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Alexander Huang: "The KMT would waste no time and start to reach out to the mainland immediately"

Expert background: Dr. Alexander Huang (黄介正)

Dr. Huang is a special advisor to the Chairman of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and concurrently the party’s Director of International Affairs.

The ‘Department of International Affairs’ within the KMT was spun-off from the party’s ‘Department of Overseas and International Affairs’ back in 2020, a shadow ministerial department under then KMT-Chairman Johnny Chiang (江启臣). The purpose of this was to strengthen the KMT’s party-level external relations activities with “friendly” countries and parties. After Eric Chu (朱立伦) was elected Chairman of the KMT for the second time in 2021, the party opened a liaison office in Washington, D.C. the following year, 14 years after the last one was closed.

Eric Chu appointed Dr. Huang the party’s envoy to the US in April 2022. In a sense, he can be understood as the KMT’s unofficial ambassador to the US, frequently travelling to Washington.

Since 2014, Dr. Huang also has held the position of Chairman of the ‘Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies’, a non-profit, non-partisan Taiwanese think tank and private consulting organization for better decision making in public policy and business. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council in the Taiwanese government from 2003–2004. Dr. Huang has a Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) in International Relations from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in International Relations from George Washington University.

Dr. Huang plays a central role in Kuomintang’s policy towards the mainland and frequently engages in American-Taiwanese policy discussions. His latest trip to the US was this February, where he met with a number of US Congressmen. Should the KMT win the presidential election in early 2024, Dr. Huang is poised to become be a key player in Taiwan’s foreign affairs moving forward.


CMG had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Huang on 24 February 2023. The following is an excerpt from our one-hour long interview in Chinese. The text has been translated and edited for clarity.

CMG: Worries about a clash in the Taiwan Strait are rising. Do you see analogies between the Ukraine war and the “Taiwan-issue?

Several people have made this comparison, and there’s the saying "Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow". But cross-strait relations are different from Russia-Ukraine relations – whether you look at it from the perspectives of geography, military strategy, or great power competition.

The relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is a special relationship in history, or even in the world, with its own particularities, regardless of whether there is a war between Russia and Ukraine or not. But there are also things we can learn from the Ukraine war.

Such as?

I see four points.

First, the most important takeaway is to try to resolve political differences without resorting to force.

Second, we need to re-establish a reliable dialogue and communication mechanism between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Take the 1992 consensus for example. The consensus is an implicit understanding that there is but “one China”, but that is interpreted differently by different actors. No side can unilaterally solve the problem. It requires joint political dialogue to avoid conflicting interpretations. So, woven tightly enough into the fabric of cross-strait relations, such a «grand exchange mechanism» could strengthen the commitment on both sides towards finding mutually acceptable solutions.

Third, both sides should better clarify their priorities, guardrails and conditions for a renewed rapprochement.

And fourth, against the backdrop of the great power competition between Washington and Beijing, it is very important to identify areas where both sides can maintain a certain degree of mutual trust and exchange.

What would change if the KMT were to win the 2024 presidential elections?

The KMT would waste no time and start to reach out to the mainland immediately, and for instance not wait until 20 May 2024 when the new government will be sworn in.

This is because Taiwan will have to undertake substantial efforts to re-establish mutual understanding with the mainland and find opportunities to collaborate. This is much more important than policy statements on how to deal with a military contingency.

But let’s be clear. I don't think it's possible to settle a problem that has been unsolvable for more than 70 years within a few years. My point is this: as long as there is no fight, there will be talks. The two sides of the strait won’t fight while talking, but they can quarrel.

Are there particular areas that the KMT would prioritize in re-establishing relations?

Yes. Together with our mainland friends, we would start by establishing more exchange opportunities for young Taiwanese, also for those who strongly identify with Taiwan. This is crucial.

Only by doing this can we make these young Taiwanese feel that there are alternative ways to strengthening military ties with the US. Taiwan ultimately can only defend itself. It will never become a base for the US or Western allies to launch military attacks on the mainland. It does not meet that condition. Therefore, we cannot just look at the “Taiwan issue” from a perspective of military deterrence, but also need to strengthen communication channels again.

The Taiwanese MFA has not denied rumors about an upcoming visit of government leadership to the US. Will Tsai Ing-wen go?

Generally, for an outgoing president of Taiwan who has successfully strengthened Taiwan-US relations during his or her time in office, such a visit before leaving office is actually normal. Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) also did it. Ma’s visit just didn’t cause such a shock, as there was more mutual trust across the strait back then.

Will such a visit actually help the DPP’s presidential election dynamics?

I am not so sure. The DPP government is very clear that in 2023, whether it is Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) visit to the US or someone from the US coming to Taiwan, this will not necessarily be positive for them in the polls. The mainland will not just sit back but react, and in the end, it may go in a direction the DPP does not like.

But the outgoing leader may generally care less about how this impacts a successor and more about what mark he or she can leave before leaving office. In this case, I therefore think it will be largely on the US to manage the risk.

What role will the US play in the elections?

The US should not get too much involved in Taiwan's internal elections. You don't know who you are helping or actually hurting. Plus, you also don't know whether you are going to like Beijing's reaction. Taiwan can engage in dialogue with Beijing for its own interests, and it shall not be hostage to US-China relations with their periodic suspensions of communication.

As I argued elsewhere, even if there are many people in Taiwan who call for resisting China and defending Taiwan, or lean toward the US, I think the actual percentage is relatively small.

One reason is that when President Biden said that he would not send US troops into Ukraine, this fundamentally affected the perception of the general public in Taiwan about the US commitment to Taiwan. That imagination has been shaken. Ordinary people – not experts, not the government, not the military – will think that the original security commitment is only this far, not a full guarantee, and that they have to fight for themselves, and others will not provide help.


CMG commentary

Since President Xi Jinping (习近平) came to power ten years ago, China has stepped up reunification efforts. The CCP’s so-called “overall guidelines on the Taiwan question”, a collection of Xi’s proposals and ideas on unification, still feature China’s “one country, two systems” (“1C2S”) formula, but with a premium on the leading role of the Chinese ruling party, cf. also the new CMG Primer.

But the “1C2S” formula has increasingly been losing its luster during the past decade, and it is extremely hard, if not impossible, for even the China-friendly KMT to adopt the framework in resolving the Taiwan question given the Taiwan electorate is increasingly wary of closer economic and political ties with their authoritarian neighbour and what has been seen as a failed experiment in Hong Kong.

Given the severance of nearly all official ties and rising tensions between mainland China and Taiwan during the administration of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT hopes to win next year’s presidential election by seeking a non-confrontational approach and thus pulling Taiwan away from the brink of conflict, or even a war.

The KMT tries to capitalize on its distinction with the ruling DPP in their China approach

The rising tensions since the independence-leaning DPP came to power in 2016 have been thrown into relief since US House Speaker Pelosi’s visit, with China launching its largest-scale military exercises in 26 years and drawing both sides of the Taiwan Strait closer to a conflict.

Considering all factors, the situation appears closer to a full-on confrontation than ever before. Mainland China’s recent military reform and rapid build-up make for an increasingly assertive and confident PLA, and the unification with Taiwan is widely viewed as the capstone of President Xi’s cause of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

As the party that has a better track record in dealing with mainland China in Taiwan, the KMT’s trump card in winning any nationwide election is its less confrontational and more accommodating China policy. Therefore, the KMT tries to capitalize on its distinction with the ruling DPP in their China approach. As such, KMT’s Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia’s (夏立言) two visits to China recently stood in stark contrast with the nearly zero communication channels between the DPP and China. Also noteworthy is the fact that Hsia’s second visit was welcomed by Wang Huning (王沪宁), China’s chairman-in-waiting of the CPPCC, China’s top consultative agency that has a mandate to unite overseas Chinese and compatriots. Wang is widely viewed as the mastermind of many of the CCP’s important thoughts and theories, and his assumption of the CPPCC chairmanship might indicate that Beijing’s Taiwan policy will see further refinement in the coming years.

That said, the KMT’s insistence on the so-called “three No’s” – no unification, no independence and no use of force – is losing its ear in Beijing. It seems that China under Xi does not think a status quo or what is perceived as stalemate across the strait could be lasting forever, claiming that the resolution of Taiwan question «shall not be delayed indefinitely».

So, even if the KMT wins next year’s presidential election, which in itself remains a tall order given its still lukewarm popular support, the ambition to re-conceive the previous rapprochement under former President Ma Ying-jeou with mainland China for 2024 onwards is becoming more difficult.

US strategic competition with China as backdrop for a closer US-Taiwan relationship

At the same time, the Biden administration is ramping up its efforts to support Taiwan economically, diplomatically, and militarily. On top of regular aid and cooperation, the US government elevated its relations with the Taiwan government by – for the first time – training the battalion unit of Taiwan military and greeting visiting Taiwan’s Foreign Minister at the headquarter of American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) in the US.

The US strategic competition with China serves as the backdrop of a closer US-Taiwan relationship, and defending democratic Taiwan is seen as equivalent to defending Ukraine against the aggression of Russia. The official contacts between Taiwan and the US have hit a new high over these years.

That said, there are also inherent risks in appearing to hedge Taiwan’s bets in Washington. The US has officially not changed its «strategic ambiguity» about its Taiwan policy, meaning that the US may or may not come militarily to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of China’s military takeover attempt.

The Biden administration is not in a mood to collide with China head-on over Taiwan and that is why President Biden greatly values the concept of establishing guardrails to avoid a military conflict with China. One of the lessons that the US learned from the Russian war against Ukraine is that effective deterrence remains the top choice when confronting a rival of China’s size. In this, the success of deterrence depends in large part on not pushing your opponent to the corner. And should deterrence fail, Taiwan would bear the full front of China’s overwhelming power. In that sense, the US may need to reconsider how it can deter the PLA’s military adventurism without causing Beijing’s ire to hit a road of no return.


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