Written by Huynh Tam Sang.
Image credit: Xi Jinping (2022-12-30) by Russia-China talks/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 4.0.
One year after the 2019 eruption of large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China enacted the “national security law” for the special administrative region, cracking down on freedom and democracy there. Under such a situation, Taiwan’s populace disapproved of China’s strategy of occupying and turning the self-governed island into a new colony in the vein of Hong Kong. In light of the widespread criticism of “one country, two systems,” the political framework that Chinese authorities have embraced to pursue peaceful reunification with Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party’s leader Xi Jinping (習近平) has tasked Wang Huning (王滬寧), the party’s chief of ideology and his mastermind, with finding a replacement arrangement.
Although the “one country, two systems” framework is losing ground in Taiwan, the waning offers Xi and Wang an excellent opportunity to abandon the paradigm that has persisted since the Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) era, allowing the CCP to develop a plan for unifying Taiwan that is in line with Xi’s vision. The new plan for cross-strait unification might also be used to assess how well the “united front,” the main task of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is working. Additionally, any progress on China-Taiwan relations might help bolster Xi’s power and increase his chances of winning the CCP’s leadership election in 2027.
Although little is known about the CCP’s ideological claim on Taiwan, there are some signs of possible actions that China may take to shape cross-Strait ties. In a contentious meeting with Andrew Hsia (夏立言), the vice chairman of Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, in February this year, Wang underlined the long-term vision of fulfilling China’s national reunification and rejuvenation while vowing to implement “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting peaceful development across the Strait and promote cross-Strait exchanges and cooperation.” The words of Wang – China’s top policymaker – may promise a future for both sides of the Taiwan Strait that is stable and cooperative. However, it is still unclear how China could promote communications and collaboration.
A clue to Wang’s Taiwan stance may be found in his professional career. Wang, a supporter of Xi and a member of the propaganda apparatus, has actively backed both Xi’s nationalist agenda and the authoritarian CCP’s rule over Taiwan. In February, Wang criticised “Taiwan independence,” claiming that it “is incompatible with peace and runs counter to the well-being of compatriots in Taiwan. No one values these compatriots’ wishes for peace, tranquillity, and a better life more than we do.” Due to Wang’s steadfast ideological stance on Taiwan, subversion and propaganda campaigns aimed at Taiwan’s democratic system and open society would intensify.
As for Xi, cross-Strait relations cannot be diverted from the correlation between China’s reunification and rejuvenation, underlined in his countless speeches and writings. Xi highlighted the essence of viewing people across the Strait as one family in his 2023 new year’s address when he stated, “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are members of the same family.” “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 said in his speech. It should be noted that Xi paid no heed to Taiwanese prosperity while underlining the importance of building a thriving China as a first step towards achieving China’s rejuvenation with the backing of “compatriots” in China and Taiwan. In his 2023 Lunar New Year’s speech, Xi showcased his persistent commitment to defending China from external influence by stating that China has been “fighting resolutely in major struggles against separatism and foreign interference, and maintaining the initiative to steer cross-Strait relations.”
What are the potential defining characteristics of China’s new Taiwan policy?
China’s new discourse on reunification with Taiwan will undergo subtle changes. The CCP may seek breakthroughs in cross-strait relations by welcoming more Taiwanese “compatriots” to China, encouraging them to participate in “Chinese-style modernisation,” underlined by Xi in his address at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee on February 7 as “a new model for human advancement” that could “dispel the myth that ‘modernisation is equal to Westernization,’” and supporting China’s national rejuvenation. The CCP could also tie nationalism, the driving force behind China’s reunification, to the new framework by emphasising the crucial role that “compatriots” play in China’s new Taiwan game plan. Linking Taiwan’s future to China’s great rejuvenation should be the first step, and creating institutional frameworks to finally realise cross-Strait reunification should be the second.
By demonstrating its tolerant attitude toward so-called “compatriots” in Taiwan, China could stimulate connections between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, such as improving business ties and encouraging interactions among young entrepreneurs. These initiatives should help the CCP achieve its goal of marrying Chinese and Taiwanese “compatriots.” But as Taiwan’s economy is highly developed, democracy and pluralism are being bolstered, and human rights are protected, “Chinese-style modernisation” will lose its appeal on the island.
Additionally, Chinese leaders may not seek avoidance but rather the preparation for a future in which China could out-compete the United States and its allies when supporting Taiwan. Hence, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might take on a larger role in preparing for security, defence, and potential crises in the Taiwan Straits. The PLA may also step up military drills near Taiwan as part of a plan to hone their joint combat skills, be ready for air and sea attacks there, and intimidate the Taiwanese people even more. The current war in Ukraine may have taught the Chinese government that sustaining China’s security hinges on its ability to respond quickly to crises.
But some features concerning the CCP’s tactics will remain the same. Beijing would continue to oppose “Taiwan independence” while reiterating its goal of achieving national reunification through peaceful means. China will embrace hard and soft power, grasping the stick in one hand and the carrot in the other. China may prioritise resuming cross-strait economic and trade contacts after Covid, facilitating cultural and non-governmental dialogues, and promoting people-to-people exchanges. Beijing could also lure local political and business leaders, academics, and media writers into accepting its principles and ways of dealing with Taiwan while offering political and commercial interests to targeted audiences. Although the great power will continue to back the KMT, it remains blurry how much it can do to give the KMT an edge over Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
But China’s new Taiwan unification strategy could likely help strengthen the resolve of Taiwan’s incumbent administration. Following Andrew Hsia’s China visit and Wang’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) declared that “authoritarian expansion” and “democracy, peace, and stability” are incompatible. The MAC said senior CCP officials should think of substantive and workable solutions rather than utilising exchanges to propagandise their political views. Moreover, the Taiwanese government and people have grown weary of China’s intensified military drills around Taiwan since Nancy Pelosi, the then-US House Speaker, visited Taiwan in August 2022, not to mention the failure of China’s “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and its wolf warrior diplomacy on a global scale in recent years. China’s new Taiwan approach will, therefore, surely fall short.
Is China’s approach toward Taiwan similar to old wine in new bottles? It remains to be seen. However, Taiwan has grown more concerned about the prospect of a Chinese military invasion, and leaders from both sides do not see eye to eye toward core issues. For instance, the “1992 Consensus,” an oral agreement reached by the KMT and the CCP in 1992, and Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula for unification has been opposed by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) since her 2016 inauguration. As a result, Chinese authorities cut off official contacts with the DPP government, and cross-strait economic and trade exchanges have been disrupted because of political differences. In her 2023 new year’s address, Tsai indirectly alluded to China’s coercive activities in the region when she underlined the threat of “the continued expansion of authoritarianism” that “has aroused insecurity over the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.” Tsai also took the chance to “remind the authorities in Beijing that all stakeholders in this region bear a shared responsibility for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In her Lunar New Year’s remarks, Tsai said that the Taiwanese government, despite China’s intimidation, would continue to “defend our sovereignty” while “standing firm in its resolve to safeguard peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and across the region.” Tense relations between China and Taiwan will endure as Xi and Tsai do not agree on how to handle the relationship.
In a nutshell, the major objective of the CCP’s new Taiwan blueprint is to incite psychological acceptance of Taiwan’s inevitable future reunification with the mainland among people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which was alluded to in Xi’s new year’s address. And the core of China’s new Taiwan policy is Xi’s ideological and rigid stance toward Taiwan. Whether or not Wang can assist Xi in developing a new catchphrase for the CCP’s Taiwan policy would not change the fact that Xi will not allow Taiwan to dictate the rhythm of cross-strait relations. Yet, given the stalemate in ties and the impossibility of two sides communicating on an equal footing, the notion that Taiwan would embrace China’s Taiwan strategy is all but inconceivable.
Huynh Tam Sang is a Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, 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 @huynhtamsang2.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Cross-Straits relations 2023’.