Cold hostility across the Taiwan Strait in 2020

The New Year speeches given by Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and Chinese president Xi Jinping betrayed an atmosphere of cold hostility. Taiwan has made certain moves that have not gone down well with mainland China, seemingly with the support of the US, while the image of the CCP in Taiwan is not at its best. Han Yong Hong asks: “How will China respond?”
Taiwan and mainland China will have to navigate cross-strait relations in 2020. (iStock)
Taiwan and mainland China will have to navigate cross-strait relations in 2020. (iStock)

As 2020 dawned, the leaders on either side of the Taiwan Strait each gave their New Year speeches. As expected, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen — going all out in her re-election effort — hit out at Beijing and “one country, two systems”. She drew a figurative line in the sand between Taiwan and mainland China, speaking in defence of the recent anti-infiltration law passed in Taiwan aimed at minimising China’s influence in its affairs. In contrast, in the New Year address given by Chinese president Xi Jinping on 31 December 2019, there was no mention of Taiwan at all.

Taiwan media was quick to feel the draught across the strait. The pro-Green Liberty Times reported that the only mention of the word “tai” (台, the first word of Taiwan’s name in Chinese) was in the term 台阶 (tai jie, level), in reference to mainland China’s per capita GDP hitting US$10,000.

This is probably the first time a mainland China leader has given Taiwan the cold shoulder. Before 2019, from the time of Hu Jintao until Xi Jinping took office, the opening lines would convey greetings to the entire country, including those in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as well as overseas Chinese. This  was not the case in the 2019 speech, though it did still mention that many people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan had received residence permits. And in 2016, Xi went to the extent of saying that he and former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou had a meeting in Singapore, marking the peak of cross-strait relations.

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Passengers are seen next to a screen broadcasting news of Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing a New Year's Eve speech, on a subway train in Beijing, 31 December 2019. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)

However, if we think that Xi’s New Year speech this year didn’t reference Taiwan, we are missing an important message. The reference to Taiwan is hidden between the lines; specifically, when Xi mentioned: “A few countries joined hands with us. The number of countries that have diplomatic ties with China now stands at 180. We have friends in every corner of the world.”

Since its reform and opening up, mainland China has established diplomatic relations with many countries. Why is this growing number worth a special mention? Probably because Solomon Islands and Kiribati, mainland China’s latest two diplomatic partners, cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 at the height of the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, before establishing relations with mainland China. As a result, Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are down to 15, with seven lost over Tsai’s three years in office.

And the line about mainland China having friends is directed towards another important target: the US.

With just about 10 days left to Taiwan’s general election, Beijing might also have realised that whatever it says will probably not have the intended effect and may even help Tsai’s cause. So, it is not saying anything to or about Taiwan, while its stance has shifted from its usual friendly overtures to the people of Taiwan, to veiled intimidation and warnings.

And the line about mainland China having friends is directed towards another important target: the US. Since World War II, the US and its allies have played a leading role in the Pacific region. In February 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even publicly called on Kiribati and other Pacific Islands to continue supporting Taiwan. But this did not stop Kiribati from being “poached” and turning to mainland China, highlighting the trend of the competition between China and the US in their influence over the Pacific region. This competition will only get more intense in 2020.

mike pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

On the same afternoon that Xi gave his 2020 New Year speech, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed the controversial anti-infiltration law, which prohibits instruction or funding from any source of infiltration, political funding for election activities, illicit political activities or lobbying. The “external hostile forces” written in the law obviously refers to mainland China.

Objectively speaking, the Taiwanese are already quite sensitive and conscious of mainland China’s financial and political influence. Last year, tens of thousands of people in Taipei joined a rally against pro-Beijing media. However, there have been sharp questions asked about the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s rush to push through the anti-infiltration law and its fuzzy definition of instruction and funding. People First Party (PFP) presidential candidate James Soong did not hold back in his criticism that Taiwan’s free democracy was under threat from a resurgence of the new authoritarianism and martial law, while Tsai promised that the law is against infiltration, not against exchange.

Some comments hold that the anti-infiltration law is a tool for votes by the DPP.

In fact, in Taiwan today, it would probably not be easy for the ruling party to simply get ordinary people into trouble under the anti-infiltration law. However, its existence amounts to psychological pressure. Taiwanese who are doing business in mainland China or those who have contact with mainland China would become more circumspect. These businessmen and pro-Blue academics would avoid political topics so as not to make themselves vulnerable to accusations that they are influenced or swayed by funding. Mainland China has its eyes open as the Taiwan government enacts laws to sever business, academic, and political links across the Taiwan Strait, and takes one more step towards legal independence. Cross-strait relations can only worsen in 2020.

Some comments hold that the anti-infiltration law is a tool for votes by the DPP. But with Tsai already holding a clear advantage in the presidential election, why take the risk of rushing through that law? Academics on both sides of the Taiwan Strait feel that the DPP is doing this on request of the US, to help the US contain mainland China. Thinking back on 2019, issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, “sharp power”, and the anti-infiltration law quickly became global hot topics, while Hong Kong and Taiwan became key arenas for Washington to contain Beijing. In the background is the power competition between the US and China. Going by past experience, whether it is the hawks in the US, the pro-Green camp in Taiwan, or the general population of Hong Kong, the most effective and low-cost way of taking on Beijing is to manipulate and magnify anti-CCP sentiments. How will Beijing face and change this difficult situation?