On March 11, 2021, during the final speech of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Wang Yang announced political support for the NPC’s decision to improve the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But while the Hong Kong issue dominated the agenda, the frequent mentions of Taiwan should not be underestimated.
Ever since President Tsai Ing-wen took the reins of power in Taiwan, mainland China has increased its advocacy of the One China policy. What has further aggravated the tussle has been the increased US support for Taiwan during the Trump administration. The frequent Twitter exchanges between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Tsai, ratification of the US arms sales to Taiwan, the virtual meeting of US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Croft with President Tsai are just a few examples. There have been frequent hawkish articles in the Chinese media to warn the US of crossing what is termed a “red line.” During the NPC 2021 session, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, in an interview on the sidelines of the Congress, that the One China principle is a “red line” that must not be crossed in US-China relations. He added that Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of Chinese territory, and the Chinese government is unlikely to ever compromise on this question. Wang Yi insisted that the two sides of the Taiwan Straits should be reunified, not only a warning for the US, but an underline that for the mainland, reunification is an inevitability.
In the recent past, veterans of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and cadres of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP), including those at the top of the echelons of power, have become more hawkish on the issue of Taiwan. In a recent speech, PLA Major General Jin Yinan mentioned Taiwan as a potential flashpoint for future conflict for China. The same warning, along with the mention of reunification, was voiced by Wu Qian, spokesperson of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police Force delegation to the 4th session of the 13th NPC. At a media interview on the sidelines of the NPC, Wu said, “We are willing to create a vast space for peaceful reunification, but we will never leave any space for various forms of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities.” He classified the DPP(Democratic Progressive Party), which is Taiwan’s current ruling party, as the biggest threat to cross-straits peace, thus targeting the DPP directly and raising the DPP to a separatist outfit.
More importantly, PLAAF aircraft have increased the frequency of their violations of Taiwanese airspace. On March 3 and 10, the Ministry of Defence, Republic of China (Taiwan), reported that Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft and Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft had entered Southwest ADIZ(air defense identification zone). While these are not the only incidents, they are examples which point to the increasing violations of Taiwanese airspace.
Beijing’s strident tone and its muscle-flexing activities is a clear indicator of China’s hardening stand on the reunification issue. Why, then, is Beijing shying away from forcibly taking the matter to a logical culmination? Is it because of US pressure, revealed in a document dated February 15, 2018 (declassified and released on January 20, 2021), which emphasised Washington DC’s resolve to defend Taiwan from Beijing in the event of just such an emergency? Or do the reasons lie in the answers of Cui Lei, Research Fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in his essay for the East Asia Forum? In Cui’s estimation, mainland China is in no position to take Taiwan by force. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, domestic political risks are high, in the event of an unsuccessful show of force. Polls show that 80 per cent of the Taiwanese people are willing to defend the island. Secondly, in the context of the 20th NPC (2022), Xi Jinping needs a stable domestic political environment to ensure the extension of his term as General Secretary of the CCP. Brinkmanship towards an incursion may risk domestic stability, provoke public discontent and stir backlash that could scuttle his leadership.
In his essay, Cui Lei remains hopeful of a peaceful reunification based on the so-called ‘Beiping model’, which is based on the 1949 negotiations held between the CCP and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang garrisons to take over Beiping (now Beijing) without bloodshed. The negotiations were premised on the fact that it could be cost-effective to take the outlying island of Taiwan.
Coming from someone who works in the China Institute of International Studies, a Party mandated think tank, it is easy to assume that Beijing is hopeful of a peaceful reunification. The second hint comes from the press meet of Li Keqiang who hinted that they are ready to talk to any political dispensation based on “the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus.” Is China keeping its options open for either a peaceful reunification or agreement on ’1992 consensus’?
However, the possibilities of both are questionable. The Biden administration is not likely to be as accommodating when it comes to Taiwan, though it will not abandon Taiwan altogether. The new White House invited the Taiwanese Ambassador to Washington DC for Biden’s inauguration ceremony, while accepting Trump’s decision to upgrade Washington’s official partnership with Taipei. This reconfirms US continuous support for Taiwan. The navies of the UK, France and Germany have also started sending their ships to patrol in the South China Sea, which shows that other countries are also coming together and trying to push back China in the South China Sea. However, the most important factor remains the public opinion within Taiwan which is not in favor of reunification. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy stated that a total of 79.8% of Taiwanese would fight against China in case of a military attack, while only 12.7% said that they would not. Secondly, the DPP government has always side-tracked from accepting the ’1992 consensus.
Thus, by the current geopolitical situation and opinion in Taiwan, the idea of a ‘peaceful reunification’ or acceptance of the 1992 consensus touted by the Chinese in the NPC seems a little far-fetched!
(Namrata Hasija, Research Fellow, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy)
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