Xi’s comment on ‘force’ in Taiwan is not just rhetoric
Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a template for the unification of Taiwan with mainland China recently. The Chinese leader last Friday said the Taiwanese could have their own “private assets, religions, beliefs and legitimate rights” under the sovereign rule of Beijing. Mr Xi’s offer was similar to the “two systems, one country” offer that preceded the takeover of Hong Kong. But it has less credibility. Hong Kong was told it could keep its democratic political institutions. Today, the ex-British colony’s press is repressed, power lies with whosoever Beijing chooses, and democratic activists are harassed or in jail. Today, at a time when China is ruled by an increasingly heavy iron fist, there is no likelihood a communist-ruled Taiwan would enjoy any of the democratic rights it currently enjoys. Mr Xi was honest enough not to promise any political freedom, saying only that the Taiwanese would find greater “development space”.
While Mr Xi said he would use military force if necessary, he was relatively reserved compared to early last year when, speaking of Taiwan, he declared China would never cede “a single inch of our land” and was ready to fight “a bloody battle against our enemies”. His moderation probably derives from the recent electoral setbacks of Taiwan’s ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Previous heavy-handed attempts by Beijing to influence Taiwanese politics have backfired. Polls continue to show a quarter of Taiwanese favour unification. With the pro-independence party facing likely defeat in upcoming presidential elections, Mr Xi sensibly decided to put forward a political unification plan.
While sharp words between Taipei and Beijing have been par for the course, the regional environment is much more tense. Mr Xi has repeatedly said the takeover of Taiwan is at the top of his legacy list — and is open to both peaceful and warlike means to do so. After China’s illegitimate capture of the South China Sea, his comments are being taken as more than just rhetoric.
The Trump administration has been moving slowly to formalising what has so far been an unwritten US defence understanding with Taiwan. Last year, the US legislated the formal exchange of high-level meetings, including military officers, with Taiwan. Recently, President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which reaffirmed the US commitment to Taiwan’s defence and pledged regular arms sales to the island nation. Taiwan is not yet a flashpoint, but in an Indo-Pacific increasingly overshadowed by Sino-American tension, the island has become yet another heat source at a time of rising geopolitical temperatures.