Xi Jinping's Great Game: Are China and Taiwan Headed Towards Trouble?

"There is a significant possibility that if Tsai Ing-wen is elected president of Taiwan next January, a cross-Strait crisis could ensue."

Taiwan’s presidential election is still six months away, but it seems increasingly likely that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Tsai Ing-wen is going to win. In the latest TVBS public opinion poll on July 7, Tsai leads the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Hung Hsiu-chu 42 percent to 30 percent. Among the those closely watching the possible return of the DPP to power is the People’s Republic of China, which worries that if elected, Tsai will deny that the two sides of the Strait belong to one China and pursue de jure independence. This fear derives from Tsai’s past history as the creator of the “two states theory” in the Lee Teng-hui era as well as her current unwillingness to accept the existence of “one China” even as she pledges to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing could react harshly if Tsai is elected on January 16 as the next president of Taiwan, including by taking punitive economic measures, suspending communication and cooperation mechanisms, stealing away some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, or even using military coercion or force.

Xi Jinping’s reaction to a Tsai Ing-wen victory should not be underestimated. When it comes to sovereignty issues, the Chinese leader has shown little willingness to compromise. Since becoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, Xi has been sending tough signals to Taiwan, and these warnings have only intensified in the run up to the presidential elections on the island. As he continues to deepen the anti-corruption campaign and maneuvers to put his own supporters on the Standing Committee of the Politburo at the 19th CCP Congress in 2017, Xi is likely to prioritize protecting his flank. Appearing soft toward Taiwan could create a vulnerability for his opponents to exploit at a sensitive time.

Early in his presidency, Xi met with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s official representative, former Vice President of Taiwan Vincent Siew, on the sidelines of the 2013 APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia. According to China’s official Xinhua news agency, Xi told Siew that “the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” Moreover, he insisted that Beijing was “willing to have equal consultations with Taiwan on cross-Strait issues within the framework of one-China,” and would “make reasonable and fair arrangements for this.” Xi’s expression of impatience with the status quo was reminiscent of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s statement in July 2004 that the “solution of the Taiwan question cannot be delayed indefinitely.” Still, unlike Jiang, there is no evidence that Xi has attempted to set a deadline for reunification.

Xi’s pressure tactics did not work. President Ma, who proposed a cross-Strait peace accord as recently as December 2011, said that there was no consensus in Taiwan on holding political talks with the Mainland and instead pushed for expanding cooperation on more practical issues. Progress in cross-Strait relations stalled unexpectedly in early 2014, when the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) failed to pass Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan due to massive protests later dubbed the “Sunflower Movement.” The protesters, initially a group of students who stormed the chambers of the Legislative Yuan, among other things, called for more public oversight on trade deals with Mainland China.

Another round of protests began in Hong Kong in late September 2014. The Occupy Central movement and other opposition groups demanded that Beijing allow a fully democratic electoral system instead of the proposed plan under which an election committee vets candidates before voters get to choose. Taiwan’s government and its citizens followed these events in Hong Kong closely for indications of Beijing’s willingness to permit a truly separate system of government under “one country, two systems,” an arrangement originally crafted for Taiwan’s future relations with Mainland China. In a surprisingly brash move, Xi Jinping met with the heads of pro-unification groups from Taiwan in the midst of the Hong Kong protests and pushed for the realization of national reunification under the “one country, two systems” framework. With widespread aversion to the plan among Taiwanese, President Ma publicly dismissed Xi’s idea, saying that Taiwan—as the Republic of China—had been a sovereign country for 103 years and his government would continue to adhere to the policy of maintaining the status quo of no reunification, no independence, and no use of force, as well as to the “1992 consensus” that allows the two sides to have a separate interpretation of “one China.”  

In late November 2014, the KMT suffered massive losses in Taiwan’s local elections throughout the island. While won principally on the basis of domestic rather than cross-Strait or international issues, the DPP’s stunning victory was nonetheless an unwelcome turn of events for Beijing. Despite the DPP’s pursuit of an increasingly moderate posture toward China, the Mainland still harbored serious concerns about the party’s refusal to renounce independence and its unwillingness to accept the “1992 consensus.”