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In this image from a video, sailors and marines stand guard in front of Taiwan’s guided-missile frigate at naval base in the northern port of Keelung, Taiwan on March 8, 2021.

Johnson Lai/The Associated Press

China’s military may be strong enough to overrun parts of Taiwan. And Beijing’s diplomacy may be sophisticated enough to bar the self-governing nation from international organizations and suffocate Taipei’s foreign relations.

But there is value in shaming Beijing, one of Taiwan’s most senior political figures says.

“Sometimes we may not be able to stop a powerful country like China from doing something,” Frank Hsieh said in an interview. “But we can make the giant pay – even to the point of hurting his reputation, his international standing or his internal affairs.”

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Mr. Hsieh, Taiwan’s representative in Japan, is a co-founder and former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power in Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen.

Since Ms. Tsai took office in 2016, Beijing has brought increasing pressure to bear on Taiwan. In recent months, Chinese bombers and fighter jets have regularly approached the island; last year, Hong Kong air traffic controllers blocked a Taiwanese flight to Pratas Island, a far-flung atoll 445 kilometres from the city of Kaohsiung, which belongs to Taiwan.

Who rules Taiwan? Not Xi Jinping

Over the past week, Chinese officials gathered for annual political meetings have renewed Beijing’s threats to take over Taiwan by force. “We have the capability to thwart separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in whatever form,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman Wu Qian accused the DPP of looking to “use force to seek independence” with foreign backing. Warning about a “very dangerous” situation, he said China’s military is taking aim at “at the interference of external forces and the very small number of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and their separatist activities.”

Chinese leaders used similar rhetoric before introducing sweeping legal changes in Hong Kong that have led to the arrest of dozens of politicians, activists and media figures.

Taiwan calls itself “a sovereign and independent country,” with its own military, parliament, currency and foreign relations. China claims Taiwan as a province, and has demanded other countries deal only with Beijing. Canada, in establishing diplomatic relations with China, agreed only to take “note of this position of the Chinese government.”

Western observers say the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan remains low – but the risks are real. “The PLA has been working for over 20 years now to become capable of fighting and winning a war with the United States over the Taiwan issue,” said Lonnie Henley, a former defence intelligence officer for East Asia at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

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But China is unlikely to go to war over Taiwan so long as Beijing believes it can unite the island with the mainland through non-violent means, said Mr. Henley, who is now an adjunct professor with Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.

But the rising frequency of China’s military manoeuvres should be taken seriously, Mr. Hsieh said. Aerial incursions can allow Beijing to gather intelligence on Taiwanese territory as well as on any nearby U.S. military presence. At the same time, “by showing off military strength in this way, they are threatening Taiwan,” said Mr. Hsieh, who two decades ago served as mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, and visited Pratas Island.

The dozens of Chinese flights bisecting Pratas and Taiwan’s main island also suggests Beijing is sending its pilots “to familiarize themselves with the route,” he said, adding that such incursions amount to “waves of harassment.”

But “solely relying on military power to confront China is unrealistic,” he said. “Only very few countries in the world have the means to do so, and Taiwan is certainly not among them.”

Yet Taiwan’s experience in being muscled out of international organizations by Beijing suggests some pushback against China’s position.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, China has continued to insist on Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization. Beijing says it alone can represent Taiwan at such institutions.

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But “the price China has to pay for opposing Taiwan is increasing,” Mr. Hsieh argued.

Keeping Taiwan out of the WHO has “highlighted Taiwan’s difficulties and struggle as well as its self-reliant spirit,” he said. Taiwan has been among the world’s most successful countries in halting the spread of COVID-19, but – like China – has sought to use the epidemic to burnish its global standing, including through heavily publicized donations of masks.

Beijing, too, has been generous in providing protective equipment to foreign countries, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. But Chinese officials also silenced those raising alarm over the early spread of COVID-19, and public opinion of China has dimmed considerably in many developed countries, including Canada, the U.S. and Japan, which openly supported Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly (the WHO’s decision-making body).

Beyond the WHO, Taiwan is also hoping countries such as Canada will support its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a far-reaching trade agreement. In China, President Xi Jinping has expressed interest in joining the partnership. But Taiwan hopes “we can join first,” Mr. Hsieh said.

For now, Taipei is watching Britain’s efforts to join the CPTPP. If countries such as Canada, Japan or Australia support the Britain, “then we will also ask for assistance from those countries in the future,” Mr. Hsieh said.

He advocated for democracies to come together as Beijing asserts increasing economic power and international influence.

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“Most democratic and free countries in the world are unable to resist coercion from China, and by that I mean resist such coercion independently,” he said.

“The unity of democratic countries must be preserved – not only for the sake of Taiwan, but also for themselves,” he added. “Because if a country like the U.S. stands by and ignores when Taiwan is threatened and destroyed, then its credibility in Asia and other countries will be greatly affected.”

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