China’s leader Xi Jinping has used his biggest agenda-setting speech in half a decade to warn the US against further support for Taiwan, citing “external forces” for soaring tensions in the Taiwan Strait and suggesting they would be to blame if Beijing felt compelled to attack the country.
“Facing severe provocations from the Taiwan independence forces and from interference by external forces, we resolutely carried out a major struggle against separatism and interference,” Xi said in a speech opening the 20th Chinese Communist party congress on Sunday.
Reiterating Beijing’s priority to pursue unification peacefully but refusing to renounce the use of force, Xi, who did not specifically name the US, said: “What this is mainly aimed at is external forces and a small minority of Taiwan independence forces, but absolutely not the majority of Taiwan compatriots.”
The remarks reflected Beijing’s growing sense of urgency over what it perceives as US attempts to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait — notably, arms sales, visits by American politicians and repeated statements by President Joe Biden that Washington was committed to defending Taiwan if China were to attack.
“As the US and China are embroiled in [a] great power competition, Beijing is now more and more focused on pushing back against what it sees as external intervention in the Taiwan issue,” said Chang Wu-yueh, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei.
A Chinese government white paper published in August claimed that external forces were trying to exploit Taiwan to contain China, prevent the Chinese nation from achieving complete unification and halt the process of national rejuvenation.
Xi has tied his legacy to unification, describing it as integral to his plan to achieve a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 — a century after the party first set its sights on Taiwan.
As the congress prepares to make Xi the first party leader since Mao Zedong to stay at the helm beyond two terms, political experts believe Beijing could try to hasten progress towards that goal.
China “firmly holds on to the leadership role and initiative in cross-Strait relations,” Xi told congress delegates.
“Beijing will not wait for Taiwan,” said Chao Chun-shan, one of Taiwan’s most senior China experts who has advised the last four presidents on cross-Strait policy. “Xi has said that the Taiwan question cannot be dragged out without resolution, so they are taking the things they can manipulate themselves and doing them first.”
There is ample evidence of that effort already. Over the past three years, Beijing has unleashed a flurry of initiatives that resemble planning for post-unification Taiwan and suggest to the public that this era is imminent.
These include a rail link between the coastal city of Fuzhou and Taipei in a plan for national transportation network projects to be completed by 2035. There is also advice being doled out on social media to Chinese citizens about buying property in Taiwan after unification, while internal lectures have advised online opinion leaders that the country is moving towards unification.
The driver is Xi’s suggestion — first put forward in January 2019 — that “Chinese on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait” started looking in more concrete terms at the “one country, two systems” framework originally developed for Taiwan but first applied in Hong Kong. He has proposed that they “explore a two-system formula for Taiwan and enrich the practice of peaceful unification”.
The Chinese leader’s concept for that process is what he calls “integrated development”. According to research papers by Chinese scholars specializing in Taiwan policy, the approach envisions drawing the island more closely to China through a web of personal and business interests, and gradually winning the Taiwanese people over to Beijing’s vision of a unified great nation through educational exchanges and propaganda.
However, in Taiwan, that push is going nowhere. Since early 2020, pandemic travel and visa restrictions imposed by both Beijing and Taipei have severely impeded the Chinese Communist party’s efforts to woo Taiwanese students, businesspeople, religious communities, grassroots officials and even gang leaders.
Even if cross-Strait travel reopens, the prospects are dim. The Taiwanese government is pushing back against deeper integration with China, and mainstream opposition politicians refuse to discuss unification because the vast majority of the population wants to retain the country’s de facto independence.
Xi is now shifting from the more patient approach pursued by his predecessor Hu Jintao to a policy stressing advances towards unification. “During Xi Jinping’s first term, our Chinese counterparts still remained focused on preventing moves towards formal Taiwan independence,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the Taiwan studies program at Australian National University. “But now, their research and propaganda efforts have moved to the next step of promoting unification.”
The fact that Beijing is pairing political efforts with increasingly threatening military maneuvers has stoked suspicions that Xi intends to seize the country by force.
Following a visit by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taipei in August, the People’s Liberation Army conducted unprecedented exercises around Taiwan. Since then, Beijing has dispatched fighters, drones and warships towards the island daily.
But analysts believe warnings from US military and intelligence officials of a looming invasion are overdone. “Beijing still has strategic patience and that is a chance for Washington,” Colonel Zhou Bo, a former official in the Chinese defense ministry and a senior fellow at Tsinghua University, wrote in an article in the South China Morning Post last month.
Other experts have argued that Beijing prefers using military force for intimidation, deterrence and coercion rather than war. “There are only very few scenarios under which Xi would seek unification at any cost,” said Taiwan’s senior China adviser Chao.
“Although for him, unification needs to be achieved together with China’s great rejuvenation, this is a dialectical relationship. He will not renounce the use of force to achieve unification, but achieving unification must not damage rejuvenation, the final goal.”