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Asia-Pacific / China

Interpreting China’s Sloppy Rhetoric

A rare respite for Chinese President Xi Jinping during his hectic first term has been the ease of diplomacy with Taiwan, which is one of East Asia’s touchiest relationships. Unfortunately for Xi, the recent electoral triumph of Taiwan’s independence-inspired Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will stir up the placid strait. In January, Taiwan’s incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) Party was trounced in national elections. After eight years of diplomatic normalization with China and several cross-strait (between China and Taiwan) trade deals, Taiwanese voters feared that the KMT has unwittingly left Taiwan dangerously vulnerable to Chinese influence.

In the wake of defeat, the KMT elected Hung Hsiu-chu as its new chairwoman. Xi decided to offer his congratulations. Given China’s typically meticulous wordsmithing, the press release was shockingly sloppy. Chinese state media reported:

Xi Jinping said in his message to Hung that he hopes the two parties will keep the overall national interest in mind, continue to adhere to the 1992 Consensus, and oppose “Taiwan independence.”

The critical phrase is “oppose Taiwan independence.” [Superfluous quotation marks omitted.] The KMT is already accused of weakly appeasing Chinese ambition. To China-skeptic Taiwanese people, Xi’s words make the KMT’s naivety in its cross-strait approach begin to look more like conspiracy.

DPP rule will make Xi’s job more difficult. So why would Xi fan the same flames that engulfed the KMT last January? Here are a few speculative explanations that are arranged in the order of least to most likely.

  1. Turbulent Cross-Strait Relations Will Help Stoke Nationalist Fervor

Since he took office in 2012, Xi has not been afraid to plunge China into diplomatic entanglements. China’s island-building escapade in the South China Sea within its archaic “Nine-Dash Line” territorial claim has enraged its neighbors, but it has also enthused Chinese nationalists. Although there is certainly a geostrategic dimension to China’s South China Sea expansion, Xi’s bottom line is domestic approval. Pitting China against the international community diverts attention away from metastasizing domestic issues and refocuses it upon China’s newfound international stature. Xi has contrived a Cold War-esque drama—drawing United States aircraft and naval vessels into border-testing flyovers and sail-throughs—without any actual risk of spectacular violence. Low-stakes, high-tension conflicts are a useful tool with which Xi can pad domestic approval while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finds itself in a particularly precarious juncture in its rule over a rapidly evolving nation of 1.4 billion.

Nothing tugs at the heartstrings of Chinese nationalism more powerfully than Taiwan. The legacy of the Chinese Civil War is always implicit in cross-strait relations. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, and thus any expression of Taiwanese sovereignty is an affront to Chinese nationalism. Taiwan possesses de facto independence; its government operates independently of the CCP. But Taiwan does not enjoy de jure independence, which makes it difficult for the country to participate in international organizations and conduct normal diplomatic relations. The DPP has been historically sympathetic to the idea of a formal declaration of independence. China has repeatedly threatened an all-out invasion in response to such a declaration. It is impossible for anyone to know where the Chinese people stand on the CCP’s rule, but if Xi senses that approval is so low that the CCP’s grip on power is in jeopardy, he may be willing to open another theater in his campaign to bolster domestic support through nationalist dramatics. The press release could have been the beginning of a calculated effort to accelerate the KMT’s decline and strengthen the influence of parties that are more hostile to China. With the DPP and other independence-minded parties in power, Xi has the ability to escalate cross-strait tensions whenever he needs a little extra domestic backing. The stage is set for another high-tension diplomatic entanglement, and Xi could be bold enough, or desperate enough, to let it play out.

Unlike the South China Sea squabble, a bungled cross-strait fiasco would have real military consequences. If Xi succeeds in pushing the KMT out of Taiwanese politics, he risks Taiwan’s edging towards independence in the coming years. A formal declaration, though still a long way off, is a lose-lose situation for China. Xi would either have to live up to his word and order an appallingly destructive invasion, destroying China’s international reputation in the process, or mar his legacy with a national disgrace. Intentionally sowing hostility between China and Taiwan would only make strategic sense for Xi if he senses that a seismic faltering of the CCP’s grip over China is forthcoming.

  1. China Is Getting Payback For The Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement

In June 2013, Taiwan and China signed the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, a deal that aimed to open up billions of dollars in industries to bilateral trade. The deal prompted massive student protests in 2014 known as the “Sunflower Movement,” and consequently Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan never ratified it. In the world of diplomacy, reneging on a bilateral agreement is bad form. When the stakes are as high as China–Taiwan, it is unthinkable. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was furious, as the treaty stipulated that the agreement could not be revised or cancelled for three years upon signature.

China restrained itself from exacting revenge during the lead-up to the 2016 elections because it was still in China’s interest for the KMT to maintain control of the government. But since the KMT’s defeat, China has been quietly doling out slaps on the wrist to Taiwan’s lame duck president, Ma Ying-Jeou, for the diplomatic blunder.

Since China officially views Taiwan as a renegade province, foreign nations must decide to either recognize China or Taiwan as a sovereign nation. While most of the world’s nations now choose to recognize China due to its economic clout, Taiwan and China have sparred over the diplomatic recognition of developing nations with aid packages and trade deals for decades. When Ma assumed the presidency in 2008, China and Taiwan struck an unofficial truce and stopped poaching each other’s allies. A week before the press release, China broke the truce and commenced official relations with Gambia, which formerly recognized Taiwan.

The press release could have been another form of political payback. In isolation, it probably is not enough to doom the KMT, which is next up for election in four years. Ostensibly, it is still in China’s interest to see the KMT retake the helm, but now it has set a disciplinary precedent. Ironically, the perception among Taiwanese voters that the KMT is in China’s pocket has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All China has to do to shatter the KMT’s domestic credibility is laud the KMT’s cooperation. With that threat hanging over the heads of KMT politicians, they will be forced to give China extra leeway.

  1. China Is Incompetently Out of Touch

The simplest answer is often correct. Since the DPP’s Tsai Ing-Wen was elected to the presidency, China has made a point to remind Taiwan that it will not allow a declaration of independence. The 1992 Consensus referred to in the press release was reached in relative secrecy between the KMT and China in an era when the KMT was the only party to have ever ruled over Taiwan. It establishes that there is only “One China,” which both the CCP and KMT claimed to be the legitimate government of. Although China still claims rule over Taiwan, the opposite view is increasingly outdated; the DPP recognizes the People’s Republic of China as a country separate from Taiwan, and nobody in the KMT really believes that they should legitimately govern over the entire mainland.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary throughout the course of her presidential campaign, once Tsai was named president-elect she declared that she would indeed recognize the 1992 Consensus. Although Tsai outwardly supports maintaining the status quo, an effectively but not officially independent Taiwan, she was elected by a voter base who increasingly ascribes to a Taiwanese cultural identity distinct from China. Cognizant of the DPP’s leaning toward independence, China has been increasingly worried about the Tsai’s upcoming term. The press release was likely intended as another reminder in a series of thinly veiled threats directed at Tsai. What China failed to consider are the perceptions that ousted the KMT in the first place, and how the context of their warning, a congratulatory message to the KMT, will only embolden the DPP ideologues that China fears.

Diplomatic developments in the coming years will help reveal if there was any true intention behind the eyebrow-raising press release, or if it was simply another miscalculation under Xi’s tenure. For the first time in Taiwan’s history, an opposition party controls the executive and legislative branches of government. Although Taiwan has flourished into one of the world’s most vibrant democracies, its history is stained with memories of harsh martial law. Taiwan has yet to confront the brutal legacy of the KMT’s earlier generations as a nation, but younger politicians are beginning to demand conversation. Moments like these can be pivotal in the development of national identity and may presage political transformation. If Xi wants to manage cross-strait relations on his terms, he will have to tread much more carefully.