Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) used her National Day address on October 10 this year to strike a note of defiance after comments by People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping (習近平) the previous day. These two speeches were made against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait, following a major increase in Chinese military activity near Taiwan.
For the first time since 2007, the celebrations in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei included a military parade, in which a variety of weapons systems were on display, including cruise missile launchers and air defense systems. The decision to put greater emphasis on the military was no doubt intended as a show of support for the armed forces—as well as a signal, to both China and to the international community, that in the face of a growing threat from China and recent acts of intimidation, Taiwan is determined to defend itself.
In her address, President Tsai emphasized national unity and resilience, and sent a clear signal to Beijing that pressure and intimidation will not succeed in cowing the Taiwanese.
I want to remind all my fellow citizens that we do not have the privilege of letting down our guard. […] Free and democratic countries around the world have been alerted to the expansion of authoritarianism, with Taiwan standing on democracy’s first line of defense.
[T]he Republic of China today finds itself in a situation that is more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years. […] The routinization of Chinese military activity in Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ) has seriously affected both our national security and aviation safety.
We call for maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered. I also want to emphasize that resolving cross-Strait differences requires the two sides of the strait to engage in dialogue on the basis of parity.
We hope for an easing of cross-Strait relations and will not act rashly, but there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure. We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us. This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.
On the sovereignty issue, President Tsai’s speech showed continuity with previous public addresses by using the terms Republic of China (seven times) and Republic of China (Taiwan) (three times) interchangeably. As in previous years, Tsai also made it clear, with words to the effect that they are “not subordinate to one another,” that the Republic of China (Taiwan) recognizes the legitimacy and sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China while reaffirming that the latter does not have sovereignty over the former. Tsai also made clear references to the intertwined—and symbiotic—nature of the ROC and Taiwan when she stated that “the Republic of China came to Taiwan in 1949, 72 years ago. Over these past 72 years, we have gone from poverty to prosperity, from authoritarianism to democracy, and from uniformity to diversity. Slowly but surely, we remade the Republic of China (Taiwan) into what it is today.” The formulation and choice of the word in this passage was not accidental: it shows, instead, the transitory nature of the relationship between the ROC and Taiwan, starting with a reference to the ROC arriving in Taiwan in 1949 and, through the passage of time, becoming today the ROC (Taiwan). It is a message of inclusiveness, a non-denial of the legitimacy of the ROC as a component of Taiwan’s history and was therefore altogether in line with her appeals to unity—and this even if the opposition KMT, in hearing the same words, again accused the Tsai administration of “erasing” the ROC.
Within hours, Beijing had responded to Tsai’s address, saying that her rhetoric only contributed to further tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to questions later that day, Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光), a spokesman for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (國務院臺灣事務辦公室), said that Tsai’s speech “advocated for Taiwan independence, incited confrontation, split history, distorted the facts using the so-called consensus and unity as a pretense to try to kidnap Taiwanese public opinion, link up with external forces, and provoke independence.”
Xi’s Xinhai Address
The day before Tsai’s speech, in an address commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命)—and demonstrating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempt to hijack Sun Yat-sen’s (孫中山) legacy—Xi issued a series of remarks concerning Taiwan.
To achieve the reunification [sic] of the motherland [sic] by peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of the Chinese nation, including the Taiwan compatriots. We adhere to the basic policy of “peaceful reunification” and “one country, two systems” [一國兩制], adhere to the “One-China Principle” [一中原則] and the “1992 Consensus” [九二共識], and promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations. Compatriots on both sides of the strait must stand on the right side of history and jointly create the glorious cause of the complete reunification of the motherland and the great national rejuvenation.
The Chinese nation has a glorious tradition of opposing division and maintaining unity. The “Taiwan independence” split is the biggest obstacle to the reunification of the motherland and a serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation. Those who forget their ancestors, betray the motherland, or split the country have never ended well. They will definitely be spurned by the people and judged by history! The Taiwan issue is purely China’s internal affair, and no external interference is allowed. No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s determination and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity! The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and it will definitely be fulfilled!
Although some analysts judged that Xi’s remarks were somewhat less threatening than earlier ones—such as those that he had made in July 2021, when he had vowed to “smash” any attempts at formal independence— the tone-deafness of his Xinhai address was not missed by the Taiwanese (at least those who noticed that he had made the remarks at all). On the whole, his October 9 remarks were replete with the usual tropes and demonstrated a complete lack of flexibility on Beijing’s part: from the insistence on the “one country, two systems” formula that was already a non-starter before Beijing completely neutralized the same arrangement in Hong Kong, to “peaceful unification” and the “One-China Principle,” both of which go against the wishes of the great majority of Taiwanese.
Still, Xi’s inclusion of the “1992 Consensus” in his remarks continues to give ammunition to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and its newly elected chairman, Eric Chu (朱立倫), who has retained the consensus as a key platform of his party. The KMT continues to argue that tensions in the Taiwan Strait are largely the result of the Tsai Administration’s refusal to recognize the “1992 Consensus,” a construct which the CCP and the KMT have long regarded as a precondition for dialogue in the Taiwan Strait. (The KMT has been largely silent on the recent military activity in Taiwan’s ADIZ.)
Know Your Audience
As always, Xi sought in his Xinhai address to give the impression that opposition to the inevitability of “reunification” and “national rejuvenation” is limited to a small coterie of “separatists” from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). This is a claim that flies in the face of political reality in Taiwan and that can only be the result of extremely poor intelligence—or the fact that such rhetoric was not aimed at the Taiwanese but, in fact, to a domestic audience back in China, which is continually fed lies about the state of affairs in Taiwan. In large part, the perpetuation of these lies is meant to insulate the CCP from criticism that its entire Taiwan policy has been an abject failure. Xi also emphasized that the “Taiwan issue” is an “internal affair” of China, another lie that seeks to depict the internationalization of the Taiwan Strait as external meddling while fueling the idea that Taiwan is merely unfinished business in a family quarrel.
And while Xi didn’t make any direct reference to “smashing” the Taiwan independence movement, his reference to things “never ending well” for such people was only compounded by the recent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activity near Taiwan, with as many as 150 intrusions into its southwestern ADIZ over a period of four days from October 1. (Editor’s note: For further discussion of this topic, see “Assessing One Year of PLA Air Incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ” by Thomas Shattuck, in this issue.)
Xi’s speech, and the CCP’s inability to adapt to changing circumstances in Taiwan and within the international community, is the result of an ideological drive cultivated by the Party, which has painted it into a corner. It is also a campaign that the CCP cannot de-escalate, lest doing so threaten its reputation with the Chinese public and more hawkish elements within the Party and the PLA. The inflexible language, along with the destabilizing PLA activity, underscore a note of defiance aimed both at the Taiwanese public and the international community. It is a signal that, despite a shifting external environment, Beijing will not be deterred, and that it will continue to shape the environment in its favor. Therefore, while PLA incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ have been markedly reduced since October 5—ostensibly due to stern warnings from Washington—a new cycle of escalation, one that will perhaps be even more threatening than that seen in the early days of October, is very likely in the offing. When it comes, this next round will either be in response to some “provocation” by Taipei (basically anything that suggests or reinforces statehood for Taiwan, or that deepens Taiwan’s connectivity with the international community), or other developments in the Indo-Pacific that point to the consolidation of an alliance of countries that aims to contain China’s more destabilizing activities.
The main point: Taipei and Beijing are digging their heels in as Beijing refuses to accept changing realities in Taiwan and within the region. Meanwhile, the CCP cannot show weakness with its hardline constituents by backing down and must therefore continue to escalate, a recipe for greater instability down the road.