Taiwan and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation

China’s core leader, Xi Jinping, believes the time has come for the country to grasp a “strategic opportunity” to advance the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He intimated as much in his work report to the 19th Party Congress. And this week the Communist Party paper the People’s Daily published a “manifesto” in the People’s Daily, explicitly stating that China stands on the cusp of writing a new chapter in the history of the nation.

The “manifesto” is an extraordinary document, part cheer-leader for the Party’s achievements, part call for a newly robust Chinese posture. It reflects the Chinese leadership’s belief that China has a historical opportunity to stake out a global leadership role. Enumerating the numerous ills facing western societies, which have accelerated the long-held feeling that the west is in decline, it is a statement that China is ready to seize the moment and restore China’s rightful position in the world. “Rejuvenation” is no longer a distant aspiration.

This isn’t a surprise for anyone with an understanding of the CCP’s “historical determinist” worldview. The Chinese leadership has watched its economic, diplomatic and military power grow, and “bided its time” as the west’s fortunes have waned. The election of Donald Trump has hastened the feeling that American hegemony has begun its inexorable decline. Trump’s abdication of American global leadership combined with a global system that was already in flux, has accelerated the feeling that China’s time has come.

Chinese leaders remind us that China does not seek hegemony and does not have a history of imperial expansion. Indeed, China has not invaded and occupied other sovereign nations, engaged in covert security operations, enforced regime change, or any number of other foreign interventions carried out in the name of American national interests.

But, a newly robust Chinese world view informing its foreign policy behaviour has important implications, not least for Taiwan, a mere hundred miles away and the locus of contemporary Chinese nationalism. After the violent denouement of the Democracy Spring movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the CCP has staked its legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism. As growth has slowed, the balance between these two pillars has shifted.

For Chinese nationalists, the “manifesto” is a long-yearned for assertion that under the Party’s leadership China’s rise necessitates a recalibration of the world order – one in which China will play a much more prominent role. Symbolic Centennials of the founding of the CCP (2021) and the PRC (2049) are no longer on the distant horizon. Xi has risen to unassailable power, but a paramount leader needs to deliver more than tub-thumping rhetoric.

The CCP has found nationalist causes, especially Taiwan, useful for entrenching popular support. It has also primed the Chinese people to believe that the CCP leadership is the only means to restoring China to greatness. But on one part of the “national rejuvenation” puzzle, it has failed to deliver. The desire to “recover” a Taiwan “lost” during the “hundred years of national humiliation” has been so relentlessly affirmed through the education and media systems that it is the sina qua non for patriotic Chinese.

Separated by vastly different socio-economic development experiences, most Taiwanese identify with Taiwan as a discrete, democratic society that is manifestly not-China. The desire for unification in Taiwan is virtually non-existent. Decades of Chinese carrots in the form of economic opportunities and sticks in the form of enforced international isolation and underlying military threat have removed “Taiwan independence” from the political agenda, but failed to move opinion towards China. The CCP’s favoured political partner in Taiwan, the KMT, was unable to change opinion in a meaningful way and alienated voters in trying to do so.

And so China continues to exert pressure on Taiwan, each turn of the screw designed to undermine, isolate and incapacitate Taiwan and the Tsai administration. A symbol of the new world order, it does so with impunity. PLA Air Force planes can circumnavigate Taiwan and the Civil Aviation Administration of China can unilaterally establish new routes in the Taiwan Strait because no-one bar the Taiwanese object. It can jail Taiwanese activists or bar Taiwan from WHA meetings. When it requires Taiwanese criminals are repatriated to China, countries from Spain to Kenya oblige. All are demonstrations that Taiwan is subordinate, that the privileges of “functional autonomy” extend only so far.

While western countries like Australia are newly discovering a sting in the tail to their ‘win-win’ engagements with China, Taiwan is used to dealing with Chinese pressures. The question is how much pressure China will dial up. Courting Taiwan’s small number of diplomatic allies, barring Taiwanese representation from international meetings and enforcing the political correctness of multinational companies’ drop-down menus is pressure at a much lower level than China is capable of exerting. And it is unlikely to deliver results commensurate with the aspirations of a new era of national rejuvenation.

Indubitably nested within the relationship between the US and China, it is easy to forget that Taiwan was, until relatively recently, a geopolitical hotspot. In the mid-1990s, Chinese missile exercises prior to the first direct election of the president in Taiwan, necessitated President Clinton’s dispatch of the Pacific Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. In the mid-2000’s Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s rhetoric threatened to cross Chinese “red lines”, and the PRC passed legislation requiring a military response to prevent “Taiwan independence”.

In the past decade, cross-Strait relations have receded from the global stage. While not resolving the underlying militarization of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s entente cordiale added a veneer of stability. Underpinned by the diplomatic fudge of the “1992 Consensus”, economic cooperation reduced tensions between Taiwan and China to an unprecedented extent. The partial detente was good timing for a hands-off Obama administration preoccupied with the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the first Xi administration dealing with monumental domestic challenges.

Donald Trump has an uncertain China policy that veers between extreme deference and spiky rhetoric: No one really knows what his intentions are towards China, possibly least of all, Trump himself. His preferences, unstable as they are, may become clearer if and when a House Foreign Affairs Committee bill that would authorize high level official visits between the US and Taiwan and an act of Congress encouraging consideration of US Navy port calls in Taiwan progress. These would likely be seen as unacceptable provocations by a country no longer shy about its aspirations.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

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Panama switches – What does it mean for Taiwan?

Beijing’s strategy towards a Tsai Ing-wen administration that refuses to accept the “1992 Consensus” (a way for Taiwan to acknowledge “one China” that enabled productive relations and a ‘diplomatic truce’ under Ma Ying-jeou) is to incrementally increase pressure. Since Tsai assumed the ROC presidency in May 2016 Beijing has broken off direct communications, reduced tourist numbers, blocked Taiwan’s WHA observership, arrested a Taiwanese rights activist etc. This is pretty low level pressure and cross-Strait economic interactions and non-governmental & p2p exchanges continue. Given the intense integration of the two economies, punishing Taiwanese businesses in Taiwan would also hurt the Chinese economy, at a time when there are already domestic economic pressures. But going after Taiwan’s allies has very little downside for China. It symbolizes Taiwan’s diplomatic marginalization and in relative terms is good value (and unlike blocking Taiwan in WHA, there’s no blowback). I expect the PRC to continue targeting Taiwan’s allies and to capitalize on any opportunity to encourage a split (the Vatican is the big prize, but also the most complicated due to the Catholic Church in China).

Panama itself is a special case for Taiwan. With the exception of the Vatican, which has extra symbolic value because it is the only European ally left, Panama was Taiwan’s most important ally. Relations were established more than 100 years ago and was Taiwan’s first FTA partner in 2003. It is also an influential country among Taiwan’s allies in Central America and the Caribbean, where half of all their allies are located. The implications are largely symbolic, but this is an arena in which symbolism is very important. The real fear is that Panama’s switch may prompt others to follow. Since half of Taiwan’s allies are in Central America and the Caribbean, this is a real concern and one that underpinned Tsai’s visit to the region almost as soon as she was inaugurated last summer.

The Tsai administration has focused on domestic issues and maintaining as stable cross-Strait relations as Beijing will allow, and although Tsai’s approval ratings have declined substantially, it hasn’t been due to her China or foreign policy. Until now, dissatisfaction with Tsai has mainly been due to her faltering domestic agenda, and the slowdown/shutdown of cross-Strait relations has not harmed her that much. Taiwanese are very conscious of their international marginalisation, and the symbolism of an important ally is a hit to ‘national dignity’ and ‘respect’ that are highly salient in political discourse. There is little sign that this will stop or reverse national identity trends though: the massive increase in Taiwanese-only identifiers has occurred in the same period that Taiwan has lost one third of its diplomatic allies.

If, however, a number of allies were to switch, it may bring pressure to bear on Tsai’s China policy. It remains to be seen how public opinion would react to a (hypothetical) succession of diplomatic switches. Tsai’s main domestic opposition (the KMT, which supports closer and friendlier relations with China) is currently weak and not in position at the moment to bring much pressure to bear on Tsai. Public opinion on Taiwan’s marginalisation is important, but Taiwanese also appear to accept that some things are out of the government’s control. The fact is, the decision to switch is up to the respective allies, who make their own cost-benefit calculations. Taiwan has invested heavily in maintaining and servicing its diplomatic relationships, but sometimes the PRC is a more attractive proposition.

Public opinion in Taiwan is pretty clear: Taiwanese want peaceful and productive economic relations with the PRC but they prefer to maintain their functional autonomy and do not want political unification. On one hand, PRC pressure and military option is necessary to keep “Taiwan independence” off the table as a realistic option. On the other, moves which appear to Taiwanese people to be unfair bullying do not play well. Given the current configuration, if Taiwan were to choose unification it would have to be at the agreement of Taiwanese voters – and moves that hurt Taiwan, diminish its ‘national dignity’ etc, are unlikely to succeed in winning these voters over.

The strategy behind the Xi-Ma meeting

When Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shake hands on Saturday in Singapore, it will be the first time in history that sitting presidents from the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China will have met each other face to face, even if they will not address each other as such. The symbolism is rich, particularly on the PRC side, where the image of a Taiwan returning to the fold is more powerful than scenes of Xi rubbing shoulders with US President Barack Obama or being received in state by the queen in Britain. The meeting is obviously a coup for Ma, a man driven by a keen sense of the Chinese nation and his personal role in its preservation. It is also great news for Beijing to serve up at home, with the Global Times pronouncing that “the Taiwan problem is no longer a problem”.

Beyond the warm and fuzzy state media coverage, the timing of the meeting reveals a lot about the intentions behind it. We are just two months away from elections in Taiwan that will almost certainly see the Democratic Progressive Party win the presidency and a legislative majority for the first time. For Beijing, which suspects DPP president Tsai Ing-wen’s “true intentions” and her capacity to keep the “secessionist tendencies” of her party’s factions in check, it is an unnerving prospect.

The last time the DPP controlled the presidency, despite facing an obstructive Kuomintang/People First Party majority in parliament, Chen Shui-bian was able to widely cement the idea of Taiwan’s distinctness and separation from the rest of China. Now, after eight years under a president who is unusually well disposed to the mainland and, in his first term at least, powerful enough to push through significant moves towards economic integration, the trends in Taiwanese public opinion are unpropitious for advocates of closer ties. Decades-long opinion polls show the Taiwanese have never been surer about their identity, and identification with Taiwan is unequivocal among the young. At this point, Beijing has decided to intervene.

In the short term, the prospect of Beijing’s intervention rescuing the KMT, which has for months been sleepwalking towards catastrophic electoral defeat, is slim. Although the KMT recently acted to remove its duly elected presidential nominee, the unificationist Hung Hsiu-chu, the machinations needed to replace her with chairman Eric Chu appear to have been a wasted effort. Tarnished by his ties to Ma and the protracted drama over his decision to run, Chu’s poll numbers are little better than Hung’s. Building on historic gains in last November’s local elections, the national campaigns have thus far been plain sailing for the DPP. Tsai has staked out popular positions on China and the economy, and gave an accomplished performance on her trip to the US. She currently enjoys a double-digit lead. Given that Ma’s unpopularity is mainly a product of a rush to embrace China, combined with his opaque decision-making – the sunflower movement was first and foremost about transparency in politics – it is difficult to see how a clandestinely arranged surprise meeting with the Chinese president will help the KMT at the polls. Full article at South China Morning Post.

CCP-KMT Leaders’ summit meeting

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and Kuomintang Chairman Eric Chu are holding a summit in Beijing on Monday, the highest-level talks between the two parties in six years. While Taiwanese officials describe it in anodyne terms—discussing “issues of mutual concern”—simmering tensions across the Taiwan Strait make this meeting highly significant.

The two leaders will no doubt discuss their parties’ failed gamble on Taiwanese politics. The CCP and the KMT expected that by building closer cross-Strait ties they would strengthen support for the Taiwanese ruling party, which shares the mainland’s goal of eventual reunification. Instead the Taiwanese public rebelled against mainland influence in domestic politics.

In February of last year, the KMT brought cross-Strait relations to their strongest point in history. Representatives of the two governments met officially for the first time in decades.

Despite that breakthrough, the political fortunes of the KMT and President Ma Ying-jeou deteriorated dramatically. Student-led protests, dubbed the “sunflower movement,” blocked the keystone policy of Ma’s second and final term, an extension to the free trade agreement signed with China during his first term.

Then in November the KMT suffered devastating losses in mid-term elections, after which President Ma stepped down as chairman of the party. His approval ratings now languish in the teens. Ordinary Taiwanese are increasingly queasy about the KMT’s close links with the CCP.

With a paucity of viable candidates, the KMT is unlikely to hold on to the presidency. It may even lose control of the legislature for the first time in history come the elections in January 2016. Internal divisions threaten to split the party.

Beijing must now proceed along two tracks, shoring up the KMT while preparing for a DPP administration. That is the true agenda of this week’s summit.

Last year Mr. Chu narrowly retained his position as mayor of Xinbei, formerly known as Taipei county and now the island’s most populous city. He is the only potential presidential candidate with sufficiently broad support in the party and in society. In public, he insists that he won’t run.

In reality Mr. Chu is divided about running for the presidency. If he bows out, KMT losses are likely to be magnified. But he stands a far better chance of winning if he waits for 2020. If he runs next year he will also have to explain to the people of Xinbei why he is breaking his promise to them to finish his mayoral term.

There is still time for Mr. Chu to change his mind before the nomination deadline of May 16. It is reasonable to expect that Mr. Xi will use this week’s meeting to pressure him to run and offer support to boost the KMT’s slim chances

The Chinese side will hope such a high-profile meeting will allow Mr. Chu to showcase his credentials as a man that China is willing to work with. The talks come only a day after a joint KMT-CCP forum in Shanghai that always produces a number of joint recommendations and policies. Expect China to throw a few concessions Mr. Chu’s way, so he can return to Taiwan looking like a man who can get a good deal. Continue reading

China – Taiwan meeting

I have a piece in the Wall Street Journal today on the China-Taiwan meeting:

This Tuesday, government representatives from the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China will meet in an official capacity for the first time. The historic meeting comes after several years of warming relations generated by the rapprochement policies of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. While ground-breaking agreements are unlikely, there is reason to hope significant progress will be made in laying the foundations for a peaceful, more sustainable relationship.

In Mr. Ma’s first term beginning in 2008, the two sides established direct transport links, stopped competing for diplomatic allies and signed a limited free trade agreement. Beijing relaxed its opposition to Taiwan’s participation in some international organizations, and the movement of people in both directions across the Strait increased dramatically.

But then momentum slowed. Implementation of the FTA was problematic, and ratification of a follow-on agreement stalled in Taiwan’s legislature. The promised economic benefits for ordinary Taiwanese didn’t materialize. Mr. Ma lost the public backing that saw him comfortably re-elected to a second and final term in 2012, and his relationship with his own Kuomintang Party (KMT) collapsed.

Mr. Ma’s travails have helped revive the prospects of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in national elections early in 2016. The DPP’s more hardline approach to Taiwanese autonomy holds much less promise for Beijing. So while Beijing is confident that the trends favor integration, uncertainty over the policies of future administrations in Taiwan makes institutionalizing ties during Mr. Ma’s remaining time in power more urgent…Continue reading

Year of the Lame Horse

I have a piece at The National Interest today with @michalthim, looking at Ma Ying-jeou’s travails, cross-Strait legacy and upcoming elections:

The year of the horse began last week, but for Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (whose surname means horse) the signs are inauspicious. With two years remaining in his second and final term, and with important midterm elections scheduled for the end of the year, Ma has alienated large sections of society and his own party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Even the historic first visit to the mainland later this month by the head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the ministry-level agency that deals with cross-Strait relations on the Taiwan side, lacks the feel of the culmination of a successful six-year rapprochement and engagement strategy. Indeed, the KMT-controlled legislature, prompted by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), felt compelled to impose restrictions on the scale of the MAC mission. The opposition raised concerns that a desperate pro-China president, one who sees himself as a ‘history man’, might seek to do something intemperate and irreversible to rescue his crumbling legacy. Ma’s failed purge of the KMT Speaker of the Legislature late last year no doubt had a bearing on proceedings…

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