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Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 15 New Delhi March 31, 2018

Xi Jinping Warns Taiwan against Move for Independence

Saturday 31 March 2018

by Rajaram Panda

After his re-election for a second term in office, the Chinese President has struck a strongly nationalistic tone in his closing address to the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the ceremonial parliament, with a firm assertion that China would never allow “one inch” of territory to be separated from it. Xi thundered that China was ready to wage a “bloody war” to assume its due place in the world. Against the background of the decision of the National People’s Congress to abolish the term limits on his rule which allows Xi to remain in office beyond 2023 indefinitely, this observation by Xi has huge implications for the region. A belligerent Xi, now enjoying a life-time tenure, asserted that the Chinese people were at present “closer than at any time in history to realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Stressing on maintaining national sovereignty, territorial integrity and complete unification of the motherland as the common aspiration of all Chinese, he reminded that the Chinese people have the will and ability to “foil all activities to divide the nation” and were united in the belief that every inch of the motherland “absolutely cannot and resolutely will not be separated from China”.

Xi’s combative remarks on the territorial issue that not an inch of its territory would be ceded could have been directed at many, including those seeking independence of Taiwan or “self-determination” in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or countries such as India, Japan or in South-East Asia, which have territorial disputes with China. It is a virtual threat that Xi declared. Though Xi did not mention any territorial issue, China is involved in a number of disputes with its neighbours. Besides the border dispute with India, China claims rights over the disputed islands in East China Sea under the control of Japan and vast stretches of the South China Sea where it is firmly asserting its control. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counter-claims over the strategic South China Sea.

Taiwan is likely to be the first to face the Chinese heat. China’s tough stance on its boundaries could also be a message to President Donald Trump. Trump has not only threatened to raise the tariff on Chinese goods but has also irked Beijing over a legislation that Trump signed, which encourages frequent exchanges between the US and Taiwanese officials. Even when Trump prepares his trade war declaration, China is laying out its red lines.

In a clear message bordering on threat to self-governing Taiwan, Xi resolved to advance the cause of “peaceful unification” with the island, whose 24 million residents are strongly in favour of maintaining their de-facto independent status. China fears secession by Taiwan and Hong Kong. While Taiwan is a self-ruled island which Beijing claims as its own and vows to unite it with China one day, Hong Kong, a former British colony and now a special administrative region of China, resents growing interference by Beijing. Echoing Xi’s views, Prime Minister Li Keqiang also observed that while China “will not abandon an inch of its own land, it will not take and occupy an inch of land of others”.

Xi’s speech to the closing session of the NPC came soon after Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows for and encourages high-level official visits between Taiwan and the US. China denounced the bill, saying that its existence “severely violates” the “political foundation of the China-US relationship” and that it ignores Beijing’s “one-China” policy on Taiwan. China has demanded the US stop official exchanges, warning about the impact it could have on broader relations. It may be recalled that in 1949, following a bloody civil war, Taiwan became a self-governed island, although it is still officially considered the Republic of China. It has been the agenda of the Chinese Communist leadership to regain control of the “wayward” province that was founded 70 years ago.

China has periodically flexed its military muscles by military drills or sending naval vessels around Taiwan to intimidate those Taiwan views as “threats” to its national security. Not to be cowed down, Taiwan’s first female President and leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen, elected to office in 2016, though she wants to maintain peace, warned that, if pushed, she will defend Taiwan’s security. Tsai wants to preserve the status quo and has advocated a policy of keeping a further distance between the two sides. In October 2017, The Washington Free Beacon reported that newly discovered internal military documents indicated that China will invade Taiwan by force before 2020. Xi has warned the self-ruled island that it would face the “punishment of history” if it made any attempt toward separatism.

While Taiwan seems to be testing China’s patience, Beijing wants to ensure that the Taiwanese enjoy the “opportunities of China’s development” and push for the “peaceful unification of the motherland”. China has periodically been warning Taiwan not to think on the way to self-determination and has not left any stone unturned to internationally isolate it by offering economic incentives to those small countries who still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But this time, Xi’s warning was the strongest that should worry Taiwan. China claims that the self-ruled island of some 24 million was part of its territory. For Beijing, Taiwan is a sensitive issue and potential military flash-point.

After China and Taiwan split amid a civil war in 1949, their political systems have headed in opposite directions since the 1980s. After a spell of authoritarian governments, Taiwan democra-tised in the 1980s and an overwhelming section of the population is opposed to unification with authoritarian China. After Xi’s threat, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry urged other countries to support Taipei’s role as a democracy in the region. Taiwan is walking a tight rope. While Beijing is likely to continue to ratchet up its political and military pressure on the island, it rolls out incentives to woo younger Taiwan citizens and business leaders over to its camp. In March 2018, Beijing announced 31 measures making it easier for the Taiwanese to work, study and invest in China. Now with the prospect of Xi staying in power indefinitely, a more aggressive posture by China on Taiwan with a view to integrate it with the mainland either by persuasion or by use of force may not be unthinkable.

Taiwan needs friends and it has a few. It is therefore deepening ties with the US, Japan and some other countries to make Xi see reason and eschew his belligerent stance. After Xi’s election for a second term with the prospect of staying in power indefinitely, a comparison is being made between him and China’s founder Mao Zedong. But the situation then and now are different. When Mao was in power, China was protected by the Cold War and the Soviet Union. At that time, the impact of the Chinese economy on the world was not as it is now. Today China is the biggest exporter and the second largest economy and therefore any economic measure taken by China shall have direct and immediate effect worldwide.

Infuriated by Trump’s signing into law a legislation that encourages the US to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa, Xi upped the ante by sending its sole operational aircraft carrier the Liaoning through the narrow Taiwan Strait that separates China from the self-ruled island in order to intimidate it. Xi acted soon after he warned Taiwan to face the “punishment of history for any attempt at separatism”. In January too, the Liaoning sailed twice through the Taiwan Strait; these China calls routine drills.

Ever since Tsai Ing-wen’s election as Taiwan’s President in the 2016 election, China has increased hostility because Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has taken a pro-independence stand. China suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross the red line for the Communist Party leaders in Beijing. When Taiwan’s Prime Minister William Lai made a comment that Taiwan is a sovereign independent country, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office saw this as a “serious provocation” and that Taiwan was not and could never be a country. Taiwan is going to face tough times in the coming years.

Dr Panda is the ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor in the School of Economics and Business Administration at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed here are his personal and do not represent either of the ICCR or Government of India. He can be contacted at e-mail: rajaram. panda[at]gmail.com

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