President Tsai's Countermeasure for October Surprise

By Shaw Chong-hai

China Times, October 5, 2020


A new phrase “October Surprise” was created last month when people were speculating whether there would be an armed conflict between mainland China and Taiwan. Before any conclusion was reached, the breaking news of President Donald Trump’s infection of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the question whether he is able to run the election effectively became the new focus. This new development has made the triangular relationship among the United States, China, and Taiwan increasingly uncertain and disrupted the Taiwan society psychologically. How should we read this changing situation and challenge?


First, we need to examine the distinctiveness of mainland China’s military threat to Taiwan in the last few months. For one, the mainland’s warplanes have denied the existence of a traditional “median line” in the Taiwan Strait when circling Taiwan. This denial has broken the tacit agreement since 1958 that military aircraft and vessels of each side would not cross the imaginary median line to avoid provoking the other side. For two, the frequency and scale of China’s recent military drills have surpassed all the previous drills and they apparently aim at Taiwan.


The change of China’s policy towards Taiwan started not recently but since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016. Due to the fact that the ruling authorities of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) refuse to recognize the “1992 Consensus,” the trail of change is increasingly visible. For example, Xi Jinping said on March 4, 2015 that “If the political foundation of the cross-strait relations were broken, then the mutual trust between the two sides will also be gone,” and once “the foundation is unstable,” then “earth will quake, and hills will totter.” Xi said again in 2019 that “The root of the problem that prevents cross-strait relations from steady progress is the long existing political divergence, and it cannot be passed on to future generations indefinitely.” These statements clearly show that solving the Taiwan problem has always been hanging over Beijing’s head.


Second, no matter whether the Trump administration’s policy towards Taiwan in the last four years was substantive or just lip service, the DPP administration has certainly felt its “warmth” and even considers President Trump to be the president of the United States most supportive of Taipei since the termination of diplomatic relations in 1978. As a result, the DPP has shown no hesitation in choosing the American side in the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangular relationship. In order to show not being an opportunist, the DPP has adopted a policy of anti-China or even hatred against China. It is like placing a bet, the DPP has forgotten to bet on both sides, using betting arbitrage to guarantee gain.


President Trump was tested positive for coronavirus, but it doesn’t mean he is out in the U.S. presidential election. However, his health has taken away some of his supporters’ optimism. As a matter of fact, even before the positive test outcome, various polls had shown Trump falling behind Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, in popular votes and electoral votes. Now with the coronavirus infection, Trump’s ability to catch up with his opponent within one month is being seriously questioned. Trump cannot afford to lose on either of the debates: whether he can recover quick enough from illness and whether his health condition after recovery can handle the demanding final campaign activities.


Therefore, as the tensions rise across the Taiwan Strait, the “Cross-Strait October Surprise” is no longer a casual remark. After Trump’s illness, the “U.S.-China-Taiwan October Surprise” seems not so far-fetched. As the leader of Taiwan, President Tsai always thought she made a right choice between the United States and China. But with the “October Surprise” she may need to reconsider: will a new Democratic administration in the United States favor supporting Taiwan? If the answer is negative, then she would also need to ponder whether Beijing will accept her “switching sides?” Most likely it would be an awkward moment in which Taiwan finds herself unable to move forward or tread backward.


In a few days President Tsai is going to deliver her National Day address on October 10. It is an opportunity for Tsai to express some “goodwill” to Beijing. While she won’t need to say anything she can’t deliver, she can at least tone down the anti-China rhetoric to alleviate the cross-strait tensions and calm the anxious Taiwan society.



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