In a world marked by tumultuous change, tensions in the Taiwan Strait are a constant. Remarks by government leaders on either side of the strait as the year began repeated and reinforced the stark contrast in their positions and are a reminder of the need for dialogue and confidence-building measures between Beijing and Taipei. But instead it looks like China will continue to press its advantage, using its considerable international and domestic influence to isolate the government of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. It is a dangerous strategy.
Forty years ago, after the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, China issued its “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” which noted that “Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China since ancient times,” and that the people of Taiwan and China have “suffered greatly” because of their separation. The message proclaimed that there is “only one China, with the Government of the People’s Republic of China as its sole legal Government.” It pointed to the recent conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China as proof of the correctness of that claim.
Successive Chinese leaders have sought to reunify Taiwan — which they consider a renegade province — with the mainland. Few of them have had the ambition or the means as does the current president. Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has relentlessly pursued his goal of restoring China’s place in the region and the world. In his vision, unification is an “inevitable requirement” for the “great rejuvenation of China.”
In a speech Wednesday, Xi repeated that China continues to seek “peaceful unification” with Taiwan. To that end, he promised that the 23 million citizens of Taiwan would continue to enjoy “the private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of our Taiwanese compatriots.” He pointed to the “one country, two systems” model that was adopted in Hong Kong after Britain returned that colony to China in 1997, adding that “different systems are not an obstacle to unification, and even less are they an excuse for separatism.” He pledged that “after peaceful reunification … Taiwan compatriots’ welfare will be even better, their development space will be even greater.”
Xi tempered his remarks with steel, however, warning that Beijing would not tolerate any form of Taiwan independence and “will not promise to renounce the use of force” to combat it. He denounced foreign interference, a warning to the U.S., which continues to sell weapons to Taipei and sends its naval vessels into nearby waters. Indeed, on the last day of 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which among other provisions calls on the president to make “regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China.”
While firm, Xi’s remarks were not the most bellicose he has issued on Taiwan. Nonetheless, he continues to demand that the government of Taiwan accept “the 1992 Consensus,” which is based on the one-China principle, a position that is anathema to Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She instead insists that the two governments be considered equals. The result has been a deterioration in cross-strait relations since Tsai took office in 2016: Beijing has worked to isolate Taiwan internationally, luring several of its few remaining diplomatic partners, and undermining the DPP domestically, by promising rewards to voters who support better ties with the mainland, a strategy that worked in local elections held across the island last November.
Tsai was unbowed, however, replying to Xi’s speech by noting that Taiwan would not accept a “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing, and stressed that all negotiations between the island and the mainland must be on a government-to-government basis. She called for China “to bravely take steps toward democracy, so they can truly understand the people of Taiwan,” a message that is sure to infuriate the Chinese leadership.
Plainly, the two governments continue to talk past each other. When “one country, two systems” was first unveiled at the Hong Kong reversion, there was hope that the formula would provide a means to accommodate the two different political systems. In the subsequent 21 years, however, it has become clear that Beijing has little respect for Hong Kong’s concerns or interests when they clash with those of the mainland.
Japan must look on with concern as relations between Taiwan and China spiral downward. The possibility of a clash between the two, most likely accidental, is real. The U.S. commitment to the island’s defense means that it could be involved, which could then ensnare Japan. More significantly, Taiwanese and Japanese share values and an outlook about the appropriate regional and global order. A successful campaign by Beijing to snuff out that opposition to its own vision would bode ill for the region and the world.