Taiwan-China relation: 2023 and beyond (Part I)

Written by Daniel Jia.

Image credit: Public domain.

The year 2022 has been particularly bumpy for Taiwan and China in their relationship. The tension reflected the growing identity gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

While China’s strength of pulling Taiwan closer through its economic attraction and political influence was waning, Taiwan’s growing confidence transformed into a centrifugal force that would one day liberate Taiwan completely from China’s repressive sphere. Taiwan’s desire to part tyrannical China bears an analogy with Ukraine’s struggle to free the re-born nation from the centuries-old Russian oppressor.

The turbulent year of 2022 is now in the past, but does its impact affect our future? What would the Cross-Strait relation be like in 2023 and beyond? This paper includes two perspectives, the first is a reflection from China, and the second is a reflection from Taiwan.

The perspective of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

Taking Taiwan under control has been China’s national dream for over 70 years. However, in the past three decades, China’s robust economic growth has lent its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) an illusion that Taiwan would voluntarily embrace the mainland for the sake of economic prosperity. This confidence grew stronger with time, especially during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency (2008-2016), and a peaceful reunification seemed to be a sure thing in the eyes of China’s leaders. 

But things have changed unexpectedly for China since 2018. China found itself struggling with ever-stronger headwinds coming from all directions. With its economic and international political leverage over Taiwan diminishing, China had no choice but to turn to military actions as its last resort to keep the reunification scheme alive. China’s increased airspace incursion into Taiwan’s territory and more frequent military drills in the South China Sea marked 2022 with heated tension across the Taiwan Strait. “China’s large-scale military drills in the areas around Taiwan drew the world’s attention,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen summarized China’s provocative and intimidating actions at the beginning of her 2023 New Year’s Address, highlighting the dire situation across the Strait in the past year.

As if trying to refute Tsai’s China aggression remarks in advance, China’s now paramount leader Chairman Xi Jinping in his own New Year’s Address delivered on the last day of 2022, extended an olive branch to Taiwan by saying, “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are members of one and the same family.”

Although China habitually addresses the people of Taiwan as “compatriots”, Xi’s latest reference to Taiwan is rather uncharacteristically friendly and thus unusual, given his track record of hardline dealing with Taiwan and the West alike.

The media and many political analysts passed no time to point out this change in Xi’s rhetoric. They suggested that this change might preclude a more Taiwan-friendly approach adopted by Beijing. These assumptions, even with the best intention, are deadly wrong.

If Xi’s New Year’s rhetoric is to be taken at its face value as a gesture of reconciliation with Taiwan, his other words shall also bear equal significance. Only three weeks after reading out those tender words, Xi resumed his characteristic stance on Taiwan in his speech at the 2023 Spring Festival Gala. “We have been fighting resolutely in major struggles against separatism and foreign interference,” he emphasized the dominant role of China in the cross-Strait interaction, “to steer cross-Strait relations.” This statement echoes CCP’s long-standing Taiwan policy, which was well summed up in yet another speech given by Xi in October 2022 in his Work Report to the party’s 20th National Congress. The latter two reflect China’s true Taiwan policy which will remain an unwavering principle dictating China’s Taiwan relations.

Then, what prompted Xi to soften his rhetoric, however briefly, and what might China’s true intention be?

In addition to the deteriorating domestic economic strength and mounting international political difficulties summarized above, China’s military advantage over Taiwan is also diminishing. This is the result of an increased technology embargo imposed upon China by the US and its allies, as well as accelerated defence readiness on Taiwan’s side with help coming from the US.

Prior to the beginning of its downturn in 2018, China’s Taiwan strategy banked on building up its military capacity further for an ultimate takeover of Taiwan by force with absolute military superiority. Back then, time was on China’s side, as the entire world was expecting China to surpass the US as the largest economy soon. But the series of setbacks since 2018 not only tanked China’s economy, they put China’s military dominancy dream in danger.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 deepened China’s military anxiety. China once viewed itself as the third strongest military power, only after the US and Russia (the Russian Federation and its predecessor the USSR). Russia’s struggle in the war with Ukraine since February 2022 made China think twice about its own military capacity, and about the probability of losing military superiority over Taiwan in the near future.

The only way for China to mitigate the down spiral situation is to make Taiwan halt its military readiness process and buy time for China to regain its losing superiority. And this is where Xi’s friendly speech came from and what it meant to achieve.

China has used this strategy repeatedly in the past to fool its adversaries in order to gain enough strength to turn against them. Its honeymoon with the USSR ended up with the 1960s’ bitter breakup. Its sweet relationships with the US and Japan led to China’s predatory trade practice that became so common and intolerable to the West in recent years. And its accommodating policies, designed to lure capital and skills from Taiwan during the early needing phase of its economic reform in the 1980s-1990s, helped China to grow so rich later that it literally waved its colourful money or funny money at the people of Taiwan: Surrender your liberty and come grab the wealth!

China has made it clear that it will never give up the attempt to take Taiwan by force, and is actively preparing for it. China has successfully squashed Hong Kong in a 2020. It is now eager to duplicate the Hong Kong success in Taiwan.

Xi, in his New Year’s Address, praised what China has done to the once freest city in Asia, “Hong Kong has restored order … With determined implementation of One Country, Two Systems, Hong Kong will surely enjoy long-term prosperity and stability.” If repressed freedom of expression and the accelerated exodus of capital and talents since the implementation of China’s National Security Law there are considered prosperity.

Daniel Jia is the founder of consulting firm DJ Integral Services. He writes analytical reports on public-related matters, focusing on China-related cultural and political issues. There is no conflict of interest to be disclosed.

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

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