Beijing’s ever-changing approach to ‘renegade province’ Taiwan

  • From Mao’s letter vowing to take the island by force if necessary to strained ties under Tsai Ing-wen, unification has always been the Communist Party’s goal
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 11:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12:31am

Unification with Taiwan has been a stated goal of China’s ruling Communist Party since 1949, but its approach to what it sees as a breakaway province has changed over the years.

Mao Zedong vowed to take the island by force if necessary in the first “message to Taiwan compatriots”, an open letter he issued in 1950.

But when the Korean war broke out that year, the People’s Liberation Army had other priorities – and no time to pursue the Nationalists who had retreated to and taken control of Taiwan.

The first so-called Taiwan crisis happened four years later, when the PLA began shelling the islands of Quemoy, also known as Kinmen, and Tachen as the Nationalists – led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek – dug in and reinforced their defences on the islands.

Over the years, Beijing has issued three open letters urging Taiwan to reunite with the motherland, the last one in 1979 after the death of Mao.

But it was when US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski met then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984 that the idea of “one unified country of China with two systems” was first floated to resolve the Taiwan dilemma.

When Jiang Zemin took power in Beijing, he largely continued Deng’s policies – wooing the island by opening the doors to Taiwan entrepreneurs wanting to set up factories and businesses on the mainland and take advantage of its cheap labour and vast market.

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But uncertainties in cross-strait relations have grown as the political landscape has changed in democratic, self-ruled Taiwan.

In 1992, unofficial representatives of Beijing and Taipei reached what has since been known as the 1992 consensus – an understanding that there is only “one China”, but each side would have its own interpretation of what that means.

However, relations deteriorated three years later after a third Taiwan crisis. It was caused by Beijing conducting missile tests over Taiwan’s outlying islands in a failed attempt to sway voters not to re-elect Lee Teng-hui, whose high-profile visit to the US had infuriated the mainland government.

The US responded by sailing an aircraft carrier and its battle group, along with an amphibious assault ship, through the Taiwan Strait.

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During the two terms of president Chen Shui-bian, from 2000, the island took a series of measures to rid itself of cultural ties with the mainland. His was the first presidency under the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, and Beijing sought to continue its engagement with the island via inter-party communication, with Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, meeting the Kuomintang’s honorary chairman Lien Chan numerous times during that period.

Cross-strait ties warmed considerably when Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang was elected president. During his term from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan signed more than 20 pacts with the mainland, including the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement to lift barriers to trade.

Ma even met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015 – the first meeting between leaders of the two sides since 1949.

The situation swiftly changed again when Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP took office in 2016. Just one month after Tsai was sworn in, Beijing said it had cut off official dialogue with Taipei because she had refused to accept the one-China principle. Taipei has come under increasing pressure from the mainland since then, with Beijing poaching its diplomatic allies, stepping up military drills near the island and forcing hotels and foreign airlines to refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites.

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Beijing has also rolled out more extensive policies to court the island’s business community and ordinary Taiwanese, vowing in February to give Taiwanese “equal status” on the mainland in areas ranging from business access to social benefits.