The China factor
China’s policy towards Taiwan is focused on the eventual reunification of the island with the mainland. The nature of relations has tended to fluctuate depending on the administration in Taipei. Under the KMT government led by Ma Ying-jeou (2008–16), relations between Taipei and Beijing softened and were marked by increased levels of economic outreach on both sides; relations with the mainland have tended to be cooler under DPP administrations, including Tsai’s, reflecting the party’s pro-independence stance.
In January 2019 China’s President Xi Jinping reiterated that reunification with Taiwan remains a priority for Beijing, stating that China would not rule out the use of force if needed. His assertion was predictable in terms of its timing (marking 40 years since China’s ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan’), and given China’s current economic and political context. China’s growth continues to show a downward trend, partly because of the impact of the trade war with the US, and its efforts to develop its own ‘new model’ for a service-sector-oriented, innovative economy have hit strong headwinds since the middle of 2018. As a consequence, the world is starting to see what a slowdown for China might look like. The double-digit growth the country enjoyed in the recent past was inevitably unsustainable, a pattern characteristic of an economy evolving from one of developing to developed status. It is also true that the Xi administration is aiming for qualitative and not just quantitative growth. Consistently high GDP figures have been one of the great assets of the Chinese government, and while it is difficult to forecast with much certainty the true impact of lower headline growth, the search for new forms of authority is already evident in the more nationalistic tone of Chinese politics and foreign policy.
The fact that it is the DPP that is currently in power in Taiwan only accentuates the problem: ever since the party’s foundation in the 1980s, its association with pro-independence sentiment has meant that its relationship with Beijing has been fractious. This tension now manifests itself through Beijing’s use of ‘sharp power’. Although Taiwan has experienced this over many decades, one of the new features of this mode of behaviour is the so-called ‘weaponization’ of economic means – whereby Beijing’s dissatisfaction with another state’s stance on issues that matter to China brings responses in the economic, rather than political, realm. Norway experienced this in 2010 when the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo resulted in Beijing instituting a freeze in ministerial visits and a ban on Norwegian exports of salmon to China. Also in 2010, Japan suffered from an informal block by China of shipments of rare earth metals, important components in many Japanese-manufactured hi-tech goods, around the same time as tensions were rising in the East China Sea. The era of China’s primary focus on soft power seems to have given way to one of much more overt, muscular action.
Taiwan has seen this at close quarters. Xi, through his former tenure as a party official in Fujian province (situated directly opposite Taiwan across the Strait) from 1985 until 2000, is clearly familiar with the importance of Taiwanese trade for China’s economy. But since his appointment as the Communist Party’s chief leader in 2012, he has also stood at the forefront of a more assertive stance on what are termed China’s ‘core interests’ – of which the status of Taiwan, albeit primarily seen as a domestic issue by China, is one of the most important and sensitive. All of this is linked to the grand narratives of foreign policy under Xi’s leadership, in particular China’s renaissance and ambition to become a great power by the Communist Party’s centenary year in 2021. There is a sense in which, as the final outstanding issue preventing the reunification of what Beijing contentiously calls the ‘Greater Chinese’ nation, following the hand-back of Hong Kong and Macao in 1997 and 1999 respectively, Taiwan has been drawn into a story emanating from China which has a plotline and a denouement that has never been jointly discussed, and which does not make provision for active input from Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants – just their passive participation.
Despite its hefty symbolism, the historic meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in Singapore on 7 November 2015 – the first such meeting of leaders of the two rivals since 1949 – did not lead to any major changes in the relationship. More recently, since the DPP’s return to power in 2016, cross-Strait relations have turned increasingly chilly. Tourist numbers from the Chinese mainland have fallen, although overall tourism has been buoyed by visitors from other countries. There have been reported attempts to influence and co-opt the many young Taiwanese working in China, alongside efforts to constrain Taiwan’s international space. For example, that Taiwan was not invited to the World Health Assembly in either 2017 or 2018, having attended with observer status since 2009, was attributed by the authorities in Taipei to pressure brought to bear on the World Health Organization by Beijing. China has also secured diplomatic recognition from some of Taiwan’s hitherto formal allies, including Panama in 2017 and the Dominican Republic in 2018. This means that by 2019 Taiwan was formally recognized by only 17 countries. This is predominantly about Beijing now simply having the economic capacity – and the domestic impetus – to assert new forms of influence. But this has coincided with a period in which the US approach towards Taiwan is not as clearly drawn as it has been under previous administrations, and when economic and political issues in Taiwan have become more complex.
Xi’s statement in early 2019 that Taiwan ‘must and will be’ united with the People’s Republic drew much attention. However, the parameters of Beijing’s policy have in fact remained unchanged since the era of Deng Xiaoping. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ rubric used for the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 is still the proposed mechanism being offered for Taiwan. But Beijing must confront the reality that the vast majority of Taiwan’s citizens remain profoundly opposed to any notion that they might reunite with an entity that remains under a one-party, Marxist-Leninist system.
President Tsai’s response to these developments has simply been to assert – as she did in January 2019 – that the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ is no longer valid. While this is essentially a reaffirmation of her position during her election campaign, Tsai’s reinforcement of this message as president, and her firm response to the language from Beijing, is important.