Xi Jinping’s rhetoric on Taiwan may have been gentler, but his bag of carrots and sticks remains the same

Michal Thim says President Xi’s softer tone on Taiwan during his meeting with a senior Taiwanese politician does not indicate a change in Beijing’s stance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 1:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 6:29am

Confidence in the development of cross-strait relations and eventual peaceful “reunification” was the main message from a recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lien Chan, Taiwan’s former vice-president and an honorary chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT).

This may seem like conciliatory approach for media and analysts accustomed to the remarkably harsher rhetoric coming from Beijing in recent years, and especially since the 2016 election victory of the Democratic Progressive Party, a major – but by far not the only – political force rejecting Taiwan’s unification with China.

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However, what Xi said during the meeting is hardly a new approach. Beijing’s rhetoric towards Taiwan has always been a mixed bag of carrots and sticks. A more recent example is a package of incentives to attract Taiwanese youth to seek a career in China, which, again, was not a new offer but merely repackaged initiative from previous years.

Trying to attract young Taiwanese came at a time of increased belligerent rhetoric that, among others, manifested in regular air, naval and amphibious assault exercises in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan. Just as the meeting between Lien and Xi concluded, another military exercise commenced in the coastal area of Zhejiang province.

An essential element in understanding the change in Xi’s rhetoric is focusing on just who his guest was. Lien is a senior KMT politician, a person with significant influence on the party leadership and a staunch supporter of Taiwan’s unification with China. He also belongs to the last generation of Taiwanese politicians who were born in China.

On the issue of unification, Xi and Lien are of one mind. It is easy for Xi to speak softly when sitting next to Lien, who will state that there is no space for Taiwan’s independence, so Xi does not have to.

However, back at home, Lien is an increasingly marginal figure. As a KMT elder, he commands respect among the party’s top echelons. However, as younger generations join the party, and considering that Taiwanese society is leaning towards independence (of which the status quo is a form), the KMT is effectively moving away from explicit support for unification.

No matter what the KMT charter says, or what Lien states in front of the Chinese president, the mainstream KMT is a status-quo party, and leaning towards the status quo is the only way for the KMT to stay competitive in elections.

Electoral considerations are a critical factor. In November, Taiwan will hold its so-called nine-in-one elections, which will affect all levels of governance below the national level.

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The KMT hopes to capitalise on the Tsai government’s relatively low popularity and regain some of the traditional pan-blue areas. They can hope for success in Taipei, but, elsewhere, their prospects are not too optimistic.

The DPP will surely hold its traditional base in the south. It will also most likely continue to hold Taoyuan and Taichung that had long been under the KMT control until the DPP took over in 2014. Whatever the causes of dissatisfaction with the Tsai government, they are not deep enough to translate into a significant rise in support for the KMT.

So is Lien’s visit an attempt to boost the KMT’s electoral chances? KMT chairman Wu Den-yih said that Lien is visiting China as a private citizen (with a sizeable delegation behind him), but the KMT may be eyeing a recreation of Lien’s first meeting with the Communist Party chairman, back then a position held by Hu Jintao.

Xi’s softer tone was intended to send a message to the domestic audience. Beijing understands it is important to demonstrate goodwill now and then

However, the general conditions of cross-strait relations are so different that neither Xi nor Lien (and the KMT) can realistically expect that the same trick would work again.

In 2005, the KMT’s contacts with the Communist Party promoted the KMT as a party that could keep relations across the Taiwan Strait constructive and mutually beneficial. It contributed to the KMT’s electoral success in 2008.

However, the following eight years of the KMT’s political dominance resulted in a significant pushback from the public – seen in the 2014 local elections and the 2016 national elections, and during the Sunflower Movement in 2014.

There is no doubt that Beijing would like to see the KMT prevail later this year, and more importantly in 2020. However, talking to Lien and inflexibility on the “One China” framework are not going to go down well with Taiwanese voters.

Xi’s seemingly softer tone was intended to send a message to the domestic audience. Leaders in Beijing understand that it is important to demonstrate goodwill now and then.

 

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The audience, in this case, is not really the Taiwanese public, but the population in China, and the purpose is to show Chinese citizens that Beijing tried hard to convince the Taiwanese to unify with China on peaceful terms, but that eventually all goodwill will be exhausted and the use of force is the only option.

That said, none of the above means that the softer tone is necessarily disingenuous. Both political and military leaders in China understand the pitfalls of using force against Taiwan in any form: a naval blockade would be lengthy, would offer the US and other allies more time to react and would not generate the immediate momentum Beijing needs.

Full-scale invasion is, by all means, risky even for fundamentally modernised People’s Liberation Army. Taking Taiwan by peaceful means is naturally a preferable option.

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Xi did not significantly alter his rhetoric; he merely used tools that he and his predecessors employed before with varying degrees of success. Talking to a like-minded counterpart like Lien is not challenging and does not necessitate harsh rhetoric.

Announcing a change in China’s attitude towards Taiwan would be more convincing when, or rather if, Xi meets high-ranked DPP officials and still maintains a conciliatory posture. We are not quite there yet.

Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic) and a fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (US)