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Ex-Singapore foreign minister calls Taiwan 'piece on chessboard' in US-China rivalry

Former Singaporean official says Taiwan presidential election will not impact overall state of US-China relations

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U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi on G20 sidelines in Indonesia, 2022. (Reuters photo)

U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi on G20 sidelines in Indonesia, 2022. (Reuters photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan is “only a piece on the chessboard” in the U.S.-China relationship, and it will not determine war and peace, Singapore’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo told This Week in Asia on Aug. 28.

As Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election is fast approaching, Yeo cautioned against overstating its impact on relations between the U.S. and China. He said Taiwanese elections “are important, but whether or not relations between America and China are good or bad depends on America and China.”

Yeo said that while the Taiwan issue is worthy of attention, it is not the central concern, and relations between the two superpowers are determined by their own actions. “If the Taiwanese want to be played on that chessboard, then they will offer themselves, and the Americans will decide to play, or not,” he said.

The former foreign minister noted that recent dealings between Washington and Beijing have been tapered in regard to Taiwan. When Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential frontrunner Lai Ching-te (賴清德) transited through the U.S. en route to Paraguay in August, Lai’s activity was surprisingly relatively discreet.

The vice president advisedly refrained from engaging with U.S. officials in New York and San Francisco, making the visit intentionally “low-profile.” “It was not only his wish, but it was an American requirement, and China’s response was equally calibrated,” Yeo said.

In response to Lai’s transits, China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) staged military exercises around Taiwan, but the scale of the drills was notably smaller. Lai’s transits did not cross a red line with China, compared to the multi-day, blockade-style exercises the PLA conducted in August 2022 and April 2023, when former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, respectively.

“If the US had given more room for Lai, and he had taken it, then China’s response would have been much more vigorous,” Yeo said. However, all parties exercised caution by playing in the “gray zone,” “which does not lead to imminent war,” Yeo added.