Amongst China-watchers in the United States, there is a consensus that China’s most important policy objective is to bring Taiwan back into its fold. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership considers the continued separation of Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) an extension of China’s “century of humiliation.” Thus, no General Secretary of the CCP could survive politically if Taiwan were to be allowed to declare independence or establish a de jure autonomous political state. At the same time, a violent resolution of the Taiwan problem creates complications for Beijing and runs counter to its long-term strategic objectives of attaining modernity, returning to political dominance in the region, and easing the United States away from the region, all with minimal collateral damage to China’s and the world economy. As a result, these two competing objectives have necessitated a sophisticated political strategy on Beijing’s part. The CCP has assigned management of this strategy to the United Front Department (UFD) of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In observing China’s United Front tactics this brief identifies five categories of political strategies that the CCP is undertaking against Taiwan. These are:
A United Front: At its most basic level, this political strategy, which originated in the 1920s, is now to remind Taiwan’s population that indeed there is a common bond between China and Taiwan. In particular, that the CCP and the Nationalist party (KMT) have a common history, ancestry, cultural bond, and definitions of territoriality. In the context of the current political environment, this strategy is meant to diminish the emerging trend of Taiwan’s population increasingly seeing itself as “Taiwanese” instead of “Chinese.” This political strategy plays itself out when the PRC calls for joint naval patrols of the South China Sea, and when Beijing sides with Taiwan over a maritime territorial dispute with a third party rival (e.g., the Philippines). But it also manifests itself much more subtly when municipal and provincial governments sponsor “know your roots” tourist travel for Taiwan youth, and invite former Taiwan government officials and veterans to the mainland to participate in reunions and golf tournaments.
Carrots and Sticks: China utilizes a range of economic and financial instruments to incentivize cooperation between the PRC and Taiwan. This has manifested itself in trade agreements (over 20 signed since 2008), incentives for Taiwan to invest in China, commercial air agreements allowing direct flights, mail, and shipping agreements between the two sides, opportunities for Taiwan’s actors and musicians to tap into China’s market, tourism, student exchanges, direct investment of PRC funds into Taiwan’s businesses, and assistance to Taiwan’s entrepreneurs and businessmen. The flip side of a “carrot” political strategy is a “stick” approach. Anger the policymakers in Beijing and incentives rapidly become channels for punishment. During public appearances Taiwan actors who refuse to follow Beijing’s strict guidance on the use of certain pro-Beijing terminology find themselves “blacklisted.” And then there is the infamous example of Hsu Wen-long (許文龍), a pro-independence businessman who founded a multibillion dollar company with factories in China who was, nevertheless coerced into issuing an open letter in Taiwan newspapers supporting China’s Anti-Secession law, and rejecting his secessionist declarations of the past.
Interference in Taiwan politics: There is no question that of the two major political parties on Taiwan, the PRC prefers the Nationalist party (KMT) over the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This is due mostly to the fact that the KMT’s traditional party platform is to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China while at the same time disputing which government—Beijing or Taipei—should be considered the sole, legitimate government of the Chinese people, while the DPP’s party platform calls for greater autonomy for Taiwan (if not overt independence) and does not explicitly accept the so-called “1992 Consensus.”
The PRC’s preference for the KMT plays itself out in its political warfare strategy against Taiwan. One such strategy includes direct interference in Taiwan’s internal political affairs including providing reduced airfare for Taiwan’s businessmen and other citizens working in China to be able to return to Taiwan to cast their votes in major elections. This strategy was also ostensibly a factor in the PRC’s decision in 2015 during the run-up to the 2016 Taiwan presidential election to convene a summit between the heads of the CCP and KMT, Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-Jeou—who were both presidents of the PRC and Taiwan—for the first time since the end of the Chinese civil war. This strategy also includes calling into question the DPP’s ability to effectively govern Taiwan. Consequently, the Taiwan population is relentlessly bombarded with propaganda through social media, which points out that under the DPP Taiwan’s economy is likely to suffer greatly.
You are isolated and alone: An important component of China’s political warfare strategy is to convince the Taiwan population, its officials and anyone with authority on the island, that it stands alone against the PRC. China’s strategy in this regard is multifaceted. First, it endeavors to pick off, through generous economic aid packages, those remaining countries who still formally recognize the Republic of China (ROC) as the legitimate government of China. Second, it attempts to cut Taiwan off from any official recognition or acknowledgement in international forums. The recent removal of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA) following complaints from the WHA’s China representatives is one such example. Third, Beijing puts on a “full court press” to head off or reduce the effectiveness of any type of arms sale which bolsters Taipei’s ability to defend itself. Finally, Beijing takes actions internationally that it knows Taipei cannot effectively respond to since Taiwan is not internationally recognized, and lacks the resources to match China, such as offering the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) against piracy as escort protection for Taiwan fishermen and shipping.
Resistance is futile: Beijing reserves for its last political strategy against Taiwan the potential to militarily attack and invade Taiwan and to openly advertise and communicate this fact to Taiwan’s population. China’s continued modernization and the build-up of its military forces is a reminder that China could settle the matter violently but has thus far chosen not to. Some key examples: China’s periodic amphibious and airborne military exercise, the Dongshan (東山) exercise is designed to be a reminder to Taiwan that China is developing the capability to conduct a full-scale assault on the island. In 2015, PLA Special Forces troops were observed attacking an exact replica of the Taiwan Presidential palace. Trans-Regional mobility exercises conducted since 2010 serve as reminders that the PLA may be preparing for long-range transportation for major combat operations. PLA Navy exercises in the Western Pacific look suspiciously like rehearsals in areas of operations the PLAN would have to utilize in order to respond to an American and allied response to a PLA attack on Taiwan. At present the PLA does not possess the military capability to successfully execute a full assault against Taiwan militarily, as the United States could interfere in the operation and the Taiwan military still has the capability to extract huge costs from the PLA in terms of lives, equipment and reputation; nonetheless, the increasing capability of the PLA to inflict lethal damage on Taiwan, and the PRC’s ability to repeatedly demonstrate this fact, remains one of Beijing’s political warfare tools in its toolkit.
The Chinese government has developed a very sophisticated political strategy to gradually fold Taiwan back into its political sphere. A first step for Taiwan in countering this strategy is fully recognizing the elements of Beijing’s efforts. Taiwan has shown that it does recognize the elements of this strategy since it has taken vigorous actions to head off Chinese diplomatic efforts to isolate the island. A second step is to make this fact part of a public discourse on how Taiwan’s government, present and future, should respond to this strategy. A third and obvious recommendation is to coordinate efforts with Taiwan’s friends and partners in the region—most notably the United States—to help mitigate or offset these sophisticated political strategies against Taiwan. A final step is for the Taiwan government, whether blue or green, to determine that bolstering the Taiwan population’s resiliency is the government’s responsibility, and to lay out a plan to do so.
The main point: Most assessments of Chinese strategy towards Taiwan focus on China’s possible military actions. Counter-strategies naturally tend to heavily involve military courses of action. However, the essential components of the PRC’s strategy are the psychological and the political. Counter-strategies both within Taiwan and outside must, therefore, center on the psychological and political as well.
 John Q. Tian, Government, Business, and the Politics of Interdependence and Conflict Across the Taiwan Strait (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 115.