China-US relations

Is Xi Jinping’s Taiwan reunification push hastening a US-China clash?

  • Fragile power balance in Taiwan Strait exposed with superpowers locked in a trade war
  • Taipei using the US as a hedge against mainland’s pressure campaign
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 12:00am

Beijing’s renewed push for reunification with Taiwan has exposed the fragility of the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait – a relationship increasingly in question with China and the United States locked in a superpower rivalry over trade and geopolitical friction.

Government advisers and analysts warn that the deadlocked cross-strait relations are entering a dangerous period, with an expectation of escalating tensions in the months ahead as an increasingly isolated Taipei tilts further towards Washington, seeking a hedge against Beijing’s aggressive pressure campaign.

The self-governed island’s fate – the most disruptive factor in Beijing’s complex relations with Washington – could touch off a chain reaction that exacerbates the strain on bilateral ties, already mired in a protracted trade war and escalating technology race, they say.

In a speech that may have set the tone for Beijing’s Taiwan policy for years to come, President Xi Jinping last week said both sides should begin talks on reunification to end decades of animosity.

Describing the Taiwan question as a historical trauma for the Chinese nation, Xi said the island must be reunited with Beijing under “one country, two systems”, a model applied in Hong Kong and Macau.

Despite his conciliatory overture – coming amid a stalemate that began when Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party was elected as Taiwan’s president in 2016 – Xi insisted that Beijing would not renounce the use of force, which he claimed was aimed at pro-independence forces in Taiwan and the “interference of external forces”, a veiled reference to Washington.

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However, his proposal for unification talks was met with robust criticism from Taiwan as Tsai accused Beijing of undermining the island’s vibrant democratic process and called on Xi to respect Taiwan’s existence.

Tsai firmly rejected Xi’s proposal and, for the first time she took power, removed her deliberate ambiguity over the impasse over the “1992 consensus”, a tacit agreement between Beijing and Taiwan’s then Kuomintang administration that there is “one China”, but each side can interpret that as it likes.

Analysts say tensions are set to rise over Taiwan as the rivalry between Beijing and Washington intensifies and leaders in Taipei and Washington adopt a tougher stance on Beijing in the lead-up to major elections next year.

In their recent comments, “Xi appeared determined and confident while Tsai held firm to her anti-China position”, said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

“With little room for compromise, the prospect of cross-strait relations is grave before the 2020 Taiwan elections.”

Yu Xintian, president of the Shanghai Institute for Taiwan Studies and one of more than 20 leading mainland experts on Taiwan who attended the January 2 meeting at which Xi spoke, also warned of severe challenges ahead for the triangular relations between Beijing, Washington and Taipei.

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“The next 12 months will be a precarious moment in cross-strait relations as both the US and Taiwan head into major elections next year,” she said.

With US President Donald Trump and Tsai both hardening their anti-Beijing stances, Beijing was very likely to be made a “scapegoat” as both leaders sought to distract the public’s attention from divisive domestic agendas ahead of these elections, Yu noted.

“I am not at all optimistic about both US-China relations and cross-strait relations in the next year or so, which are unlikely to see major improvements,” she said. “We should be realistic and put top priority on crisis management so as to minimise adverse impact and prevent undesirable outcomes.”

Based on a poll of more than 500 US government officials and foreign policy experts, the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, listed a possible armed conflict between China and the US over Taiwan as a flashpoint to watch in its 10th annual Preventive Priorities Survey published last month.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, said she believed Tsai would take more confrontational steps in the next two years, largely because of domestic political needs.

“If she believes that China is not willing to avoid picking a fight with the US over Taiwan, she might become more bold. But it does not suggest that she is willing to start the fight,” Yun said.

Interaction between the mainland and Taiwan has remained tense since Xi’s speech, which marked the 40th anniversary of a call from Beijing to end military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, she noted.

“The mainland is focusing on people in Taiwan, rather than focusing on working with the DPP or Tsai. In the context of the US-China enhanced strategic rivalry, it is prudent for all sides to maintain the status quo rather than changing it drastically,” she said.

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Richard Bush, a veteran expert on cross-strait relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that while US-China relations increasingly looked headed into a fundamentally competitive, zero-sum struggle, Taiwan might not necessarily end up benefiting from the friction as it remained to be seen how far the Trump administration would go to counter China.

As it was with many of his predecessors, the extent of Trump’s personal commitment to Taiwan’s security remained unclear, and would remain questionable in the face of Chinese military provocation, Bush said.

In Fear: Trump in the White House, author Bob Woodward recounted a White House meeting on January 19 of last year where Trump and his national security team discussed – not for the first time – the rationale for the US defending its allies and partners.

The president first asked, “What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean peninsula?” He then asked, “Even more than that, what do we get from protecting Taiwan?”

Analysts said Taiwan, caught in the rivalry between Beijing and Washington, was expected to move even closer to the US after Xi’s appeal for unification talks under the one country, two systems formula.

“What Xi said reflected the change in US-China-Taiwan relations as well as the result of November’s local elections in which the [mainland-friendly] Kuomintang swept to a landslide victory,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a DPP legislator and a political-science professor at Soochow University.

“Xi has been concerned about the recent change in US-Taiwan relations.”

According to Shelley Rigger, the Brown professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, the speech underlined Xi’s deep-rooted worries about the two wild cards that could upset the trilateral balance: the pro-independence movement in Taiwan and the US government.

“The geopolitical dynamics have reduced the threat from Taiwan independence, but they have made US-China relations less predictable,” she said.

Rigger noted Xi’s speech largely reaffirmed Beijing’s basic approach and showed the Chinese government valued remaining flexible to respond to events as they unfolded over short-term political gains.

“I found the speech interesting more for what it didn’t include than what it did include. Most importantly, it didn’t include anything like a timeline or deadline for unification,” she said.

“We have known for a long time that independence is a red line for China – there’s nothing new there. The question is, how urgent is the demand for unification? This speech did not reveal a big change on that front.”

Yu Xintian also said Xi’s ambitious reunification plan with Taiwan, which he set as a priority, had been broadly misunderstood.

Xi had reiterated in last week’s speech that the long-standing political divide which had hampered the cross-strait relationship since 1949 should not be passed down through generations. The statement was interpreted as a sign of Xi’s determination to find a solution to the Taiwan issue under his watch.

“I don’t think what Xi said should be equated to a timetable for reunification,” Yu said. “His emphasis on the necessary sense of urgency, especially on the part of Taiwan, does not necessarily mean he intends to solve the Taiwan issue during his tenure.”

Why ‘one country, two systems’ will work in Taiwan

Apart from sending a clear message to Tsai and the DPP, Xi’s speech was meant as a warning to Washington, Taipei’s most important ally, as tensions between the two powers grow, Zhu said.

“The secondary target may well be the US, especially since Trump signed several pro-Taiwan bills into law in 2018 including the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA),” he said.

ARIA, which reaffirmed Washington’s political support for Taiwan, including strengthened official exchanges and arms sales, was signed into law by US president on the eve of an important bilateral milestone.

January 1 marked the normalisation of US-China relations 40 years ago. But the anniversary passed without major celebrations, as bilateral ties were seen by many as being in their worst shape since 1979. Trump showed little sign that he plans to soften his hardline stance on China despite a temporary trade war ceasefire he reached with Xi a month ago.

Echoing the Trump administration’s hawkish view that deemed China as a national security threat, the new law quoted Harvard professor Graham Allison, who coined the term, the Thucydides Trap, as warning that a rising China was determined to displace American pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific.

In a Thucydides Trap, a rising power causes fear in an established power, triggering an escalation towards war.

Beijing strongly protested against the law, accusing Washington of seriously violating the one-China policy and bluntly interfering in China’s domestic affairs.

From Beijing’s perspective, according to Yu Xintian, the new American law laid bare Washington’s strategy: to play the Taiwan card in its power game with Beijing and interfere in cross-strait relations.

“Although ARIA does not introduce anything new on Taiwan, it has illustrated the US administration’s strategy of securing its maximum interests in the trilateral balance by playing the mainland and Taiwan off against one another,” she said.

Arthur Ding, a researcher at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, said the new US law represented Washington’s determination not only to make Taiwan one of its Indo-Pacific allies but to maintain closer and stronger relations with Taiwan.

“The act reiterates the US commitment to Taiwan’s security and its support for the island, something Beijing cannot tolerate,” Ding said, adding US-China tension will continue to flare if US-Taiwan relations fare better.

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“Xi’s call for cross-strait unification talks under the one country, two systems model and his reiteration that China would not renounce the use of force … have raised the voices of support for Taiwan by a number of US congressmen and senators, who are expected to ask that the Trump administration offer stronger support for Taiwan.

“Bills or measures friendly to Taiwan are expected to show up in the near future, which would only provoke Beijing further.”

But Richard Bush suggested that ARIA was less significant than it seemed. What was more important was government policies rolled out by the administration, especially in the Trump era, he said.

“ARIA, in my view, reinforces the approach laid out in the National Security Strategy [launched by the Trump administration in December 2017], it did not stimulate it,” he said. Bush is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, which served as the de facto US diplomatic office on the island after Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in January 1979.

US, China and Taiwan get off on the wrong foot in 2019

An opinion poll in September by the Taiwan Public Opinion Research Foundation indicated Taiwanese support for independence had waned from 51.2 per cent in 2016 to 36.2 per cent. In March the level had been 38 per cent. Support for unification with the mainland was lower, at 26.1 per cent, while 23.2 per cent supported the status quo. (629)

And of more than 1,000 Taiwanese surveyed last week by the Cross-Strait Policy Association, more than 80 per cent disapproved of one country, two systems and just 13 per cent were in favour of it.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, also said Xi had simply laid down the terms and required others – Tsai in Taipei, Trump in Washington, and anyone else interested – to accept them.

“Tsai is in an awkward position after the defeat in the November elections and cannot afford to be weak regarding mainland China,” he said.

“With Xi demanding surrender terms, she took a much more robust stance than hitherto. This will go down badly in Beijing, with Xi seeing it all as the fault of Tsai. The risk of an escalatory spiral is now higher than a week ago.”

Most analysts appeared to have doubts about Xi’s attempt to lure the Taiwanese people with the one country, two systems approach.

Rigger said that by deliberately excluding “separate interpretations” from his latest definition of the 1992 consensus, Xi had moved prematurely to remove Taiwan’s manoeuvring room under the unwritten agreement.

“Under former [Taiwanese] president Ma Ying-jeou, the ‘1992 consensus’ allowed a lot of useful initiatives to go forward. But without ‘separate interpretations’, neither of Taiwan’s major parties can embrace the ‘1992 consensus’. That’s going to be a real headache for Beijing when the KMT returns to power, which is bound to happen sooner or later,” she said.

Yun Sun also said one country, two systems and its application in Hong Kong did not inspire confidence in Taiwan. “I honestly don’t believe that the Taiwanese people are willing to embrace the concept,” she said.

“This is because the ‘one country’ in one country, two systems in Beijing’s dictionary certainly means the People’s Republic of China, although Xi did not directly say it, leaving room for imagination. But the 1992 consensus encompasses both the PRC and the Republic of China,” she said.

“The ‘democratic negotiation/consultation’ Xi referred to is also a tricky idea. If it is democratic, you would assume that the mainland and Taiwan will be equal parties in the negotiations. But if Beijing already defined one country two systems as the only way to go, the negotiation changes from ‘what kind of arrangement’ to ‘what kind of one country, two systems’.”

Additional reporting by Lawrence Chung