Published: October 9, 2013
Xi Jinping is not the first modern Chinese leader to threaten the island nation of Taiwan with invasion if they do not soon agree to hand their sovereignty to the Beijing regime.
Indeed, it has become a necessary ritual for Chinese leaders to establish their patriotic credentials by reiterating Beijing’s claim to own the island and its 23 million people.
Usually these pronouncements appear to be largely for domestic consumption, taking no account of the fact Taiwan has been an independent nation since 1949, and has made the difficult transition from a one-party state under martial law to a functional, boisterous democracy.
Beijing has sometimes gone further than rhetorical bluster. In 1996 China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired unarmed missiles into the sea on the approaches to Taiwan’s main ports, as the island’s people prepared to vote in their first free and fair presidential elections.
But context is everything in such matters.
There are several factors in both the domestic and international standing of the administrations of the three main players in this drama – China, Taiwan and the United States – which make Xi’s threat worthy of fresh attention.
To many, Xi’s remarks may not sound like a threat. At a meeting on Sunday with the personal envoy of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum in Indonesia, the Chinese leader said there must soon be a political resolution of the island’s disputed sovereignty.
“These issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation,” Xi said.
However, the threat of invasion if there is no progress on a political resolution is always implied.
China set out its position succinctly in a 2000 White Paper on its policy toward Taiwan.
“While carrying out the policy of peaceful reunification, the Chinese government always makes it clear that the means used to solve the Taiwan issue is a matter of China’s internal affairs, and China is under no obligation to commit itself to rule out the use of force,” it said.
Xi was appointed China’s President and leader of the ruling Communist Party less than a year ago. It is as yet unclear how firm is his personal authority, and there are indications he is having to contend with factions within the party.
Appealing to nationalist instincts both within the party and among the Chinese public, who are facing a good deal of economic uncertainty, may be an attractive choice.
Xi has already shown a willingness to take this route by provoking disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam over rival claims to islands in the South and East China seas.
The Chinese President is also master of the PLA, which has benefited from massive investments in modern equipment and reform in its structure in the past two decades.
Much of this program has been based on the objective of invading Taiwan and deterring the U.S. from coming to the defence of the island, which it is bound to do by domestic legislation, the Taiwan Affairs Act.
The imperative among PLA generals and nationalist Chinese, to see if their reformed military is up to challenging the U.S. over Taiwan and in the Pacific, is only likely to grow. Containing these drives will become more and more difficult for the political leaders.
Feeding these drives is a naïve belief among many Chinese that the U.S. is in decline as an economic, political and military power. The travails of the Barack Obama administration in recent years have bolstered this view.
The global economic crisis which started in America in 2008, and more recently Obama’s retreat from taking military action against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons, have left the impression Washington is enfeebled and irresolute.
Hugely symbolic was Obama’s absence from the APEC summit. He stayed in Washington trying to resolve the impasse with the Republicans over the pending shut down of the government. This left Xi as the unchallenged representative of a great power, and he evidently relished the part.
The political situation in Taiwan adds uncertainty and opportunities for miscalculation to the situation. President Ma, nearly half-way through his second and last four-year term in office, is not so much a lame duck as a cooked goose.
His popularity is now bumping along the bottom line at around nine per cent, in large part because of public mistrust of his dealings with China.
Ma was elected in 2008 on the promise of improving relations with China, and he has achieved significant developments in commerce and trade. But those advances have benefited relatively few already wealthy Taiwanese, adding to the view that one of China’s main exports to all its trade partners is economic disparity and social inequality.
Polls consistently show that close to 90 per cent of Taiwanese want to maintain and enhance their independence. A further reason for Ma’s vanished popularity is apprehension that Beijing will pressure or fool him into entering talks about political union.
Even though Ma consistently denies that possibility, evident intensifying relations between the Chinese Communist Party and Ma’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) feed that speculation.
With Ma’s demise, Beijing can see the opportunity for a negotiated political settlement with Taiwan slipping away.
At the moment, the prospects are for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, dedicated to establishing Taiwan’s independence, to win the presidency in 2016.
For the KMT to re-establish support among Taiwan’s voters it will have to reassert itself as a representative of the island’s people and distinct society rather than, as Ma has done, revive the 60-year-old fantasy that the party is still a government of China in exile.
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe