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Lai's transit through US a very risky move

By Tang Yonghong | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-07-27 16:07

[Luo Jie/China Daily]

Media reports saying Lai Ching-te, chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan and the leading DPP candidate for the 2024 local election, plans to transit through the United States on his way to Paraguay in August have raised serious questions on the real intentions behind his decision and the potential implications it will have on cross-Taiwan Strait relations as well as Sino-US relations.

The US has been trying to use the island's "pro-independence" forces to serve its strategic interests. The US views the political orientation of DPP leaders, particularly their stance on cross-Strait relations, as crucial to its own strategic interests, and tends to support those who align more closely with its strategic needs.

The major political forces in Taiwan are well aware of the US' geopolitical game. However, their stance on cross-Strait relations differs from Beijing's, with the DPP, in particular, diverging significantly from Beijing's stance. As a result, some Taiwan politicians, due to their limited power compared with that of the Chinese mainland, seek the US' support to realize their narrow political goals. Those political forces seeking to take the reins of power on the island are also compelled to seek the approval and support of their "American masters". This is the fundamental reason behind Lai's decision to transit through the US.

Lai has repeatedly claimed to be a "pragmatic ‘Taiwan independence' worker", while the mainland is determined, and has the capability, to prevent the separation of the island from the motherland. This has raised concerns among Taiwan residents, who are wary of any action endangering peace across the Strait, be it by the DPP or the US, which falsely claims to be making efforts to maintain the peaceful status quo across the Strait.

More important, Taiwan residents are worried that if Lai wins in the 2024 election, the result could lead the island down the path of "Taiwan independence", triggering a conflict across the Strait.

These concerns, if not addressed in time, could significantly impact Lai's electoral prospects. In fact, Lai's recent remarks about Taiwan "leader walking into the White House" have already caused displeasure within the US administration.

According to a report published in the Financial Times on July 19, some US officials have asked the Taiwan administration to clarify Lai's remarks, suggesting the US is worried about Lai's political ambitions and doubts his ability to maintain peace and stability across the Strait if he were to win the election in January next year.

Washington may be worried, as it claims, about Lai's scheduled transit through the US, especially because the mainland has already labeled Lai a "stubborn separatist". It is highly possible that if Lai assumes power, he will not only intensify efforts to seek "Taiwan independence" but also could cross the redline as defined by the mainland's Anti-Secession Law, possibly leading to a conflict across the Strait. And such a scenario does not align with the near-term strategic interests of the US.

Indeed, the US has made significant adjustments to its policy and strategy toward China, making China-containment its core objective. But at the same time Washington realizes that Sino-US relations provide substantial benefits for the US. This prompts the US to maintain the "guardrails" in the strategic competition with China while preserving Sino-US diplomatic relations.

In other words, the US plays the "Taiwan card" to contain the mainland but does so cautiously, avoiding a complete breakdown of relations. By allowing Lai and other "pro-independence" Taiwan politicians to intensify their separatist activities, the US would risk severely damaging the core interests of both Beijing and Washington, and endanger the well-being of Taiwan residents.

If the US allows Lai to transit through its territory, it will be seen as sending the wrong signal, supporting a "stubborn separatist" and endorsing the actions of separatist forces on the island. And by doing so, it will jeopardize peace and stability across the Strait and live to rue its misguided decision.

The author is a professor at the Taiwan Research Center, Xiamen University.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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