Audrey Tang, Minister of Digital Affairs here in Taiwan, thank you very much indeed for coming on HARDtalk.
America, where we’ve seen the internet being used in a way that polarizes society more. How are you going to avoid falling into either trap?
How do you think you’re going to be able to develop this? I mean, could you go the way of China that uses surveillance to increase its authoritarianism?
All right. Finally, as Minister of Digital Affairs, Audrey Tang, you’re trying to transform Taiwan into a digital democracy. Around 87% of people under the age of 12 are connected. And you want to increase citizen participation online.
..military support, and that’s something that’s good in your opinion.
It’s the better democratic partner and they’re willing to commit…
Because I’ll give you a quote, Michael Swain from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft says Biden’s statements make Taiwan less secure because they increase the chance of the US being pulled into a war. Makes you less secure. Is it right?
Sticking with the tensions, you’re not escalating the tensions, but the tensions between China and the United States are escalating. Joe Biden has got the export controls now on Chinese technology and so on. And my point is, how is Taiwan viewing this?
Yeah. So you do. But do you think that’s reassuring for the Taiwanese? Or arguably, it could put you right in the middle of the growing tensions between China and the United States. You could end up becoming a pawn in this superpower rivalry.
Do you see a shift in policy? Do you see an abandonment of that strategic ambiguity in favor of a more robust approach?
So what’s your interpretation now of US policy towards Taiwan?
But now he’s saying that the US would get involved militarily if China invaded Taiwan. He says, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” And when pressed in an interview on American TV, whether that meant that American men and women would defend Taiwan, he answered, “Yes.”
And President Biden, it seems, has been abandoning American policy, which has been called strategic ambiguity for many years, not spelling out what would happen, from America’s point of view, if China did invade Taiwan.
All right. When it comes to defense, it seems like Taiwan is going to be relying a great deal on the United States. The US Senate has passed a bill to provide $6.5 billion to fund weapons and other military support for Taiwan. A strong bipartisan strategy for the Americans ...
But he’s doing the job of government there, isn’t he? He’s trying to fill in the holes to make up for the lack of a proper defense strategy that the government should be addressing.
So, for example, the Taiwanese tycoon Robert Tsao has pledged 33 million USD to help train civilian fighters, as you’re referring to there.
You’ve cut your Army personnel by more than half since the 1990s. It’s that kind of defense strategy that the Admiral is referring to. And so that’s all pretty unwise, isn’t it, that kind of approach?
I mean, President Tsai has just announced a 40% boost in Taiwan’s defense spending. You face an army, a standing army of about 2 million in total. I think you’ve got something like 170,000.
But I’m talking about military hardware, really. That’s what the admiral’s criticisms were.
So what do you say to that criticism?
His criticisms highlight the inertia in the Taiwanese army because it was the armed wing of the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party, that ruled under martial law for decades. And so therefore, it’s not reinvented itself sufficiently for the modern era.
All right, but it’s not just the political question where there is a lack of clarity. Even Taiwan’s defense strategy is lacking. Taiwan’s former top military official, staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who retired three years ago, says “the Taiwanese army is not prepared and that it must think strategically,” which ...
But, I mean, not even that’s taken place. I mean, are you encouraging her to do that?
But I mean, she says she will only talk if Beijing drops that precondition that Taiwan is part of China. [laughs] And so you’ve got a deadlock. They’re not going to do that. President Xi has just reiterated unification must happen, and so you have no dialogue.
Why is President Tsai here not accepting to talk directly with the Chinese?
I mean, even the Americans, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, held talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. They talked for an hour and a half.
Eric Chu, the Leader of the Opposition Kuomintang or KMT Party, criticizes the DPP, the President, for not maintaining a dialogue with China.
So you exist as a country only in the digital space. Is that what you’re saying?
But can you say you are a country when, as I just said, major countries, the United States, all of the European Union don’t recognize Taiwan as a nation state? You don’t have a seat at the United Nations.
..and the Vatican recognizes Taiwan as a nation. I mean, you’re losing that argument.
You use words like “country”, but actually only about a dozen very small states in the Caribbean or Latin America…
But it’s still not clear, the government or the president not backing formal independence, really, and yet saying we reject unification.
You’re talking about when Chiang Kai-shek left China, having been defeated by the Communists in 1949 and fled to Taiwan with 2 million of his followers, and we had the Republic of China there.
For example, in 2020, she told the BBC that, “We don’t have a need to declare independence. We are an independent country already, and call ourselves the Republic of China.” What does she mean by that?
But you are part of a government — I appreciate you are nonpartisan and not a member of the DPP — but President Tsai Ing Wen’s comments are quite puzzling.
What is the position of the Government when it comes to independence? Because polls consistently show that the Taiwanese people don’t want independence, and yet they don’t want unification with China. So how does the government reconcile this?
I mean, another paradox which is quite puzzling about Taiwan is, you are part of the government which came to power in 2016 when President Tsai Ing Wen, who leads the Democratic Progressive Party, the DPP, won the elections very decisively.
A symbol of trust, but does it protect you from Chinese aggression?
Yet, on the other hand, it could also prove a very attractive, valuable acquisition for China. So, how do you see it?
And there’s talk about a silicon shield, that this kind of supply of microchips can protect you from an attack by China.
And one Taiwanese company, TSMC, in fact, accounts for half of the global market. How does this affect your relationship with China? Because China is one of your big partners, economically, trading, and yet it’s this foe that we’ve been discussing.
And these are of course, critical in all sorts of ways, microchips we use in our phones, in cars, in laptops and so on.
One thing that Taiwan is hugely significant for in the global economy is the fact that you provide about 90% of the world’s advanced microchips.
But given the current tensions with China, these talks are pretty urgent, aren’t they, between private sector companies and the Taiwanese government?
As part of that ambition, you have proposed a satellite trial program to try to guarantee internet services across Taiwan.
So the idea, part of a digital strategy, is to keep information about Taiwan flowing.
So how capable is your infrastructure of withstanding these cyberattacks from China?
But given that your own department is the Ministry of Digital Affairs, you need to strengthen Taiwan’s digital protection.