their dissatisfaction.

The U.S. Precedent

Years earlier, the PRC's reaction to the U.S. decision to allow Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui to visit Cornell University to deliver the commencement address on June 9, 1995 — a decision opposed by President Clinton but strongly supported by the U.S. Congress — was much the same. As the Deputy Director of the Office of Chinese Affairs at the time, I was directed to compile a list of all the cancelled meetings, unanswered phone calls, and other measures Beijing adopted to express its displeasure to Washington. As Beijing had warned, “Let there be no doubt about this: If the U.S. Administration succumbs to the pressure of some pro-Taiwan elements in total disregard of the feelings of the 1.2 billion Chinese people and infringes upon the fundamental rights and interests of China, Sino-U.S. relations can only retrogress instead of making progress." Nonetheless, the PRC needed the United States more in those days, so its real displeasure was directed at Taiwan in the form of missile tests targeting Taiwan’s territorial waters from July 21-26 and again from Aug. 15-25.

The Czech Republic

Over the last two months we have seen more examples of PRC efforts to coerce other countries into obeying Beijing’s wishes. Direct or indirect threats of the dire consequences of any disobedience often accompany warnings. For example, Reuters reported on Feb. 19 that its reporters had seen a Jan. 10 letter from the China's embassy in Prague to the Czech president’s office threatening retaliation against Czech companies operating in China if Czech Senate Speaker Jaroslav Kubera went ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan. The letter, since translated into English, warns:

  • A potential visit to Taiwan by Chairman Kubera would seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, damage the friendly atmosphere of cooperation between China and the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic’s reputation among the Chinese public and the interests of the Czech Republic.
  • Czech enterprises whose representatives visit Taiwan with Chairman Kubera will not be welcome in China or by the Chinese people. Czech enterprises with economic interests in China will have to pay for Chairman Kubera’s visit to Taiwan. (Jichang Lulu, “China’s ‘Economic Diplomacy” in the Czech Republic: From Promises of Investment to Threats of Retaliation Sinopsis, Feb. 20, 2020).

Speaker Kubera, however, died of a heart attack on Jan. 20, so Czech policy and Beijing threats were not tested.

Estonia

Even unfavorable government intelligence assessments of the PRC are subject to China's demands. On Feb. 20, the its embassy belatedly responded to a Dec. 2, 2019 annual report on the International Security of Estonia 2020 published by Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. The report stressed that European leaders must understand that “in the eyes of the Communist Party of China (CCP), decision-makers in other countries are only useful pawns to help implement CCP strategies… The underlying goal is to impose its own worldview and standards, building a Beijing-led international environment that appeals to China.” The PRC Embassy in Tallinn angrily demanded a retraction, a demand to which the Estonian government did not respond. So far there appear to have been no consequences. That could be because Estonia had already joined the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative.

If You Can’t Easily Bully the U.S., U.S. State Representatives Are Easier Targets

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been at the forefront of U.S. government's efforts to call attention to Chinese influence operations in the United States. On Sep. 13, 2019, he urged Hollywood producers not to allow Beijing to censor their movies by always presenting China in a favorable light in exchange for access to Chinese audiences. On Jan. 13 this year, Secretary Pompeo delivered a strong message to Silicon Valley to avoid selling technology to the PRC that would strengthen its military forces.

Most recently, on Feb. 8, Secretary Pompeo delivered an address in Washington to 44 state governors at the National Governors Association winter meeting, focusing on PRC influence operations directed at state governments. Secretary Pompeo boldly pointed out that the co-host of the event — the harmless-sounding Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries — whose presence was intended to foster bilateral business deals, is in fact “the public face of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department.”

Pompeo pointed out that the PRC government had one of its think tanks assessing all U.S. state governors to find those most willing to cooperate with the PRC and warned the audience to be wary of the deals they offered. He also noted that one of the principal goals of Beijing was to persuade state leaders to withhold support from Taiwan. He cited many examples, including:

  • A PRC consul general in New York sent a letter to a speaker of the State Assembly telling him to “avoid engaging in any official contact with Taiwan, including sending congratulatory messages to the elected, introducing bills and proclamations for the election, sending officials and representatives to attend the inauguration ceremony, and inviting officials in Taiwan to visit the United States.”
  • Similar activities were evident in Chinese consulates all across the country including in New York, Illinois, Texas, and California.
  • In another case, Chinese Consulate officials paid students at the University of California, San Diego to protest a visit by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.
  • Former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant received a letter from a Chinese diplomat based in Houston warning that Beijing would cancel investment in Mississippi if the governor traveled to Taiwan.

Secretary Pompeo concluded that the Chinese government had methodically analyzed the U.S. system and “decided to exploit our freedoms to gain an advantage over us at the federal level, the state level, and the local level.”

My Own AIT Experience with PRC Threats to U.S. Representatives

Secretary Pompeo’s message was for me a familiar story since I arrived in Taiwan over 10 years ago as the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). One of my key objectives for my three-year tenure was to encourage more high-level U.S. representatives to visit Taiwan, including administration officials, congressional representatives, and state governors. The first governor who came, as I recall, was Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson, who visited in October 2009. One of the last, before I stepped down, was Governor of Guam Territory Eddie J. Baza Calvo in April 2012.

All of the state representatives whom I met — without exception — told me that PRC diplomats had attempted to stop their visits to Taiwan. In general, it was PRC Consuls General or sometimes the PRC ambassador himself who would call them and warn that their visit would only harm U.S.-China relations. This was true even of representatives whom Beijing clearly favored or who at least had demonstrated little support for Taiwan.

The most memorable instance was when Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California was planning a visit to China followed by a brief visit to Taiwan in early June 2010, accompanied by junior Democratic Senators Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Before she left, however, Senator Feinstein called me at home to ask whether she should call off the visit to Taiwan, as the PRC government had requested. In the course of a call that lasted around 40 minutes, I told her that in my experience, the PRC advised all U.S. representatives not to visit Taiwan but that most did not comply and there had never been any notable repercussions. Moreover, I noted from meetings and dinners I had attended with the senator when she visited Beijing that she was highly regarded by PRC leaders. After all, she remained an outspoken opponent of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a point she made to me during our conversation.

Ultimately, the senator and her two colleagues came to Taipei, but she limited her visit to less than 24 hours. Beijing punished her by not permitting her husband to fly his private jet into or out of Beijing and forced her to fly to Taiwan through Hong Kong rather than on a direct flight. She and her colleagues did leave Taipei, however, on the private jet.

As far as I knew during my time at AIT, the only U.S. representative who cancelled their visit to Taiwan as a result of PRC pressure was Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. He had been scheduled to lead a trade mission from Dec. 10-16, 2010, to Taiwan and South Korea, when he was expected to sign a letter of intent under which Taiwanese businesses would commit to purchasing US$600 million of Missouri products, including corn and soybeans, according to a Dec. 1 statement from Nixon's office.

At the last minute, however, Nixon felt forced to cancel his visit as a result of pressure from the Midwest China Hub Commission and the Chinese consulate (in Chicago), which said the trade mission to Taiwan would jeopardize negotiations with China to make Lambert Airport in St. Louis a major air cargo hub for Chinese imports. Nixon told St. Louis Public Radio he still planned to reschedule his visit, but he never did. Later on, the PRC pulled out of the proposed deal for a transportation hub. I remember then writing Governor Nixon asking him to reconsider a visit to Taiwan now that the PRC deal was off the table. He never answered.

U.S. Friends of the PRC Have Certainly Helped Its Efforts

Subsequently, during my time at AIT, I was invited to a breakfast meeting hosted by the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations seeking my views on cross-Strait relations. Although the committee claims that its mission is to promote “understanding and cooperation between the United States and Greater China (sic) in the belief that sound and productive Sino-American relations serve vital American and world interests,” I have over the years come to see it more as a lobbying group which tries to foster positive views of the PRC, an increasingly difficult task in light of its policies toward Xinjiang, Tibet, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights, academic freedom, the South China Sea, North Korea, and many other domestic and foreign policies.

During the course of our meeting, I frankly explained my views on PRC policies toward Taiwan and argued that despite the Taiwanese government’s claims of improved cross-Strait relations, it seemed to me that fundamentally the PRC was working in every way possible to isolate Taiwan, to render it dependent on Beijing’s good favor, and to give it no choice but unification. Given my experience of PRC efforts to isolate Taiwan and ensure no U.S representatives would ever visit the island, I cited specific cases of PRC attempts to block relations between Taiwan and the United States.

The president of the Committee, Stephen Orlins, exploded over my comments, shouting that he had heard such reports of PRC threats and intervention before and that they were “lies, all lies.” As others quickly intervened to change the subject, I asked Mr. Orlins whom he believed was lying: the U.S. governors, senators, and congresspeople who had related these experiences, or the PRC? He did not answer.