Taiwan, Soft Balancing and Hong Kong Protests

Image Source (Edmund Yeo)

Written by James Lo

Building on last week’s post on the stances that Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar took on Hong Kong protests, this essay will look at Taiwan’s stance towards the Hong Kong Protests. Taiwan is the only Asian country to have outwardly spoken in support of Hong Kong protestors and denounce the “One-country-two-system” policy. I will look at Walt’s balancing theory & Pape’s soft balancing theory and explore how well they explain Taiwan’s stance on Hong Kong Protests.

What Taiwan said

Tsai stated in her National Day speech in 2019 that Hong Kong protests signalled the ‘failure of the one-country-two-system’[1] model and asked the Taiwanese people to stand with her to reject Chinese efforts to impose such a system in Taiwan. She referred to Hong Kong protestors as ‘friends from Hong Kong’[2] when they visited Taiwan in attempts to drum up support.

What the theory says


Walt argued that states ‘ally in opposition to the source of danger’[3]. They align with different states to ‘prevent domination by stronger powers’[4]. If they fail to curb a potential aggressor, their own survival is at risk. States will choose this behaviour because bandwagoning behaviour (discussed last week) relies on the ‘continued benevolence’[5] on the dominant power. In the case between China and Taiwan, it is no secret that Xi has aspirations to incorporate Taiwan into China’s territory and complete the “One-China policy”. In Jan 2019 Xi gave two speeches which reinforced their stance on Taiwan. On 2nd Jan Xi declared that Beijing would never tolerate independence of Taiwan and reserve ‘the option of taking all necessary measures’ against independence forces. 3 days later, Xi ordered the PLA to increase their battle readiness against all challenges.[6] The timings of these speeches suggest that Xi is ready to take a harder stance against Taiwan in 2019 and beyond. Thus, Taiwan’s survival may be increasingly at risk.

In militaristic and hard power terms, Taiwan’s alliance is with the US not with Hong Kong. US supplies 100% of Taiwan’s arms[7], most recently being the $8b sale of F16s to Taiwan in August and the $2.2b sale of more than 100 M-1 tanks in Oct 2019.[8] US fleets have also frequently visited the Taiwan strait, making eight passes in the first half of 2019 alone.[9] To counter China’s possible military incursion into Taiwan, Taiwan has opted to enter an alliance with US to build up their own capacities in hard power terms.

However, the traditional form of balancing does not explain why Taiwan and Tsai particularly chose to speak out on the Hong Kong protests. The alignment with Hong Kong protestors is not founded in concerns of combining military capabilities through alignment. The incorporation of one of the criticisms of Walt’s balancing power – the development of soft balancing – will help explain this particular alignment.

Soft balancing

Building on the original balancing theory, Pape argued that non-military tools, such as international institutions, economic statecraft, and strict interpretations of neutrality, can have a real, if indirect, effect on the military prospects of a unipole.[10] The key of soft balancing is to ‘undermine and constrain the influence of the threatening state without direct military confrontation’[11]. One of the key components of soft balancing is the idea of ‘entangling diplomacy’[12] – the ‘use of diplomatic manoeuvres to delay the superior side’s plans…even to make the issue irrelevant’[13].

Taiwan’s support for the Hong Kong protestors can be viewed in such a vein. Taiwan and Tsai’s denouncement of the “one-country-two-system” policy is an attempt to delegitimise the policy altogether. This acts to delay China’s aspirations for Taiwan because China’s plan is to reunite with Taiwan through the imposing of the “one-country-two-system” policy. Tsai is attempting to delegitimise the policy by using Hong Kong as an example as to the chaos and problems that the policy will bring to the country. In delegitimising China’s “one-country-two-systems”, Tsai hopes to disrupt China’s existing plans for Taiwan and to make it untenable for China to reunite with Taiwan using the “one-country-two-systems” policy.

Taiwan has been using soft balancing policy to prevent the implementation of the “one-country-two system” policy. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council published a report in 2018 regarding the “one-country-two-system” policy and its impact in Hong Kong.[14] Within the report, it outlined 218 instances of controversial incidents regarding China’s potential encroachment into Hong Kong’s autonomy. Conclusions from the report suggest that the Hong Kong’s values of ‘human rights, freedom and rule of law suffer from Mainland China factors’[15].

Hong Kong protests have therefore offered Taiwan with a crucial opportunity to defend its sovereignty and China’s increasing assertion on reunification. Taiwan’s main policy is the delegitimisation of China’s possible method of reunification. With Hong Kong being the only example of China implementing such a policy, the alignment of Tsai with the Hong Kong protestors thus provided Tsai with evidence to back up her position. The use of diplomatic alignment with Hong Kong protestors can therefore be seen as a tactic to negate China’s superior military capabilities without military confrontation.

Economic dependency

In the previous essay, I argued that economic dependency is the main factor influencing Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar’s support for China on the issue of Hong Kong protests. Does this apply to Taiwan? China is the Taiwan’s top trading partner at 28.8%, with Hong Kong coming in at second at 12.4%.[16] Tourism is one of the main ways China and Taiwan interact together – Chinese tourists accounted for 22.6% of tourism in Taiwan.[17] Compared to the three countries in the first essay, Taiwan has a larger GDP compared to the three Southeast Asian countries. Tsai has also embarked on a policy of diversification and reducing dependency on China since her presidency through the New Southbound Policy to increase cooperation with Southeast Asia.[18] This has reduced Taiwan’s dependency on China – seen recently through the ability for Taiwan to cope with China’s ban on independent tourism to Taiwan.[19]


All in all, the theory of soft balancing can help explain Taiwan’s stance on Hong Kong protests. Indeed, the alignment with the Hong Kong protests is one of the policies that Taiwan is adopting to prevent Chinese reunification and the implementation of the “one-country-two-systems” on Taiwan shores. Tsai hopes to delegitimise the “one-country-two-systems” policy by using the example of the chaos and violence currently raging in Hong Kong to indicate the policy’s failure and the possible consequences for Taiwan if implemented.

[1] Chung, L. 2019.  

[2] Lew, L. 2019.

[3] Walt, S. 1985. p.4

[4] Ibid. p.5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lau, M. 2019.

[7] Sipri. 2019.

[8] Mehta, A. & Gould, J. 2019.

[9] Maizland, L. 2019.

[10] Pape, R. 2005. p.36

[11] He, K. & Fung, H. 2008. p.372. Definition of direct military confrontation Includes arms races

[12] Pape, R. 2005. p.36

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mainland Affairs Council. 2018. p.11

[15] Ibid. p.6

[16] Workman, D. 2019.

[17] Taiwan Tourism Bureau. 2019.

[18] Marston, H. & Bush, R. 2018.

[19] Jennings, R. 2019.


Chung, L. 2019. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen urges rejection of ‘one country, two systems’ model she says fails Hong Kong. Accessed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3032303/taiwans-president-tsai-ing-wen-urges-rejection-one-country-two

He, K. & Fung, H. 2008. If Not Soft Balancing, Then What? Reconsidering Soft Balancing and U.S. Policy Toward China. Accessed at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09636410802098776

Jennings, R. 2019. Taiwan Will Easily Overcome China’s Ban On 82,000 Tourists Per Month. Accessed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2019/08/15/taiwan-will-easily-overcome-chinas-ban-on-82000-tourists-per-month/#3d1733c57817

Lau, M. 2019. Chinese President Xi Jinping gives army its first order of 2019: be ready for battle. Accessed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/2180772/chinese-president-xi-jinping-gives-army-its-first-order-2019

Lew, L. 2019. Tsai Ing-wen says ‘friends from Hong Kong’ will be considered for asylum on humanitarian grounds. Accessed at


Mainland Affairs Council. 2018. Analysis Report: 20 years after Hong Kong’s Handover. Accessed at https://ws.mac.gov.tw/001/Upload/297/relfile/8478/72053/14f46a7e-e74d-4df7-8995-cca469878019.pdf

Maizland, L. 2019. U.S. Military Support for Taiwan: What’s Changed Under Trump? Accessed at https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/us-military-support-taiwan-whats-changed-under-trump

Marston, H. & Bush, R. 2018. Taiwan’s engagement with Southeast Asia is making progress under the New Southbound Policy. Accessed at https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/taiwans-engagement-with-southeast-asia-is-making-progress-under-the-new-southbound-policy/

Mehta, A. & Gould, J. 2019. Taiwan F-16 sale officially cleared by Trump administration. Accessed at https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2019/08/20/taiwan-f-16-sale-officially-cleared-by-trump-administration/

Pape, R. 2005. Soft Balancing against the United States. Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/4137457?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Taiwan Tourism Bureau. 2019. Tourism Annual Reports. Accessed at https://admin.taiwan.net.tw/FileUploadCategoryListC003330.aspx?CategoryID=97dbfd3b-e636-4983-a306-639772660433&appname=FileUploadCategoryListC003330

Sipri. 2019. Trends in International Arms Transfers. Accessed at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/fs_1903_at_2018.pdf

Walt, S. 1985. Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power. Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2538540.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A2f88083fdfdf474881ce670f0e7cf99b

Workman, D. 2019. Taiwan’s top import partners. Accessed at http://www.worldstopexports.com/taiwans-top-import-partners/

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