Chinese President Xi Jinping takes pacifying line on Taiwan as hawks call for force

Xi steers clear of harsh rhetoric in talks with former KMT chairman Lien Chan to appeal to the Taiwanese public, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 3:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 3:07pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping has struck a more conciliatory note in his latest meeting with a former senior Taiwanese politician in a bid to pacify the island’s public, as voices grow on the mainland to reunify the two sides of the strait by force, analysts said.

In a meeting in Beijing on Friday with Lien Chan, former chairman of Taiwan’s mainland-friendly Kuomintang, Xi said: “We have the confidence and ability to keep a firm hold on the correct direction, work for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations, and advance the process toward the peaceful reunification of China.”

The tone was a contrast to more hawkish mainland voices that have grown louder as the United States has stepped up intervention on Taiwan over the past few months and tensions have simmered between Taipei’s pro-independence administration and Beijing.

Observers in Beijing and Taipei said Xi was trying to tone down the rhetoric and stop it from having a real impact on cross-strait relations.

On Monday, Taiwan’s top official on cross-strait ties, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong, set off for the United States on a nine-day visit to improve communication between Taipei and Washington, Central News Agency reported.

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MAC officials added that Chen would also lobby the US for more support for Taipei’s cross-strait policy.

The trip comes after two US destroyers made a rare patrol in the Taiwan Strait early this month, drawing criticism from Beijing’s top Taiwan affairs official Liu Jieyi, who said Washington had been playing the “Taiwan card” amid a heightened trade dispute with the mainland.

But on Friday while he repeated Beijing’s adherence to the “one China” policy and the cross-strait “1992 consensus” as the foundation of mainland and Taiwan ties, Xi also said disagreement between people of the two sides on some issues should not hold back regular exchange and cooperation nor become an excuse to stand in the way, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

“Compatriots across the strait should show empathy, stand in each other’s shoes and understand each other better so as to forge closer bonds,” he said, adding that the welfare of people across the strait should be promoted.

Xi also sought to reassure the island that Beijing stood by a raft of measures introduced in March which the mainland says are designed to give Taiwanese companies and individuals freer access to opportunities and benefits on the mainland.

The package, drawn up by dozens of central government agencies and announced by the Taiwan Affairs Office, comprises 31 items, of which 12 relate to business matters and 19 to social and employment issues.

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Analysts said Xi was sending a message to the Taiwanese public that Beijing was singling out the island’s pro-independence advocates, not the population of the self-ruled island.

The mainland and Taiwan have been separated since 1949, when the Chiang Kai-shek-led KMT fled to the island after losing the civil war, but Beijing has never wavered in its belief that Taiwan remains an integral part of China and has refused to rule out the use of force to bring this about.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have worsened since Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was elected Taiwan’s president in 2016, refusing to acknowledge the 1992 consensus on which cross-strait relations had long been based.

Professor Li Zhenguang, deputy head of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, said Xi used his meeting with Lien and other Taiwanese delegates to mitigate public concerns on the island about whether Beijing was planning to use force to take over Taiwan.

“Cross-strait relations have been facing both external and internal challenges since earlier this year, especially when Washington sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait [on July 7], prompting mainland hawks to amplify their demands to use force taking back Taiwan,” Li said.

“However, such a trend will harm the long-term development and stability of cross-strait relations. As a leader working just across the strait from Taiwan for 17 years, Xi wanted to play his ‘emotional card’ to convince the Taiwanese public that Beijing will not use force to take back the island.”

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Andrew Yang Nien-dzu, a former Taiwanese defence minister, said Xi was also sending a message to both Taipei and Washington that Beijing would “remain calm” despite the movements of the US destroyers, as well as other provocation, including US President Donald Trump’s endorsement of the Taiwan Travel Act in March.

“Mainland authorities have become more subtle in dealing with Taipei and Washington, because they are keen to win public support in Taiwan, even though they still reiterated strong dissatisfaction against the independence-leaning forces,” Yang said.

Joyce Huang, a Taiwanese political commentator who also attended Friday’s meeting, said Xi also used the opportunity to issue “an ultimatum” to those force led by Tsai.

“Xi is not just wanting to talk to Lien Chan ... the meeting also aimed at sending a strong message, which is an ultimatum to Taiwan’s independence-leaning forces,” Huang wrote in a commentary on the island’s China Times newspaper on Sunday.

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She said Xi had expressed his “profound emotions” about Taiwan after spending more than 17 years working on Fujian province, just across the Taiwan Strait.

“During the meeting, Xi deliberately put aside the draft of his speech, saying he was so proud of Fujian’s achievements over the past decades, but he also felt pity that Taiwan was at an [economic] standstill,” Huang wrote.

Liu Jieyi, who headed the mainland’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said Tsai’s DPP administration “is walking farther and farther along a dangerous road”, Xinhua reported on the weekend.

“Moving against the historical trend, the vain separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ will only lead to a dead end,” Liu said.