Interview with Joseph Wu 

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, has only been in office since February 2018. Since then he has witnessed China’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric. In this interview with SLD’s Alexander Görlach, Wu discusses Chinese interference in elections, his country’s role in the alliance of liberal democracies and what Taiwan identity means in the 21st century.

SLD: Mr. Wu, it’s been a rough January for Taiwan as Chinese President Xi Jinping scales up his rhetoric. How has this affected your foreign policy?  

Wu: It has both a good and a bad side. It is intrinsically bad if Xi Jinping threatens Taiwan.  At the same time, international attention is crucial for us.  It could have detrimental effects on us if Taiwan fell off the international radar. The fact that foreign ministers are expressing their sympathy for Taiwan is hugely important for us. The Chinese rhetoric has always been a one-China policy, but this time Xi Jinping has gone a step further.  His government has contacted different parties directly to take Taiwan by a divide-and-conquer strategy.

SLD: The one-country-two-system sounds fraternal. However, Chinese rhetoric doesn’t indicate a relationship on equal terms. 

Wu: It’s an imposition of this solution. The Taiwanese people are opposed to it since they saw its utter failure in Hong Kong. Equality between us can only exist when China becomes a democracy.

SLD: Do you think that the liberal democracy you have in Taiwan is also an inspiration for Chinese citizens and policymakers? 

Wu: The independence and the democratic rights that Taiwanese citizens cherish is undoubtedly attractive to those living on the mainland. They regard it as a model for future development. As long as Taiwan remains a democracy, it remains a beacon of hope for the Chinese people.

SLD: Is Taiwan’s power then mainly the soft power of attraction in East Asia? 

Wu: Yes, especially in China. We share the same cultural heritage, which means there is no historically grounded excuse for China’s lack of democratic institutions. And my feeling is that increasingly people around the world are asking themselves why Taiwan is a democracy and China is not. We have to ensure that we continuously signal to the Chinese people that we reject their system but have no animosities towards them.

SLD: 2019 also marks 40 years since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Xi Jinping marked a radical break with that inheritance. Why do you think this happened? 

Wu: There are several reasons for this. The first is that there is still opposition against Xi Jinping and he tries to accumulate all power by suppressing any resistance. A second factor is that China’s economic growth is already slowing down, which jeopardises social stability.

SLD: Is he following Erdogan and Putin in using oppressive strategies to distract from the domestic problems? 

Wu: It is possible that we will see development in that direction. Xi Jinping doesn’t espouse the concept of collective leadership that his predecessors implemented. Indeed, that has caused severe democratic setbacks. China is a vast country with equally large problems, and as long as he remains the undisputed leader, bureaucrats in the administration fear to provide answers that might solve the problem but jeopardise their jobs. If authoritarian regimes don’t have the means to resolve their domestic crises, they create external enemies. Taiwan is a convenient target for China. We want to preempt that by showing the world how successful our democratic model is, and by remaining a loyal partner within the international community.

SLD: What are your options to build stronger alliances, both regionally and on a global scale? 

Wu: There are three dimensions of our foreign partnerships. The first is ideational convergence. We share values with the US, Canada, the European states and a few states in our vicinity. The second is economic development, which enables us to build stronger links with the economic powerhouses of the globe – the US. The third is security. We aim for a peaceful region and maintain a strong dialogue with the US and other countries around the world who also have an interest in Southeast Asian stability.

SLD: This year also marks 40 years of the Taiwan Relations Act that guarantees US protection. It doesn’t explicitly mention military support. Is receiving such guarantees a goal of your foreign policy? 

Wu: Of course, US support in a hypothetical worst-case scenario would be extremely helpful. But we aim for self-sufficiency with regards to defending our country. That’s why we’re scaling up the investment in the military. That’s also what our partners, such as the US, expect of us.

SLD: Would it be an exaggeration to say that Taiwan is the only territory in the region that the US and China could go to war over? 

Wu: We are certainly one of the flashpoints in the region, together with the East and South China Sea. What could ultimately happen is unclear, but we should be capable of defending ourselves in such a situation. I believe the South China Sea issue is even more contentious than the Taiwan Straits. While China’s rhetorical focus is currently on Taiwan, its military focus is on the South China Sea.

SLD: Is the memory of the civil war still shaping the perception of the ongoing conflict and maybe a good point to start in explaining the irrationality and emotionality of this conflict?

Wu: I would disagree. That might have been the case before Taiwan democratized, when China regarded Taiwan as its property and both countries claimed to represent the real China. Our youngest generation grew up in a democratizing Taiwan. They don’t associate with what happened in the 1940s. The Chinese administration, however, certainly considers it as a continuation of the old Civil War. This conflict also matters greatly beyond our Taiwanese interests. Many political scientists consider irredentism as a cause of the Second World War. Independent of Taiwan’s fate, it would have horrific consequences for the whole region if China would reclaim Taiwan militarily.

SLD: Is the conflict with mainland China also the defining cleavage of Taiwanese party politics? 

Wu: No party supports outright unification with China. The KNT advocates closer ties with China because its members see great opportunities in better relations. But even they are currently negotiating a trip to the United States with the US diplomats. Taiwan’s party politics is a matter of degree. Given that its election time in Taiwan and we’re a democracy, we like to take small differences and make a big deal out of them.

SLD: Your democratic model makes Taiwan unique in this region, but liberal democracy is under threat worldwide. Why is that and how do you plan to overcome it? 

Wu: Especially young democracies are always endangered when economic performance does not meet public expectations. Our performance is not great, but we are still growing at a healthy rate, and the government is conscious that it has to undertake structural reforms. From that perspective, I think we are quite a consolidated democracy. A second threat comes from Chinese interference through social media, and in our elections. They are trying to woo smaller parties, grassroots activists and other social forces in our country. Europe and the US have made similar experiences, albeit with different states. The way forward is to share experiences and work together to push back further interference.

SLD: Taiwan is a comparatively small island with many different identities. How would you describe the Taiwanese identity today? 

Wu: Taiwan is so pluralistic that I, unfortunately, cannot give a precise answer. Deeply engrained is the understanding of Taiwan as a democracy. In that sense, the Taiwanese self-understanding differs fundamentally from the Chinese. Ultimately, our diversity is what has come to define Taiwan and will continue to do so in the future.

SLD: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Wu.