Xi ups the ante

China-Taiwan ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on January 2 at the Great Hall of the People, in which he warned Taiwan that independence would be disastrous and both sides must work for “reunification” and called for negotiations to achieve this, demonstrates Beijing’s aggressive stance in foreign policy. Worryingly, Xi warned that Beijing would strive for peaceful reunification but would not rule out force to recover the island it sees as an errant province.

Such a Chinese position conforms to the argument by Elizabeth Economy made in The Third Revolution, which makes the case that China is most dangerous in the realm of ideas and how Xi wants to dominate the world. If China’s other recent foreign policy adventures, such as the militarisation of the South China Sea, aggressive pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative, alleged complicity with North Korea in the latter’s weapons programmes and many more are taken into account, it is Xi and not Donald Trump of the US or Russia’s Vladimir Putin who qualify to be called the most disruptive leader in the world today.

Since assuming leadership in 2012, an increasingly powerful China has begun throwing its weight around in ways that have led international observers to fear the emergence of a new Cold War, or even a ‘hot war’, aimed at projecting China onto the centre-stage in world affairs. Such a posture is perceptibly visible for the first time since Mao Zedong, as Xi has amassed greater personal power than any Chinese leader since Mao.

Before launching a verbal offensive against Taiwan, Xi has consolidated power and strengthened personalised rule and replaced collective leadership, constricted the country’s political system and tightly restricted the flow of ideas into China. Externally, China has been expanding its military footprint, has pushed to create new international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched the BRI and other major geo-economic projects, and has increasingly used coercive diplomacy with its neighbours, among other efforts to project influence not just in the Asia-Pacific but globally. By doing this, Xi runs the risk of provoking a backlash from dissatisfied rivals at home and competitors abroad, thereby nullifying his much touted “Chinese Dream”. But Xi is just not bothered.

So, when Xi warned Taiwan against independence, leaving no room for any form of separatist activities, he also made no promise to renounce the use of force and “reserve the option of taking all necessary means”. Xi’s remarks were a rebuttal to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s observation in her New Year speech in Taipei in which she called on China to respect Taiwan’s existence and the democratic heritage of her 23 million people. Tsai demanded that Beijing “must use peaceful, on-parity means to handle (our) differences”.

Therefore, Xi’s speech underscored the gulf between the two when he said that nobody could change the fact that Taiwan was part of China and warned that all Taiwanese people must recognise that independence would be a profound disaster. Yet, this was a softening of rhetoric from a speech Xi had made in March 2018 when he declared China would never cede one inch of its territory and was ready to fight a bloody battle against its enemies. Xi also warned that foreign interference in the matter would be unacceptable.

His speech marked the 40th anniversary of the commencement of communications between China and Taiwan after three decades of hostility. In the policy speech on Taiwan, Xi had mentioned the concept of ‘one country, two systems’, which refers to a framework similar to Hong Kong in which the territory becomes part of China but retains a degree of autonomy. Critics have, however, accused China of encroaching on Hong Kong’s freedom of speech in recent years.

Reacting to Xi’s warning, Tsai reiterated that she doesn’t accept the ‘one China’ principle. Her election in 2016 and subsequent repudiation of that principle led to a sharp deterioration in relations, with Beijing cutting off dialogue and exchanges with the island. Infuriated by Tsai’s defiant stance, Beijing conducted military maneuvers near the island and scaled back mainland group tourism to Taiwan.

Isolating Taiwan

China has been adopting all possible means, including economic aid, to countries that continue to maintain diplomatic relations with a view to isolate Taiwan internationally. It has issued warnings to foreign companies, including airlines that failed to recognise its ‘one China’ policy. American and other foreign airlines fell in line with China’s demands, rather than risk losing access to routes into China.

Taking advantage of the reversal that Tsai faced in the November city and local government elections, when the opposition nationalist party Kuomintang, which advocates closer ties with China, won 15 of 22 local seats, Xi is trying to reach out to young Taiwanese and enticing them to join China’s economic advance, pleading that reunification would bring the island great benefits. Xi promises that China would respect “private assets, religions, beliefs and legitimate rights”. With Taiwan’s presidential election due in 2020, Xi has scaled up pressure by all possible means to subdue Taiwan, with the long-term goal to integrate it with the mainland.

Where does India position itself in the China-Taiwan tussle since it maintains official ties with China but unofficial ties with Taiwan? It is in India’s interest to go with the international community and stand up with Taiwan; else, Beijing would be emboldened to replicate similar postures and tactics elsewhere. India needs to ensure that the China-Taiwan spat does not adversely impact its economic and political relations with either, which is why Delhi must continue to have its own independent political and economic engagements with Taiwan and continue to make efforts to seek solution to issues it has with China.

(The writer is a Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, New Delhi)

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