Beijing’s Charm Offensive with Taiwan: Change in Tack, Not in Policy

Beijing’s Charm Offensive with Taiwan: Change in Tack, Not in Policy

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Beijing’s Charm Offensive with Taiwan: Change in Tack, Not in Policy

Beijing is engaged in a charm offensive around the world. Since the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress last October, China’s cadre-diplomats have been courting the international community with summitries and boastful declarations of how “China is back” and “open for business.” Despite Beijing’s ongoing military exercises around Taiwan—which have seen significant increases over recent years, pushing cross-Strait tensions to a level not seen since the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in the mid-1990s—Taiwan has not been an exception to this campaign of flattery. In meetings with a visiting delegation of senior politicians from Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), senior Chinese officials have reportedly softened their rhetoric and expressed a willingness to resume dialogue with Taiwan. Observers have been quick to point to this broader change as a shift in Beijing’s fundamental policy—and a reversal from the “wolf-warrior diplomacy” that has characterized Chinese foreign policy over the last decade. Yet, the appearance of Beijing’s softening stance should not be mistaken for a change in its policy, but rather understood as a momentary shift in tack—especially as it concerns Taiwan.

KMT Vice Chairman Returns to China

This charm offensive was on full display earlier this month during the February 8 trip by KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia (夏立言)—his second visit to China in the last six months—for a nine-day trip to China that included meetings with senior Chinese officials in Beijing.  

In August 2022—despite protests from some members within his own party—Hsia made a late-announced trip to Beijing immediately after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan, and while China was conducting unprecedented, large-scale military exercises around the island. On his previous trip, Hsia was only able to meet with relatively lower-ranking officials such as Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) and Chen Yuanfeng (陳元豐). The backdrop for the current round of meetings is different, and it showed in who Hsia met. Most notably, the KMT vice chairman attended meetings with the new CCP senior leaders in charge of Taiwan policy: Wang Huning (王滬寧) and Song Tao (宋濤). 

Wang—the ideology and propaganda czar to Xi Jinping (習近平)—is the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC, 中央政治局常委會) member who is slated to take over as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 中國人民政治協商會議), and who currently serves as deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group (TALSG, 中央對台工作領導小組). An article in Nikkei from January 2023, citing an unnamed source, indicated that Wang has been tasked to create an alternative to the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) framework first advanced under the PRC’s late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧). As head of the State Council and the CCP’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室), Song Tao is in charge of CCP policy implementation. Although not a member of the CCP’s Central Committee (國務院)—which is a break from past practice—Song will likely be appointed to serve as one of the vice chairmen of the CPPCC at the upcoming Lianghui (“Two Sessions,” 兩會) of the National People’s Congress and CPPCC, expected to be held in March. 

The KMT delegation’s visit was billed as an effort to get a better sense of the current economic situation and the needs of Taiwanese businessmen in mainland China. In addition to Beijing, Hsia led his delegation to Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing, and Chengdu. Accompanying Hsia on the delegation were Kao Su-po (高思博), a member of the KMT’s Central Committee; Lin Chu-chia (林祖嘉), director of the KMT’s Department of Mainland Affairs; and Zhao Chunshan (趙春山), a seasoned and respected China expert and a consultant with the Asia-Pacific Peace Research Foundation (亞太和平研究基金會), a China-focused think tank associated with Taiwan’s national security apparatus.

In a widely publicized meeting, the TAO’s Song purportedly told the visiting delegation that as long as the Taiwan authorities accepted the “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) in accordance with the “one-China principle” (一個中國原則), then cross-Strait negotiations could resume. This suggests that the CCP is re-opening the door to dialogue with the DPP—provided they accept those political preconditions. He further added at a separate event with Taiwanese businesses in the PRC that the CCP will:

[F]ully implement the spirit of the 20th CCP Congress and the ‘overall strategy for resolving the Taiwan issue in the new era’ (新時代黨解決台灣問題的總體方略), adhere to the policy of ‘peaceful reunification [sic], one country, two systems’ (和平統一、一國兩制), and uphold the concept of ‘one family on both sides of the strait’ (兩岸一家親).

In the meeting with Wang Huning, the PBSC member doubled down on the message of dialogue and impressed on the delegation that: 

[T]he KMT and the CCP should further consolidate their common political positions of adhering to the ‘1992 Consensus’ and opposing ‘Taiwan independence’, deepen political mutual trust, maintain interactions, strengthen exchanges and cooperation, and resolutely oppose Taiwan independence and interference by external forces (堅決反對“台獨”分裂和外部勢力干涉), jointly maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, promote cross-Strait exchanges and cooperation, benefit compatriots on both sides of the Strait, and work together for national rejuvenation.

These messages from Chinese officials differ greatly in tone from those delivered during Hsia’s previous trip last August. Hsia told reporters that during the last visit, when the KMT called on Beijing to “resume imports of Taiwan’s agricultural and aquatic products to the PRC and increase cross-Strait shipping points,” their entreaties were met with a terse reply that the Chinese side would simply “go back and discuss.” However, after raising the question again this time, Wang reportedly told Song at least three times during the meeting to “implement their request,” and how “[e]ven if you can’t do it, you must explain it to them carefully.”

Further amplifying the call for dialogue, the official think tanks of the KMT and the PRC State Council held a joint symposium on “Cross-Strait Relations and Exchanges and Cooperation in the Post-epidemic Era.” Co-hosted by the KMT’s National Policy Foundation (NPF, 國民黨國政研究基金會) and the PRC’s Cross-Strait Relations Research Center (CSRRC, 海峽兩岸關係研究中心) in Beijing, the meeting featured speakers arguing that the two sides should normalize cross-Strait exchanges as soon as possible, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Conspicuously, Zhao—the seasoned China hand—said that he felt a “warm spring” (春暖) coming in cross-Strait relations, but cautioned that whether it will “blossom” will depend in part on Taipei’s response and the joint efforts of both sides of the Strait. Zhao further observed that the Chinese officials he met showed a new and positive attitude. In particular, he noted that the PRC scholars at the think tank symposium refrained from using any threatening tone or employ terms such as “reunification by force” (武統). Instead, the participants called for the resumption of cross-strait exchanges and dialogue.

In response to the PRC’s softening rhetoric and apparent willingness to re-engage in dialogue, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) Legislator Lo Chi-cheng (羅致政) commented that the DPP does not oppose any exchange and dialogue between the two sides of the strait, but maintained that there should be no restrictions or political preconditions. Lo added that the PRC’s actions toward Hong Kong, as evidenced by the National Security Law (國家安全法), inevitably makes people concerned. “The ball [to resume dialogue] is on the other side, not in Taiwan,” Lo concluded.

Prepping the Info Space: Pelosi Redux?

It should be noted, however, that the readouts from the meetings between Taiwan’s opposition leaders and Chinese officials, while significant for the fact that they occurred, offered no new policy direction. Instead, the primary objective appears to be shaping the optics. This applies to both the KMT and the CCP. 

Amid the ongoing fallout from the spy balloon controversy, Beijing’s charm offensive should not be viewed as an isolated act. With US Speaker Kevin McCarthy widely expected to make a visit to Taiwan later this year, it is worth recalling the effectiveness of the PRC’s propaganda in the lead-up to—and aftermath of—Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. While the blistering rhetoric and calls to prevent the speaker’s plane from landing in Taipei did not deter Speaker Pelosi from going to Taiwan, this does not mean the PRC’s campaign was not successful in other dimensions. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the propaganda campaign in the lead-up to Pelosi’s visit was Beijing’s effort to essentially redirect the narrative over its increasingly dangerous behaviors at sea and in air, framing the trip as the cause for its behavior. The PRC’s campaign was not only directed at intimidating Taiwan and deterring the United States, but was more notably aimed at rattling US allies and partners. Specifically, the campaign worked to present the United States and so-called “Taiwan secessionist forces” (clearly intended to mean the DPP) as the ones provoking Beijing and disregarding regional concerns. 

On the domestic front, it appears that the KMT intended to show that it is the only party capable of engaging in dialogue with China. Since Hsia’s August visit, the KMT leadership has been at pains to demonstrate that they have some deliverables to show from these politically sensitive interactions. During his post-visit press conference, Hsia repeatedly emphasized how the visit was intended to convey the concerns of Taiwanese farmers, fishermen, and small- and medium-sized enterprises affected by the PRC’s economic sanctions imposed in recent years—particularly after Speaker Pelosi’s visit. Meanwhile Zhao noted that the Chinese leadership had made available all the senior local officials at all their stops. This charm offensive could strengthen the hand of pro-unification forces within the KMT to push for a more conciliatory posture vis-à-vis China. 

Beijing’s softening rhetoric is notable, but it is likely only a façade. Despite speculation that Zhongnanhai is considering a different approach, there are no indications of a significant policy change. Instead, this change in tack is consistent with the PRC’s dual approach of combining “soft-hard” measures in its dealings with Taiwan. While the “soft” measures may appear softer, the “hard’ measures have also grown harder in recent years. Indeed, the CCP is engaged in a comprehensive united front propaganda campaign intended to shape the information space. These efforts are designed to prevent the KMT from moving away from its cross-Strait policy while also shaping international narratives. Should Speaker McCarthy travel to Taiwan to show support for the democracy of Taiwan as it readies for the 2024 elections, this campaign could play a role in influencing the domestic and international responses. 

The main point: While KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia’s recent meetings with Chinese figures ostensibly suggest a softening PRC approach to Taiwan, this shift is likely only rhetorical. In reality, this change in tack is primarily intended to shape narratives and sow division.