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Taipei Should Try To Restart Low-Level Talks With Beijing, Taiwan Ex-Foreign Minister Jason Hu Says

Forbes 11/22/2022 Russell Flannery, Forbes Staff
Jason Hu, then mayor of Taichung, and his wife promote Taiwan's biscuits at a press conference in Beijing in 2005 while attending a "World Mayor Forum." (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images) Getty Images © Provided by Forbes Jason Hu, then mayor of Taichung, and his wife promote Taiwan's biscuits at a press conference in Beijing in 2005 while attending a "World Mayor Forum." (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images) Getty Images

Taipei should try to restart low-level discussions with Beijing as a way to reduce heighted tensions between the two sides, former Taiwan Foreign Minister Jason Hu said in an interview today.

“Mainland China may not say it publicly, but I think it wouldn’t object if (Taiwan President) Tsai Ing-wen starts a dialog or some form of low-level interaction between mainland China and Taiwan,” said the now-retired former foreign policy chief, government spokesman and mayor of Taichung, one of Taiwan’s largest cities.

Discussions between the two have halted since the election of President Tsai in 2016 and her Democratic Progressive Party’s break with earlier approaches toward the mainland supported by the rival Kuomintang, or KMT. Hu is a former KMT vice chairman; he retired last year as vice chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, a media company controlled by billionaire Tsai Eng-meng seen as favoring closer ties between the mainland and Taiwan.

The economic stakes between the two sides are big. Heightened military tension between the two this year after a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Leader Nancy Pelosi raised concerns about Taiwan’s role as a global leader of advanced semiconductor chips. Taiwan businesses are among the mainland’s largest investors with more than $200 billion of projects approved by Taipei over the years; those with a large presence include iPhone supplier Hon Hai Precision, led by billionaire Terry Gou.

Hu, 74 and now retired, said by telephone from Taichung that Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping has come out of the recent party congress, G20 meeting and APEC summit stronger, and Taiwan “should be more cautious in the cross-Strait relationship.” Edited excerpts follow.

Flannery: The Chinese Communist Party Congress, G20 meeting and APEC summit have ended. How do you size up the state of cross-Strait ties?

Hu: After the G20 and APEC meetings, and especially after the party congress, President Xi appears to be more confident than before, and Taiwan should be more cautious in the cross-Strait relationship. There's no doubt President Xi is stronger in many respects, both domestically and externally. The United States knows that, too.

Flannery: Taiwan should be more cautious in what ways?

Hu: His position as the top supremo in China has been extended. The way he dealt with Hu Jintao surprised a lot of people. I think he’s getting more “respect,” quote-unquote, domestically. So he will be a strong leader in the years to come. He may feel more responsible to deal with the Taiwan question.

Flannery: What do you mean by “more responsible?”

Hu: He wants to solve it.

Flannery: How can he do that?

Hu: People always talk about a military conflict. I don't think he really wants a military conflict because he doesn't need a military conflict. He has a lot of cards in his hand. If he does something that affects Taiwan’s economy, investment and external trade, Taiwan would not be what it is today. People would then really start to worry. He doesn't need to send in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).

The Taiwan government – Tsai Ing-wen — is preparing for a PLA landing and ground fight. I think it’s all for domestic consumption. She will show arms, missiles and a lot of things which are not that useful were it really come to a conflict, because Beijing is catching up with the United States.

Flannery: Do you think U.S. would support Taiwan militarily in the event of a blockade?

Hu: First, it would worry very much about a blockade. It's very hard for the U.S. to deal with a blockade. Who would shoot first?

Second, if you look at Ukraine, the U.S. may supply a lot of arms to Taiwan, but I don't think a U.S. leader would sacrifice American lives as in Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq. I don't think it would be supported by domestic American public opinion.

The supply of arms for a possible military conflict would help Taiwan to sustain itself longer. But like in Ukraine, Taiwanese people and mainland people will be killed. Many people will be killed. I think the U.S. wants to avoid that. This is why Biden wanted to meet President Xi recently. They both want to avoid a possible military conflict between the big two.

Flannery: What could Beijing do to try to improve ties? A blockade would be a big stick. What about carrots? Back in the 1990s, when you and I first met, there was more optimism about some sort of integration.

Hu: Mainland China may not say it publicly, but I think it wouldn’t object if Tsai Ing-wen starts a dialog or some form of low-level interaction between mainland China and Taiwan. I think China wouldn’t object, but China would not take the initiative because Taiwan objects to the ‘92 “one China” consensus and a lot of interaction.

If America does everything possible to ask the two sides to resume interaction or communication, it needs to spend some power or energy on Tsai Ing-wen.

Flannery: But wasn't it Beijing that broke off the conversation with the Straits Exchange Foundation after Tsai’s election?

Hu: Yes, because Tsai’s public remarks didn’t accept whatever the KMT had done with mainland China earlier in terms of whatever you call a “consensus” or agreements. Beijing said that there is no ground to meet because you refuse to accept what we had agreed upon.

Flannery: So what do you think is ahead for U.S.-China relations?

Hu: Mainland China basically has no intention to confront the U.S. in military terms because it is weaker. It does not want war. They have some red lines, for sure, such as Taiwan declaring de jure independence. But I'm basically optimistic that if (the U.S. and China) start talking and visiting each other, it would be better because the United States at this moment considers China a rising threat both militarily and economically.

Flannery: What do you think is ahead for U.S.-Taiwan relations?

Hu: I think the United States is very, very cautious and trying to make sure that there is no military conflict between Taiwan and mainland China. But I also think Taiwan — especially the leader of Taiwan — may not want to see too much improvement between Peking and Washington. If your relationship is too good, Taiwan may fear being victimized. When (Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party) cites the mainland as a serious threat, it gets more votes. It's a card they've been playing for 10-15 years during every election.

Flannery: Speaking of elections, local elections are coming up in Taiwan on Saturday. You’ve been out campaigning this week. What’s the outlook?

Hu: The general trend is that the DPP cannot hold its ground. The central government is being criticized almost daily in the media. However, polls can’t be trusted because they use traditional telephones and younger people don't use traditional telephones. So we have to wait to see.

Flannery: What's the KMT’s strength now?

Hu: We’re promoting younger people. The KMT had become a ‘grand old party.’ The government hasn't done well handling pandemic of late. But we’ll have to wait and see.

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