Playing it Safe on Taiwan: China’s New Year’s Comment

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 习近平 Xi Jinping by China News Service/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 3.0.

Perhaps ironically, the western new year’s and lunar new year’s speeches by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Chinese President Xi Jinping touched on many of the same issues.

In particular, both presidents touted their respective countries’ successes in fighting COVID-19. For Xi, this meant continuing to praise the Chinese government for taking the correct approach to COVID-19, in taking the course of action that would save the most lives. This occurred even as China has seen an extreme spike in the number of COVID-19 cases after the relaxation of COVID-zero policies, with China has taken a few steps to transition away from COVID-zero to an era of co-existing with the virus.

Taiwan also adhered to COVID-zero policies but eventually transitioned away from them to accommodate an era in which permanently containing the virus was unfeasible. Yet Tsai stated in her western new year’s address that as “the leader of our country, I take ultimate responsibility for the hardships our citizens have borne.” Tsai then went on to outline economic relief policies taken by her government to reduce the burden on the citizenry. By contrast, while Xi’s comments also touched on economic policy intended to relieve poverty and touted continued GDP growth by China, his comments in both speeches generally avoided linking economic challenges faced by China to COVID-19.

To this extent, Xi’s speeches focused on past glories of the PRC and its CCP leadership. Xi brought up how he and the CCP leadership visited Yan’an to revisit the past glories of the Mao era. Xi quoted 11th-century Chinese poet Su Shi and continued to articulate what he touted as the CCP’s contemporary accomplishments in the “Chinese dream” framework.

This focus on the past was not present in Tsai’s speeches. Instead, Tsai more often discussed contemporary challenges faced by Taiwan and the world–such as the war in Ukraine and the global economic impacts that resulted from the conflict. Likewise, Tsai discussed in detail the military threats faced by Taiwan from China, such as with regard to the live-fire drills that took place around Taiwan around the historic visit to Taiwan by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in August.

Xi’s comments on both occasions contained references to both sides of the Taiwan Strait being one family and the hope that “our compatriots on both sides of the Strait will work together with a unity of purpose to jointly foster lasting prosperity of the Chinese nation.” Xi similarly touted the implementation of One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong as a success of his administration. But one notes that Xi stuck mainly to boilerplate statements without specificity when it comes to Taiwan. This may indicate that Xi does not wish to commit to any specific action plan regarding Taiwan at this juncture.

After all, while Xi has indicated with his comments that China is not backing away from its geopolitical claims with Taiwan, Xi’s comments over the western new year and lunar new year take place at a time of global uncertainty. There is more international focus on Taiwan than ever, particularly following the war in Ukraine, with fears that Taiwan could prove the next major geopolitical flashpoint.

The Pelosi visit itself is an example of how US politicians are increasingly open in support of Taiwan on a bipartisan basis. Succeeding Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has also expressed the desire to visit Taiwan, and reports indicate that the Pentagon is planning for a visit by McCarthy. In the aftermath of the Pelosi visit, one also saw increased visits from politicians from European countries to Taiwan, perhaps a way in which the Pelosi visit threw open the Overton Window for other diplomatic visits to take place.

At the same time, following China’s military displays, one also sees warnings from western experts about a potentially accelerated timeline for a conflict over Taiwan. The most recent such statement came from US Air Force General Mike Minihan, in which Minihan claims that 2025 is a possible year in which conflict between the US and China may break out.

But, in this respect, perhaps Xi’s comments are notable regarding what he did not say. Xi did not emphatically vow more military action in response to aggressions from the US, for example. Nor did Xi’s comments contain any reference to the ongoing war in Ukraine. In fact, in Xi’s comments for the western new year and the lunar new year, he generally directed comments to Chinese citizens and residents of places that China considers a part of its territory, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. There were relatively few external references in Xi’s comments, which generally avoided discussion of concrete details for China’s foreign policy, China’s relation to external actors, and cross-strait policy.

Certainly, it is to China’s benefit to keep geopolitical rivals in the dark about its future designs on Taiwan–the benefits of strategic ambiguity, as it were. However, insofar as Xi’s speech may primarily have a domestic audience and are made in his position as leader of the CCP, Xi can be understood as not committing the CCP to any specific course of action on Taiwan shortly. As the leader of the CCP, Xi must, of course, answer to both nationalists hawkish on Taiwan as well as voices of restraint, who may realize that in dealing with the death toll and economic blow of COVID-19, China already has quite a lot on its plate outside of the matter of Taiwan, with significant casualties anticipated for China in the event of an invasion.

Adding further uncertainty are the upcoming presidential elections in 2024, in which Taiwan will again go to polls to decide who its next president. But in this light, though Xi could have made a grand pronouncement on Taiwan to influence the outcome of Taiwanese elections, he did not do so.

Indeed, in considering past comments by Xi in this timeframe, one notes the western new year or lunar new year could have proved an occasion to introduce some new formula regarding cross-strait relations or to emphasize that force was still on the table to reunify Taiwan in a manner aimed at pushing Taiwanese voters to vote for the pan-Blue camp. In 2019, in comments made for the western new year, Xi caused consternation in Taiwan by stating that force was still on the table for achieving reunification and emphasizing the “Taiwan version” of “One Country, Two Systems”, indicating that the CCP still viewed “One Country, Two Systems” as the formula for implementing unification.

This led to a blowback in Taiwan, with the public throwing its support behind Tsai. The DPP was probably the ultimate benefactor of the blowback over Xi’s comments and the turmoil in Hong Kong later that year, with the KMT put into the awkward position of having to rapidly backpedal and try and distinguish the 1992 Consensus it upholds from “One Country, Two Systems” as championed by the CCP. This didn’t prove easy when its candidate, then-Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, had been meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam not too long earlier to sign trade agreements for Kaohsiung. However, it is generally thought that Xi is aware of how the fallout over Hong Kong has had a negative impact on views of China in Taiwan.

Xi may be hoping to avoid a repeat performance of 2019, in which his comments are inadvertently thought to have contributed to Tsai’s election victory. Or it could simply be that the situation is too precarious for him to introduce further uncertainty in China’s calculus of the optimal course of action regarding Taiwan. This is unclear, but evidently, Xi sought to avoid any new policy pronouncements on Taiwan in his two new years’ addresses.  

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance journalist, as well as a translator. A New York native and Taiwanese-American, he has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and graduated from New York University with majors in History, East Asian Studies, and English Literature. He was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Cross-Straits relations 2023’.

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