“Increasing mutual political trust across the Taiwan Straits and jointly building up political foundations are crucial for ensuring the peaceful development of relations,”said Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the Taiwanese envoy Vincent Siew on October 6th, according to remarks paraphrased by Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
The words, the first public indication that Xi wants to settle the Taiwan issue during his tenure as China’s leader, raised concerns among some in the Taiwan-watching community. “Xi is pushing Taiwan hard into a corner,”noted Gerrit van der Wees, editor of the Washington-based political journal Taiwan Communiqué. And last Wednesday, Stephen Yates, former deputy assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney for national security affairs, said on the John Batchelor radio show that he thinks the Chinese leadership, which was once content to accept the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, is turning up the heat. One cannot help but ask if Beijing is running out of patience and wants to soon absorb the self-governing island as its 34th province.
Some hope that Xi Jinping made his comments simply because he saw them as obligatory for any ruler of the People’s Republic and that there has been no change of policy in the Chinese capital. Yet Yates, now CEO of DC International Advisory, rejects the notion that Xi’s words were “a standard formulation” or a careless misstatement of existing policy. “It was very, very doubtful this was an accidental statement by Xi Jinping, so they must have thought about and they must have deliberately put forward a change of tone and a change of substance,” he said on the nationally syndicated radio program. “This is very, very different, about saying, ‘Okay, peace in the Taiwan Strait and accommodating economic relationship, open and peaceful dialogue—that’s not good enough. We need to move to the obviously unsolvable issue of politics and you need to concede on this ground now. That’s quite different.’”
At first glance, it looks as if there is no reason for Xi to force this shift. The Chinese civil war, the struggle between Xi’s Communist Party and Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang, has been going on since the late 1920s. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, China’s president, lost a full-scale military struggle to Mao Zedong and the Communists. Mao established the People’s Republic at the same time Chiang fled to Taiwan and continued his Republic of China on Taiwan. Then, as well as today, both Beijing and Taipei claim to be the legitimate government of all of “China.”
As a practical matter, the Communist Party rules the Chinese state and the Kuomintang, the organization Chiang once led, is the governing party on what is referred to as “Taiwan.” Leaders in Beijing talk about “reunification” of the two parts of the country. The term, however, is misleading because in fact the People’s Republic has never exerted effective sovereignty over Taiwan, a group of islands scattered across the intersection of the South China and East China Seas.
Xi’s pronouncement at the meeting with Siew, the representative of President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, took most observers by surprise. Until the beginning of this week, most assumed that Beijing was content with the generally warming ties across the Taiwan Strait. Ma, now in his second four-year term, has devoted himself to fostering economic integration with the People’s Republic by getting behind a series of trade deals and other arrangements with Beijing.
Those agreements, unfortunately for Ma, have become increasingly unpopular, as many claim that Taiwan’s economy has not benefitted much from the pacts. The latest of them, the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services, is stuck in the unicameral Legislative Yuan, which Ma’s party controls. In order to win ratification, Ma tried to purge the speaker of the body, who resisted the pact, but the president’s move didn’t have sufficient support and it appears now to have failed.
According to recent polls, Ma’s popularity has fallen to 9.2 percent, which is, perhaps coincidentally, about the same percentage of Taiwan’s population that wants immediate unification with Mainland China. On the other hand, most of the island’s citizens consider themselves “Taiwanese,” not “Chinese,” according to poll after poll.
Apart from the issue of self-identification, democracy—more precisely the lack of it—is the big stumbling block to unification. Taiwan’s people paid a high price in blood fighting for their democratic way of life, and they are not about to accept authoritarian rule, especially from a communist state in a faraway capital.
Some are concerned that China’s leadership may think the window for full political integration between China and Taiwan is closing. As Yates observed in his Batchelor show interview, citizens of Taiwan are not nearly as friendly toward the idea of strengthening relations with the People’s Republic as they were ten years ago, and this “anti-China” attitude is gaining popularity.
And now, given Ma’s sinking poll numbers and his party’s declining prospects for the 2016 presidential election, Beijing worries that a less friendly administration will prevail in Taiwan. Therefore, it’s likely that Beijing sees Ma’s remaining time in office as its last chance to absorb Taiwan without force.