Looking back on 2022, the situation in the Taiwan Strait is probably second only to the Russia-Ukraine war in terms of the amount of attention it received from the world.
In particular, following then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August last year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted intensive military exercises in the waters off the northern, southwestern and eastern coasts of the island, with missiles flying over Taiwan and landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, initiating what some considered the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Mainland’s response to closer US-Taiwan cooperation
Notwithstanding Beijing’s strong deterrence, the US House of Representatives and Senate each issued their Taiwan Policy Act in September 2022. The House version retains some sensitive provisions, including requiring Senate confirmation for the appointment of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director, which indirectly implies Taiwan’s statehood.
While the bill has yet to be passed by Congress, on 23 December 2022, US President Joe Biden signed into law the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023” provisions that authorise military assistance to Taiwan, providing up to US$10 billion in security assistance and fast-tracked weapons procurement over the next five years.
... the mainland will focus on achieving reunification in the next five years, and place more emphasis on opposing external interference than opposing “Taiwan independence”.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen also announced on 27 December 2022 that the island’s compulsory military service will be extended from four months to a year by 2024. She cited the mainland’s glaring attempts to coerce Taiwan and said that to avoid and stop war, one has to prepare and build capabilities for fighting it — the more prepared Taiwan is, the less likely for mainland China to launch an attack.
Amid closer US-Taiwan cooperation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th Party Congress report reiterated the resolve for peaceful reunification, but it also stressed that the mainland will “never promise to renounce the use of force”, and reserves the option of “taking all measures necessary” to deal with external interference and separatist actions seeking Taiwan independence.
Analysts believe that the mainland will focus on achieving reunification in the next five years, and place more emphasis on opposing external interference than opposing “Taiwan independence”.
The decision makers
The CCP convenes its “Taiwan work conference” between late January and early February annually. The new senior officials responsible for Taiwan affairs will also be announced in March after the Two Sessions (两会, Lianghui). Thereafter, the mainland’s Taiwan policy will become clearer.
Song Tao, former head of the CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD), was named as the new head of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) in December last year. He had worked in Fujian from 1978 to 2001, overlapping with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s stint in Fujian between 1985 and 2002. Song also served as Xi’s special envoy on several occasions, including during visits to Russia and North Korea.
Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning was reappointed to the committee following the 20th Party Congress, and rose to become the fourth-ranked member. It is believed that he would replace Wang Yang as chair of the CPPCC National Committee, and concurrently serve as the vice-chair of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs. His attendance at the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League and the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots meetings in December last year was also seen as paving the way for his new position.
Wang Huning will be the main architect and implementer of the mainland’s Taiwan strategy.
Distinguished Professor Wang Hsin-hsien of National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies told Zaobao that Song’s work experience has gained him the trust of the higher-ups and is thus able to more effectively implement the central government’s will after taking the helm of the TAO, which may also shift its focus towards strengthening the CCP’s united front work.
Professor Wang had also previously pointed out Xi Jinping’s high trust in Wang Huning, which could mean Wang becoming the most powerful “second-in-command” in charge of Taiwan affairs in CCP history. Wang Huning may also drive a new narrative about Taiwan and strengthen deliberative democracy.
Professor Wang believes that the mainland’s future Taiwan policy will be directed against Taiwan independence separatist forces, with the possibility of a third blacklist of “diehard Taiwan separatists”. The mainland could place an emphasis on economic and social integration, rolling out incentives and sanctions in parallel; continue military and diplomatic actions to solicit peace and Taiwan’s surrender through forceful means; and even enter a jurisprudence battle with the US over Taiwan.
Associate Professor Chang Wu-ueh of Tamkang University’s Centre for Cross-Strait Relations said at a symposium that, aside from Xi himself, Wang Huning will be the main architect and implementer of the mainland’s Taiwan strategy. Meanwhile, former Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who replaced Yang Jiechi as director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, is expected to concurrently serve as secretary-general of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs.
Professor Chang believes that these three people would become the mainland’s new “iron triangle” for managing Taiwan affairs.
However, he does not believe that Beijing has the urgency to carry out reunification by force by 2027, unless Taiwan crosses Beijing’s red lines by pursuing de jure independence or by establishing official relations and forming a military alliance with the US. Although the mainland is unlikely to take Taiwan by force for now, it would seek to make landmark progress and advancements towards reunification.
Seeking peaceful reunification
Bao Chengke, assistant director of the Institute for East Asian Studies in Shanghai, told Zaobao that while the 20th Party Congress mentioned that reunification is a precondition for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, this is a long-term historical mission that cannot be achieved overnight.
Bao also believes that for the next five years, the mainland’s basic policy towards Taiwan will still be for peaceful reunification instead of reunification by force. However, a cross-strait conflict may be triggered by external interference or separatist actions seeking Taiwan independence. As there is now a lack of mutual trust and exchanges between officials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the mainland could push for more people-to-people exchanges between Beijing and Taiwan in the coming year.
Beijing will do its utmost for peace in the next five years whether in terms of its foreign relations or its relations with Taiwan. — Emeritus Professor Chiu Kun-Shuan, Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University
Emeritus Professor Chiu Kun-Shuan of National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies once served as an advisory committee member of the National Security Council during the Ma Ying-jeou administration and participated in the historic Xi-Ma meeting in 2015. He recently said at a conference that the central task proposed during the 20th Party Congress was to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through a Chinese path to modernisation that entails common prosperity and peaceful development.
Thus, he believes that Beijing will do its utmost for peace in the next five years whether in terms of its foreign relations or its relations with Taiwan.
Chiu also believes that the US will not change its confrontational strategy towards China, and will do all it can to stop mainland China from dominating the world. However, it could adjust its tactics, as seen from Biden’s recent comments that mainland China will not take military action against Taiwan in the short term. Overall, Washington’s tactics in relations with China are indeed softening.
US plays a role
Chiu assessed that China and the US are both working hard to find avenues to ease tensions and manage differences. However, in the coming year, there are two possible triggers in the Taiwan Strait. First, a potential visit to Taiwan by Republican House Minority leader and newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Prior to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, McCarthy said that if the Republicans win the mid-term elections, he would visit Taiwan as US house speaker. Second, a potential invite by the US Congress for Tsai Ing-wen to speak in the US. “These might cause some disturbance in the Taiwan Strait and are worth watching out for,” Chiu said.
As for the possibility of Tsai visiting the US, Bao assessed that the US is unlikely to give her the same treatment as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and allow her to speak in Congress.
Similarly, Institute for East Asian Studies’s Bao told Zaobao that a visit by McCarthy would spark an intense conflict. “Mainland China would not stand by and watch in silence as he goes to Taiwan; that would not happen,” he stated.
But Bao believes that the Biden administration now intends to stabilise China-US relations. Hence it would not be appropriate for McCarthy to upset this climate of stability, especially with the upcoming visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken; the US administration would thus intervene.
As for the possibility of Tsai visiting the US, Bao assessed that the US is unlikely to give her the same treatment as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and allow her to speak in Congress. However, “transiting” the US as part of a trip that includes Central and South America is possible.
Bao said that as long as the Biden administration is willing to maintain the consensus reached during the Xi-Biden meeting, as well as the guardrails and stabilising factors in China-US relations, there would be no real impact even if Tsai crosses into the US. However, if the US government shows Tsai major courtesy or government officials receive her, China-US relations would be impacted.
While China-US relations eased following the meeting between the two leaders in November last year, the US State Department established the Office of China Coordination in mid-December 2022 to handle geopolitical challenges from China. Prior to that, the US Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency each also established departments focused on China.
After Biden signed in late December the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2023, which includes a call for US-Taiwan joint military exercises and inviting Taiwan to the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command announced maritime and air exercises around Taiwan.
According to Taiwan’s defence ministry, the Chinese military sent 71 aircraft and seven ships toward Taiwan between 6am on 25 December and 6am on 26 December. Forty-seven of the planes crossed the median line, a record number of flights in 2022.
Bao believes that it is worth observing whether the NDAA will be implemented after it is enacted. If the US passes other laws such as the Taiwan Policy Act in the coming year, that would be another trigger for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan’s presidential election campaign
With Taiwan’s presidential election slated for January 2024, the campaign over the coming year will be an additional variable in cross-strait relations, aside from mainland China’s policies towards Taiwan and the US factor.
From the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) front, current Vice-President William Lai Ching-te is a hot favourite to be the next president. Replying to media queries in late December, Tsai also said that Lai is a suitable presidential candidate.
During his visit to Palau in November last year, Lai said that cross-strait relations will continue in the direction that Tsai has set. But as to whether he will change his stance as a “pragmatic political worker for Taiwanese independence”, he assessed that Taiwan independence — that it does not belong to China — is already a consensus in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has not put forward their candidate to run for the 2024 presidency, but current party chair Eric Chu and New Taipei City mayor Hou You-yi are seen as potential candidates.
Cross-strait relations might ease if KMT wins
The Liberty Times recently quoted a KMT member saying that the KMT central leadership is preparing for its resumption as the ruling party in 2024, and is expected to be ready with its position on cross-strait and international relations, as well as security issues, by the spring of 2023.
This member also revealed that apart from visits to the US, Japan, Europe and Southeast Asia, KMT is also likely to plan a visit to mainland China, with the delegation led by its vice-chair or someone higher.
Institute for East Asian Studies’s Bao assessed that William Lai’s rhetoric during the 2023 campaign could highlight the confrontational nature of cross-strait relations, and mainland China will definitely give a warning. But he feels that cross-strait relations are more likely to ease based on the 1992 Consensus if the KMT wins office in 2024.
... the “resist China and protect Taiwan” card was effective in the 2020 elections, but the results of the nine-in-one local elections in 2022 show this narrative has been marginalised and weakened. — Distinguished Professor Wang Hsin-hsien, Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University
As for how mainland China sees Taiwan People’s Party chair Ko Wen-je — who has repeatedly said that he will run for the 2024 presidential election — Bao believes that Taiwan’s election structure does not favour a third force. So far, Ko has not put forward a concrete narrative on cross-strait relations, nor is he working with any major party. His chances of winning in a solo bid are slim, but he might split some votes, which in turn would be critical to the vote results.
As for the main thrust of the 2024 general elections in Taiwan, Professor Wang of National Cheng-Chi University assessed that the “resist China and protect Taiwan” card was effective in the 2020 elections, but the results of the nine-in-one local elections in 2022 show this narrative has been marginalised and weakened.
Professor Wang believes that while security and independence will still be major issues in the 2024 general elections, the military and economic pressure from mainland China will ensure that for the 2023 campaign, “aside from comparing who is better able to protect Taiwan, the people will also ask: if mainland China were to attack Taiwan now, are you ready?”
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “地缘政治及台湾总统选举等暗流汹涌 台海余波未平恐再掀狂澜”.
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