China is Changing the Status Quo in the Taiwan Strait

China is Changing the Status Quo in the Taiwan Strait

After forty years, U.S. policy towards Taiwan should be recalibrated to better reflect objective reality.


In the first major policy speech after Taiwan's local elections in late November 2018, which saw the opposition-Nationalist Party regain control of a majority of local governments, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman and People's Republic of China (PRC) president Xi Jinping sounded confident and tough as he laid out his vision for the future of cross-Strait relations. In a speech that signaled no new policy direction, Xi's thirty-three minute-long soliloquy at the fortieth anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan" was an unapologetic endorsement of Beijing's longstanding and failed policy that reaffirmed the current "soft-hard" approach towards Taiwan.

Apparently buoyed by the results of the November elections in Taiwan that saw the resurgence of the Nationalist Party—which favors a more conciliatory policy towards China—Xi waxed poetically about the "spiritual harmony" of the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and how unification was "a historical conclusion drawn over the 70 years of the development of cross-Strait relations, and a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era." In particular, Xi's speech—which consisted of five key points, coupled threats of military force to Taiwan's compliance and doubled down on the "one country, two systems" as the formula for unification—reflects a Chinese leadership whose vision for cross-Strait relations that is increasingly out of touch with the mainstream of people in Taiwan.


The five points are: first, Xi called on the two sides to work together to promote national rejuvenation and achieve the goal of peaceful unification. Second, Xi held up peaceful unification under the "one country, two systems" model as the best way to achieve national unification. Third, Xi called on leaders in Taipei to adhere to the "One-China" principle to maintain the prospect of peaceful unification. Fourth, Xi called on the two sides to deepen the development of cross-strait integration and consolidate the foundation of peaceful unification through the institutionalization of cross-strait economic cooperation. Fifth, Xi called on compatriots on the two sides to achieve "spiritual harmony" and a unified identity. Specifically, Xi said that compatriots on both sides of the strait must jointly uphold traditional Chinese culture and promote its creative transformation and innovative development.

Forty years ago, the 1979 "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan" issued by Marshal Ye Jianying, who was then the head of state as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, signaled the CCP's "abandonment" of its pledge for the "armed liberation" of Taiwan to the island's "peaceful liberation." The 1979 message, following the normalization of relations between the United States and the PRC, was the CCP's first public appeal to the Nationalist Party to end hostile confrontation and tension across the Taiwan Strait, and marked the beginning of Beijing's so-called "peaceful unification strategy." Besides the 1979 speech, other "message to compatriots in Taiwan" were issued in 1950, 1958 and 2009, but the 1979 anniversary date has since been used by senior Chinese leaders to make major policy announcements on Taiwan.

For instance, only a decade earlier on the eve of 2009, Xi's predecessor and then CCP chairman and PRC president, Hu Jintao, delivered the speech commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan." In a widely covered remark, Hu issued a six-point proposal, which included: first, firm adherence to the "One-China" principle; second, strengthening commercial ties, including negotiating an economic cooperation agreement; third, promoting personnel exchanges; fourth, stressing common cultural links between the two sides; fifth, allowing Taiwan's "reasonable" participation in global organizations; and six, negotiating a peace agreement.

It's worth noting that Hu's speech was the first public attempt by the Chinese leadership to directly appeal to the Democratic Progressive Party—which was then in opposition after being in power from 2000 to 2008. Hu called on the DPP to accept the "One-China" principle and "change" its pro-independence stance. Interestingly, even in Hu's speech there was no mention of the KMT's oft-stated position that the resumption of cross-Strait negotiations should be based on the so-called "1992 Consensus," a tacit agreement where the two sides agreed that there is "One China" with each side having different interpretation of what "One China" means. In Hu's speech, there was only reference to "One China" and no "different interpretation." Moreover, Hu's speech resuscitated an old slogan: "The Taiwan issue is purely China's internal affairs. No foreign country is allowed to interfere."

For the most part, Xi's speech hewed closely to Hu's line. He reaffirmed many of the Chinese leadership's long-standing positions on Taiwan, but the speech reflected an approach that was clearly narrowing after Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen's election. While acknowledging the "1992 consensus," Xi did not concede the position that the two sides may differ in their interpretations of "One-China," much less that it could mean the Republic of China.

Moreover, Xi once again associated the unification of Taiwan to the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," and Beijing's formula for unification, as clearly spelled out in his speech for the fortieth anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan," is the "one country, two systems" formula. Xi's linking of the "one country, two systems" formula to the so-called "1992 consensus" is a political misstep by Beijing. On the one hand, it appears to be an attempt to get supporters of the Nationalist Party, which endorses the "1992 consensus," to support the "one country, two systems" formula by associating the two. On the other hand, it also seems to be a warning to the leaders of the Nationalist Party to not stray far from Beijing's line as Taiwan gears up for the 2020 general elections.

While never renouncing the use of force, in a commemorative event usually used to highlight the "peaceful" aspects of PRC's approach towards Taiwan, Xi instead struck an uncompromising stance. In an audience full of military officers, Xi declared, "We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures targeting external interference and a very small number of 'Taiwan independence' separatists and their separatist activities, not against Taiwan compatriots."

If there were any conciliatory signals found in Hu's speech, they appear to be gone in Xi's. What is left is the visible escalation in CCP political warfare and United Front tactics. Also, it's perhaps worth noting that all the speakers in the lead up to Xi's keynote speech were key personnel in the CCP's propaganda/United Front system. The speakers included: Wang Chen, the former director of State Council Information Office (read Foreign Propaganda office) and currently the Secretary-General of the Twelfth National People's Congress Standing Committee; Su Hui, the vice chairperson of the thirteenth National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and chairperson of the central committee of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League; Huang Xiaowei, secretary of the Leading Party Group, vice president and first member of the Secretariat of the All-China Women's Federation; and Liu Jieyi, the director the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office.

This is consistent with China's intensifying political warfare campaign that is aimed at isolating Taiwan by suppressing the island's international space so that all roads in and out must go through Beijing, while directly interfering with the island's political process by manipulating social and political tensions to subvert its democratic system. In 2017, the CCP's United Front strategy was expanded to include 10 constituencies: grassroots villages, youth, students, Chinese spouses, aboriginals, pro-China political parties and groups, religious organizations, distant relatives, fishermen associations and retired generals.

The implications of Xi's recent speech are made more pronounced by another important anniversary: the fortieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). This year marks the fortieth anniversary of this remarkable domestic law, which was enacted to legally govern the informal relationship between the United States and Taiwan, following the normalization of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC). After forty years, the TRA continues to play a critical role as the cornerstone of managing relations between the United States and Taiwan, and shapes Washington's relations with China.

As former Congressman Lester Wolff, who served as a principal author of the TRA, wrote: the "[TRA] states that the status of Taiwan should be determined by peaceful means, and that nonpeaceful means to do so are a threat to the region and of grave concern to the United States." Beijing's continued refusal to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan is jeopardizing peace and stability in the Western Pacific. A core connotation in the legislative mandate of the TRA is that the Taiwan question must be resolved by peaceful means and U.S. normalization of relations with the PRC established a bilateral relationship with obligations on both sides. Beijing's saber-rattling raises the question of whether it has held up its end of the deal.

Equally important, Taiwan and the global geopolitical environment have changed substantially since 1979. As Congressman Ted Yoho unequivocally stated in a recent op-ed:

"Taiwan exists today as a sovereign state, a status it has earned through the mandate of its people, its democratic institutions and its stewardship of personal freedoms and human rights… Taiwan has risen from a backwater controlled by an authoritarian, exiled military regime to become a model democracy. After 40 years, it is time we updated our policy—making it consistent with present-day reality would be a good place to start."