After China’s 20th Party Congress, How Could Cross-Strait Relations Go?

Written by Huynh Tam Sang and Shaoyun Lin.

Image credit: 中国共产党第二十次全国代表大会开幕 by 中國新聞社/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 3.0.

Xi Jinping’s grip on power and newly elected figures across Taiwan’s political spectrum offer a bad omen for island democracy.

After the controversial visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in August, the relationship between Taiwan and China went downhill to a political deadlock. Dialogues and negotiations have been absent, and the possibility of breaking the ice in the stalemate is uncertain. Following the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which marked a milestone for Xi Jinping’s third term as China’s most powerful leader, the forthcoming trajectory of China-Taiwan relations should be read with a thorough assessment.

In his report to the 20th National Congress, Xi underlined that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment” and warned that China “will never promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve[s] the option of taking all measures necessary.” Five years ago, the report to the 19th National Congress mentioned that Taiwan’s peaceful reunification with China was “in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation.” However, the 2017 report did not embrace a hard line on Taiwan nor mention the issue of utilizing force to annex the island. 

While some scholars claimed that Xi’s rhetorical points about Taiwan were “predictable”, the issue of reunification with Taiwan, in the perceptions of Chinese leaders, has become far more pressing. While the 2017 report referred to Taiwan 15 times, this year’s report mentioned Taiwan 21 times with tougher wording. Specifically, China unprecedentedly added a section to the 2022 report to express its opposition to “foreign interference” by “outside forces” regarding cross-Strait relations. This move suggested that, to leaders in Beijing, while solving the Taiwan issue is China’s internal affairs, the Sino-Taiwanese relationship has wider security implications that involve international actors.

The possibility of Xi’s tightening the screws on Taiwan is even more plausible when the CCP’s recent constitution amendment represents a new level of escalation of tensions in Beijing’s approach to Taiwan. The new amendmentcommitted the CCP to “resolutely opposing and deterring separatists seeking Taiwan independence” while “offering [ing] a fundamental guarantee for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Such remarks indicate the CCP’s blatant aggression towards Taiwan, especially proponents of Taiwanese independence. In 2017, the constitutional revisions approved by the CCP did not mention Taiwan by name. Still, they stated that “national rejuvenation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese people since modern times began, and that it is a solemn commitment our Party has made to our people and history.” Recent constitutional changes entail a new direction of the CCP’s Taiwan policy, in that Xi and his comrades will have a more solid legal basis from which to “pursue harsher, more punitive action toward any perceived expressions of Taiwanese independence or external support for Taiwanese independence.”

After the 20th National Congress, the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the State Council held a press conference on October 26 to announce Beijing’s future policies and guidelines for dealing with Taiwan. At the meeting, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for the TAO, announced China’s “10 insistences,” including “never committing to renounce the use of force.” Ma also underlined that “Taiwan’s independence and separation is the biggest obstacle to the reunification of the motherland and a serious hidden danger to China’s national rejuvenation,” and China would unswervingly advance the great cause of national reunification. Ma’s remark is in line with Xi Jinping’s commitment to reunification with Taiwan. 

The changeover of personnel after the Chinese conclave also has nuanced implications for China’s Taiwan policy. As Liu Jieyi, the incumbent chairman of the TAO, and his three deputy directors, Chen Yuanfeng, Long Mingbiao, and Pan Xianzhang, have not been elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a comprehensive change of officials in the TAO is about to happen. Based on previous traditions of Chinese politics, the chairman of the TAO will be selected from officials who possess rich experience in terms of foreign affairs in the CPC Central Committee. Yet, the five potential candidates who satisfy this prerequisite — Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister; Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the United States; Liu Jianchao, Head of the International Liaison Department of the CPC’s Central Committee; Qi Yu, Secretary of the CPC Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Liu Haixing, Deputy Director of the Office of the National Security Commission — are either already appointed or inexperienced in the cross-Strait relations. Wang Yi, Qin Gang, and Liu Jianchao will each hold important positions, while Qi Yu may be in charge of organizational work. 

Liu Haixing has therefore emerged as the most probable candidate to take up his role as the chief of the TAO since other potential candidates are either already have positions or about to be appointed to higher positions. Liu’s diplomatic experience is mostly related to Europe, and Taiwanese people are not familiar with him, suggesting that the channel for fruitful dialogues between officials in Beijing and Taipei is likely to be halted, leading to more tensions and uncertainty in China’s relations with Taiwan. If appointed, Liu might adopt a hardline stance against Taiwan, potentially by using the excuse of national security to further suppress the self-governed island.

Regardless of speculations about the candidate most likely to take charge of the TAO, Beijing’s overall policy towards Taiwan may not change drastically. Any actual power to shape China’s decisions concerning Taiwan will likely still belong to the CCP’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, which brings together top-ranking party, state, and military officials responsible for Taiwan’s work. With Xi in control of this party organ, whoever replaces Liu Jieyi as director of the TAO might have little influence over Beijing’s Taiwan policy.

It should also be noted that as the new lineup of the Central Military Commission (CMC) leaders, including Zhang Youxia, He Weidong, Li Shangfu, Liu Zhenli, Miao Hua, and Zhang Shengmin, are well-trained with on-the-ground experience, they are likely to strengthen China’s military preparations for potential conflict or war with Taiwan. He Weidong, for example, was the architect behind the CCP’s strategy of encircling Taiwan with military exercises and missile drills in August in response to Pelosi’s Taipei visit. Fujian-born He, now vice chairman of the CMC, is a longtime veteran heading the Eastern Theater Command and well-known as Xi’s ally and friend. With his joint command experience, He—who oversaw the People’s Liberation Army’s “contingency planning for the spectrum of conflict with Taiwan” and “operations across the Taiwan Strait”—could be more loyal to Xi’s military leadership and adopt a more assertive posture towards Taiwan. 

After experiencing over 70 years of separate rulings, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have developed significantly diverged paths in terms of the political system and ways of living. To prevent a war over Taiwan, building comprehensive communication channels and deterring the risk of conflicts have become even more pressing. Unfortunately, previous communication channels and conflict prevention mechanisms were cut off after the CCP’s 20th Party Congress.

Even worse, setbacks in peace maintenance across the Taiwan Strait are also reflected in the power consolidation of Xi. With Xi Jinping eliminating collective leadership and moving towards one-man-rule leadership, the decision-making procedure concerning China’s foreign affairs will be managed by an exceptionally small coalition led by Xi. While the personnel arrangement will undoubtedly impact the future of the cross-Strait relationship, decisions on when and how to fulfil Taiwan’s reunification with China will derive only from a few high-ranking echelons, especially trusted cadres with whom Xi can confidently exchange ideas and policies. Put differently, China’s primary decisions on Taiwan would derive only from a few individuals sharing Xi’s dream of national rejuvenation. It is reasonable to say that Xi, as China’s top leader, would have the final say regarding crucial cross-Strait relations decisions. 

As Xi’s primary concern is to reunite Taiwan peacefully but not rule out the possibility of achieving this goal by using force, the relationship between Beijing and Taipei is unlikely to get back on track. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ying-wen, in her 2022 National Day address, blasted Beijing authorities’ attempts to “erase the sovereignty of Taiwan” and underscored that Taiwan’s hard-won democracy sovereignty could not be derailed. Tsai also made a bold statement highlighting that Taiwanese people “have no room for compromise” when it comes to the island democracy’s “national sovereignty” and “free and democratic way of life.” Tsai is a member of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, which supports the status quo of carefully measured distance from Beijing. Furthermore, after Xi’s address about taking control of Taiwan in mid-October, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the top government body on China policy, rebuffed Xi’s reunification vow, saying that Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan is “misjudged” and offered no new line of thinking.

Amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, as well as the alliance of convenience between the latter with Moscow, China will likely take coercive measures to intimidate Taiwan, especially since the United States and Taiwan have strengthened military and economic ties and Taiwan has been more confident in its democratic path and the will to defend its sovereignty. In her address at the National Double Ten National Day, Tsai said Taiwan would adhere to “four resolutions” in cross-strait policies, that is, supporting a free and democratic government, recognizing that Taiwan is separated from the People’s Republic of China, defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, and observing that Taiwan’s future is up to its people. 

Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and his promotion of military allies loyal to his vision for China’s domestic and international affairs, Taiwan’s resolution to defend its homeland under the leadership of Tsai Ing-wen, and the slippery slope of the Sino-U.S. relationship all presage Beijing’s adoption of a tougher stance on Taiwan. However, the most significant indicator of the direction of the CCP’s Taiwan policy is Xi himself, who has become much more vocal and assertive on this topic in recent years. In addition to establishing reunification with the island as one of China’s core interests, Xi has made China’s “red lines” on Taiwan clearer by stating that China would utilize non-peaceful means to reunify Taiwan under three circumstances: Taiwan declares independence, Taiwan secedes from China, or the room for a peaceful reunification is unattainable. As a newly empowered Xi and his few allies take greater control of China’s policymaking, Xi’s own words indicate a more coercive and aggressive turn on Taiwan. For the moment, what shape this new policy might take and what consequences it might bring remain uncertain. Unfortunately, however, it appears that an alarming future for cross-Strait relations may be closer than ever before.

Huynh Tam Sang (PhD) is a lecturer of the Faculty of International Relations at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and a nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He tweets at @huynhtamsang2.

Shaoyun Lin is a master’s student at National Taiwan University and a research assistant at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

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