The Chinese authorities feel both the need to reunite Taiwan with the motherland and a distrust of any independence-leaning leadership. The Belt and Road Initiative looms large as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most important economic and foreign policy. China in reality has become a major economic superpower as the world’s second largest economy, and the Taiwanese manufacturing sector needs China’s large consumer market for economic growth.
The 1992 consensus is a tacit recognition that both entities (China and Taiwan) belong to one unit but each side is free to interpret it on its own. As a result of the Tsai Ing-wen government’s refusal to recognize the consensus, Beijing has been trying to persuade and pressure Taipei to recognize it, and since May 2016, there has not been any official channels of communication between Beijing and Taipei.
The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China was seen by many observers as a watershed moment in contemporary Chinese political history as it oversaw the transition of new leaders into China’s ruling stratum. Therefore, it was watched closely for messages on Taiwan, especially since President Xi had consolidated his power with his hand-picked members like Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. With a stronger hand, President Xi can now exert stronger pressure on Taiwan.
Richard Bush wrote an article for Brookings where he outlined the attitude of China towards Taiwan by looking at the 19th Party Congress speech by President Xi for clues on the issue. He noted that the hopes held by the Chinese leadership for the Taiwanese people’s advocacy for reunification with the mainland would bring out tangible benefits under the universal banner of rejuvenation for the Chinese nation. It was a form of appeal wrapped up in nationalistic terminology designed to appeal to Taiwanese audiences while reminding domestic audiences of the current regime’s priority in reunification matters.
Liu Zongyi, an assistant research fellow of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, argued in an editorial in the state-owned Global Times (a conservative newspaper with tendencies to engage in nationalistic rhetoric) that Taiwan enjoyed “two prominent advantages”:
Firstly, it has more than 3000 reputable brands compared to China’s 150 in the service sector, and Taiwan’s mature banking industry can assist China in improving the operations of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund;
Secondly, Taiwanese companies have accumulated experience in international industrial transfer and knowledge in laws and conventions, and can assist China in this area.
The economic card remains the strongest in Beijing’s diplomacy. Material tangible benefits for Taiwan in exchange for rejecting independence and splittism were hinted in the 19th Party Congress speech.
Huang Ching-lung, President of the Taiwanese conglomerate Want Daily, urged Taiwan’s free trade demonstration zones to connect with China’s Free Trade Zones to encourage the Belt and Road Initiative. Such sentiments of networking were echoed by the head of the Beijing office of the company. Wang Ming-yi, Deputy Chief Representative of Want Want China Holding Limited in Beijing, urged Taiwan to “continue the good cooperative momentum” and continue investments in Xiamen which is already an important investment destination for Taiwanese investors. The pro-China business lobby in Taiwan shares a similar worldview with the Kuomintang’s leadership when it comes to dealing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In fact, on March 26, 2015, then-leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, announced that Taiwan should engage with the formation of the Beijing-initiated multilateral lending agency, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Ma’s application did not make it past the Legislative Yuan which held up the application and waited for parliamentary debates on this subject right up to the last day of Ma’s leadership tenure on May 19, 2016.
Chinese scholars argue that President Xi’s position on Taiwan appears to remain unchanged, i.e., peaceful reunification of Taiwan according to the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and the eight points drawn up by Jiang Zemin in 1995, and relying on the aspirations of the Taiwanese people to advocate for reunification. The section on Taiwan’s future in President Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress received the loudest applause. When President Xi announced that “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China” to the 2,000 delegates at the 19th Party Congress, this sustained the lengthiest applause in his entire 3.5-hour talk.
The speech was also based on China’s anti-secession law legislated in 2005, which will be tough on the Taiwanese secessionist and independence movements. President Xi indicated that China will “take the lead in sharing development opportunities with the Taiwan compatriots,” something in line with previous Chinese Presidents’ offers. The accent appears to be on tangible benefits for Taiwanese society’s self-advocacy of reunification.
Conservative voices advocate using Beijing’s own resources and power to reunify Taiwan and China. To placate these voices, President Xi emphasized the narrative of assertion of national sovereignty and integrity, assurance of victory over splittists and independence advocates, and the restatement of conditions for the non-peaceful management of Taiwanese independence. Such latest restatements completed the evolution of cross-Strait relations from warm and friendly during Ma Ying-jeou’s time that culminated in the historical meeting between Xi and Ma in Singapore in 2015, to strained and cold after the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen and now, the strong words at the 19th Party Congress.
The economic card remains the strongest in Beijing’s diplomacy. Material tangible benefits for Taiwan in exchange for rejecting independence and splittism were hinted in the 19th Party Congress speech. President Xi even promised respecting the Taiwanese social system and way of life. Former Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou’s comments on adopting 1992 consensus where both sides can keep to their own interpretation, promote peace, and resist Taiwanese independence, were reported extensively in the mainland Chinese media. It reflected some mainstream Kuomintang members’ opinions as well as those of the conservatives within the party.
Bush, R. C. (2017, October 19). ORDER FROM CHAOS What Xi Jinping said about Taiwan at the 19th Party Congress. Brookings.
Gao, C. (2017, October 19). Taiwan Calls for New Cross-Strait Relations After Xi’s Strong Speech. The Diplomat.
Lim, B. K., and Yu, J. M. (2017, October 18). China's Xi says can thwart Taiwan independence, Taiwan says democracy first. Reuters.
‘One Belt, One Road’ could revitalize trade in Taiwan and Hong Kong. (2015, July 20). Global Times.