Dr. Willy Lam is a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Experts on Chinese foreign policy over the past few months have been focused on events in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, yet relations across the Taiwan Strait have expectedly undergone a relative deterioration since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) became Taiwan’s president in May.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held war games in the summer geared toward taking over islands held by hostile forces. Elements of the 31st Group Army based near Xiamen, where President Xi Jinping served in the 1980s, were heavily involved. Beijing has made plans to squeeze Taiwan’s international space by buttressing ties with the 22 countries that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Chinese authorities have even prevented scholars deemed close to the DPP from taking part in forums in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Beijing has also laid roadblocks to Taiwan’s participation in APEC meetings to be held in Peru later this year.
In the realm of cross-Strait psychological warfare, some have speculated that ultra-nationalist President Xi, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and commander-in-chief, has set 2049 as the “deadline for Taiwan’s liberation.” While the word “deadline” has never appeared in top CCP leaders’ speeches on Taiwan, Xi has cited national unification as a key objective for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which the supreme leader hopes to accomplish by 2049.
This overarching ambition was first raised by Xi one month after he came to power in November 2012, when he uttered perhaps the most important slogan of his tenure: the “Chinese Dream” (中國夢). The Chinese Dream follows the timeline of the so-called “two one hundreds.” By 2021, the centenary of the establishment of the CCP, Chinese society will have achieved a “moderate level of prosperity” (小康水平). More significantly, what Xi and his Politburo colleagues call the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中華民族偉大復興) will be accomplished by 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In his speech on July 1 this year, which marks the 95th birthday of the CCP, Xi noted that “it is the historic mission of the CCP to resolve the Taiwan issue and to realize reunification of the motherland.” The promotion of unification was clearly identified as an integral component of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” As Yang Yizhou, Vice-President of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots noted, “under the leadership of the CCP, we are compared to any eras in history, closest to the objective of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He added that “national unification is the necessary pointer to the rejuvenation of the [Chinese] people.”
Notably, on different occasions when he met with visitors or delegations from Taiwan, Xi has linked the reabsorption of Taiwan to the 2049 goal of “national rejuvenation.” He said for example in 2014 that “national reunification is a historical necessity [in the course of] the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” During a meeting with former Taiwan vice-president Vincent Siew Wan-chang in 2013, Xi noted that “taking the long view, the long-standing political differences across the Taiwan Strait must eventually be gradually settled.” The supreme leader added that, “it won’t do for [the differences] to be passed along from one generation to the next.”
While 2049 seems a long way away, the pressure exerted by the Xi administration on Taiwan has created a high sense of immediacy. Paradoxically, military intimidation in the short term may not turn out to be the most devastating. Analysts estimate that the Chinese naval threat to Taiwan will become significantly more severe only after the two new aircraft carriers now being manufactured in China go on-stream around the end of the decade. Different reports say that the country’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier should be completed by year’s end.
Economic coercion may prove to be as effective in the CCP’s effort to win hearts and minds in the so-called “breakaway province.” On September 12, some 10,000 Taiwanese hit the streets to voice their discontent over the declining number of mainland tourists. Demonstrators waved banners that read “The two sides (across the Taiwan Strait) belong to the same family” and “No job, no life.”
Yet the biggest threat to Taiwan’s national security could come from the need of the CCP—and President Xi, who, many believe, wants to stay in power until 2027—to justify the party’s legitimacy. It is common knowledge that, after the ostensible death of ideological socialism, with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, there are only two viable pillars of legitimacy for the “perennial ruling party.” One is high economic growth; the other is nationalism. At a time when even Chinese economists think that GDP expansion will follow an “L-shaped trajectory,” the importance of nationalism as a legitimizing agent for the regime has increased substantially. If the CCP’s authority is challenged by social-political stability—for example, a large scale labor unrest event involving more than 100,000 laid off workers—it is possible that the leadership, under Xi, may want to divert attention from domestic woes by engineering a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Much, of course, also depends on the extent to which the United States. is prepared to stand by the Taiwan Relations Act. As part of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, plans are afoot to shift about 60 percent of American naval capacity to the Asia-Pacific area. The perception among some American politicians is that Taiwan forms an integral part of an emerging architecture aimed at thwarting Beijing’s overweening ambitions. This could promote confidence in the Tsai administration that the United States will not stand idly by in the event of PLA aggression against the island. However, at a time when the international media is focused on Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, Taipei needs to be more proactive in explaining to the international community the real and present danger that the vulnerable, self-ruled political entity faces from a CCP regime that has a poor record in observing international laws.
The main point: While the word “deadline” has never appeared in top CCP leaders’ speeches on Taiwan, Xi has cited national unification as a key objective for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which the supreme leader hopes to accomplish by 2049.