Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to seek reunification with Taiwan in an attempt to “rejuvenate” China, and is willing to use military force to do so. President Xi said in a speech on January 2 that Taiwan is and will continue to be a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite Taiwanese insistence that it will not unite under the communist PRC government. The speech comes after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen asked the PRC to respect Taiwan’s sovereignty. President Xi seeks a “one country, two systems” framework, but Taiwan insists it prefers to stay separate because its values of freedom and democracy don’t align with the communist PRC government. Beijing announced it will use any means necessary against separatists in Taiwan who inhibit peaceful reunification, including military force.
Beijing has increased its military presence around Taiwan since President Tsai was elected in 2016, in fear that she is seeking formal independence despite her claims that she is comfortable sticking to the status quo. President Xi threatened to use military force if Taiwanese leaders seek independence, and has already sent military aircraft to encircle the island and “flex its military muscle.” Samantha Vadas for TRT World explains that Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province rather than a country, and has been using dollar diplomacy to enforce this notion within the international community through attractive aid packages and insistence that airlines change the way they present Taiwan on their websites. Professor Jonathan Sullivan of the University of Nottingham says Taiwan has nothing to gain and everything to lose from reunification, having seen what happened under the “one country, two systems” approach in Hong Kong, where publishing, news media, and pro-democratic activism began to decline. While President Xi implies that the Taiwanese are in favor of unification, only 3 percent of Taiwanese respondents favored unification in a survey by the National Chengchi University. Taiwanese politics have also shown a rejection of Chinese identity since the 1990s, reflecting their disinterest in reunification with the mainland.
Despite China’s military flexing and President Xi’s willingness to use military force, Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for International Studies, does not think the situation will turn into a crisis. Glaser explains that both sides are likely to stick to their position, and while there is little expectation of improvements in relations between the PRC and Taiwan, they are not likely to escalate. While China’s display of military prowess and threats of using military force are not likely to escalate into crisis, they do not serve to better relations between the two governments or encourage peace. President Tsai has called on the PRC to respect Taiwan’s governance and position in the international community, and has insisted that Taiwan is not willing to consider the “one country, two systems” framework that the PRC so adamantly pushes as the only plausible option for unification. Though the Chinese government is open to discussion with representatives from Taiwan, it requires that the representatives oppose Taiwanese independence and accept the formula for unification. Both the PRC and Taiwan need to show willingness to engage in discourse to allow clarification on Taiwan’s intentions and avoid the misguided notion that Taiwan is seeking formal independence, which was the driving notion behind the PRC’s military presence in Taiwan.
Taiwan originally split from mainland China in 1949 as the Republic of China (ROC). The split came during the Chinese Civil War, when the ROC rejected the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover. Though the ROC never declared formal independence from mainland China, it has been functioning under its own governance since 1949. While the PRC is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan is a democratic government with many of its freedoms not reflected in the PRC. Despite separation in governance, Taiwan is dependent on the PRC for 30 percent of its trade, meaning there exist possible benefits for some Taiwanese cities and businesses if unification does occur. The history between the two governments connects them regardless of whether Taiwan agrees to unify and create “one China” or remain separate.
Without a formal agreement for independence or unification since 1949, it could prove useful for Taiwan and the PRC to engage in more dialogue and attempt to reach a resolution. Regardless, the use of military force is likely to reinforce Taiwan’s opposition to the “one China” unification idea, and adds a component of potential violence to an otherwise calm disagreement. International mediators could be useful in initiating talks between the governments to diffuse tensions. Unification could mean a greater role for Taiwan in the international community, as it would be backed by the powerful mainland and increased economic growth, but, as was the case with Hong Kong, could lead to a loss of democratic freedoms. Taiwan doesn’t seem willing to take the risk.