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US trip pays off for Taiwan VP with China drills more 'thunder than rain'

China held exercises around Taiwan a day after Taiwan Vice President William Lai's return, but on a far lower scale than previous war games.

3 minute read
Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai waves at Taoyuan International Airport following his trip to the US and Paraguay, in Taoyuan, Taiwan Aug 18. Photo: Reuters
Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai waves at Taoyuan International Airport following his trip to the US and Paraguay, in Taoyuan, Taiwan Aug 18. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan Vice President William Lai managed to walk a fine line on his sensitive trip to the US if China's drills in response are anything to go by, but Beijing's ire may not be allayed for long by a person it deeply dislikes.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory and has repeatedly denounced Lai as a separatist, held exercises around Taiwan on Saturday, the day after he returned, but on a far lower scale than previous war games in April and last August in protest at Taiwan-US engagement.

China has a particular dislike of Lai, the frontrunner in polls ahead of January's presidential election, due to his previous comments about being a "worker for Taiwan independence".

But Lai did not meet any senior US officials or lawmakers during the visit, aside from the head of the unofficial US body that deals with the country's Taiwan ties. In his public events he talked about peace and dialogue, though he also said that Taiwan would not back down in the face of threats.

"The People's Liberation Army could not find an excuse to make a big fuss," said Ma Chen-kun, a Chinese military expert at Taiwan's National Defence University. "These drills were a lot of thunder, but less rain."

There was no live fire component, unlike last August when China fired missiles over Taiwan, the drill lasted only one day, and was not given a name, unlike the April one, though Chinese state media did launch a series of personal attacks on Lai on Saturday, including calling him a "liar".

Taiwan's defence ministry, in its daily report on Chinese movements over the previous 24 hours, said on Monday morning that it had spotted no Chinese military aircraft entering the Taiwan Strait over that period.

Both Taiwan and the US had sought to keep Lai's US visit low key, officially describing it as stopovers on his way to and from Paraguay and saying it was a decades-long routine for Taiwan presidents to transit in the US during trips overseas therefore China shouldn't use the visit as a "pretext" for military drills.

China, in the long run, is unlikely to be ameliorated, believing as it still does that Lai is a dangerous separatist who may go back to pushing for Taiwan independence when he wins election, said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based International Relations Scholar.

"If Lai Ching-te becomes president and returns to his original stance or even strengthens it, he could force the mainland to deal with Taiwan using non-peaceful means," he said, using Lai's Chinese language name.

'No surprises'

Lo Chih-cheng, a senior lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said Lai's trip was also about the broader process of showing him to the US as a steady and trustworthy leader.

"Maybe you think the transits were a bit boring or simple, but also there were no surprises," Lo said.

An opinion poll published on Monday by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed Lai extending his lead and pulling well ahead of his nearest competitor to be Taiwan's next president, the former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je.

China's reaction could also have been muted since the visit came against the backdrop of both Beijing and Washington trying to improve relations, which could include a visit to the US later in the year by President Xi Jinping for an Asia Pacific summit.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a ministry spokesman told reporters on Monday that it was hard for Lai to hide his "evil intent" to seek independence.

China could take other, trade-related, steps to punish Taiwan, having previously stopped Taiwanese fruit and fish imports. On Monday, China suspended Taiwanese mango imports citing a pest problem.

But China has its own domestic problems as well, not least economic ones like a property market crisis, and threat of war with Taiwan is not going to help that, said Fan Shih-ping, a professor at National Taiwan Normal University's Graduate Institute of Political Science.

"Noise about achieving unification through force is a negative for Chinese consumers. Who wants to spend if there's going to be a war?" he said.