Early this month, Taiwan reported close to 150 incursions of Chinese aircraft into its Air Defence Identification Zone
Taiwan is finding it difficult to keep itself out of international headlines. The island nation, home to just 23 million people, has found itself the recipient of Beijing’s ire in the form of heated rhetoric and military incursions into Taiwanese airspace.
Between 1 and 4 October, Taiwan reported close to 150 incursions of Chinese aircraft into the former’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Shortly after, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech vowing that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled”.
In response, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen made clear that Taipei would not bow to pressure from Beijing and articulated a growing desire in Taiwan to chart a path independent of Beijing. These tensions, seen in the broader context of perceived Chinese aggression globally, US-China competition in Asia and China’s enhanced military capabilities have left many convinced that Beijing is signalling its intention to settle the Taiwan question through force.
Beijing’s interest, nay obsession, with Taiwan stems from a toxic cocktail of history, colonialism and nationalism. While Taiwan was largely left to its own devices for much of its history, Beijing established a tenuous control over the island in the 17th century only to lose it to a rising Imperial Japan at the close of the 19th century. The loss of Taiwan, simply one in a long line of humiliations suffered by China during the colonial era, forms part of the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative of a “Century of Humiliation” that shapes much of the nation’s modern nationalism.
Once Japan surrendered in World War II, ownership of Taiwan returned to the then nationalist government of China led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang’s administration soon found itself in a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communists; by 1949, Chiang realised that the war was lost and fled to the small island base of Taiwan. Despite numerous attempts to decisively end the conflict since both sides have become entrenched in their respective territories.
As the CCP bases much of its modern-day legitimacy on undoing the horrors of the “Century of Humiliation” and uniting China under one banner, Taiwan represents an unfinished task that would complete the CCP’s project. With this in mind, one may be forgiven for believing that President Xi’s talk of “reunification” with Taiwan amounts to a tacit declaration of Beijing’s military designs on the island nation.
However, it is helpful to place President Xi’s statements on Taiwan in the broader historical context. Nothing that Xi has said thus far deviates from the script Beijing has followed on Taiwan for some decades now. While Xi stated that reunification with Taiwan was inevitable, he is far from the only Chinese premier to have made that statement. Indeed, during his speech at the 100th CCP anniversary conference, he mentioned his commitment to peaceful reunification without linking it to his much-vaunted “national rejuvenation” plans.
Taiwan is no stranger to a heated war of words with Beijing. When President Chen Shui-Bian openly called for Taiwanese independence in the early 2000s, mainland Chinese officials made clear that the Straits were “entering a period of high danger”. Such rhetoric has not been seen today given that President Tsai is a canny politician who has argued for charting an independent course for Taiwan without speaking of outright independence.
What then explains Beijing’s military provocations in recent weeks?
There are, in this author’s view, two driving forces for Beijing’s increased belligerence: One is domestic politics in Taiwan, and the other is international support for and — interest in — Taiwan.
Top leaders in Zhongnanhai (China’s Raisina) are concerned at swelling support for politicians like Tsai Ing-Wen at a time when support for engaging Beijing has all but disappeared. Nowhere has this been clearer than with the collapse of the 1992 Consensus. While the Consensus is notoriously hard to pin down, it broadly refers to an unofficial understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there exists only One China.
Further, the Consensus allows for different interpretations of what One China truly means. While Taipei (formally the Republic of China) staked a claim to being the legitimate Chinese government, Beijing did the same. This helped reassure Beijing that Taiwan would not attempt to bolt from the stable and declare formal independence.
The 1992 Consensus and Beijing’s desperation to maintain it say much about what China really wants from Taiwan. While the CCP can begrudgingly accept a functionally independent Taiwan, it dreads a future in which Taiwan declares formal independence. For a highly nationalistic state that prides itself on its record on territorial sovereignty, such an action would necessitate a military response. However, the CCP would risk not only its global ambitions for China by getting embroiled in a military conflict, but also its very existence should it come off worse in such a showdown with Taiwan.
For a time, Beijing could rest easy. While President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party opposed the 1992 Consensus, the Kuomintang (KMT), once the party of Chiang Kai Shek, supported it. However, the political ground in Taiwan began to shift in 2020, when Tsai won a second consecutive term by handily defeating the pro-engagement KMT candidate.
Tsai’s victory came in the larger backdrop of increasing scepticism about China among Taiwan’s citizens. As Chinese security forces crushed protests in Hong Kong, many in Taiwan soured on the idea of greater engagement and unification with the mainland.
Tsai’s more confrontational stance concerning Beijing rescued her faltering government and sparked a crisis among younger members of the KMT who have publicly called for the party to reconsider its support for the 1992 Consensus. Taiwan’s citizens increasingly identify as exclusively Taiwanese and do not feel a connection to China that defined the generations that came before them.
Faced with rapidly disappearing support for unification, Beijing is worried that it faces a closing window of opportunity before any form of accommodation with mainland China becomes a political non-starter in Taiwan and independence becomes a real possibility.
Second, Taiwan’s troubles with Beijing have attracted tremendous attention and international support. Taiwan’s time in the sun began when the small island nation led one of the industrialised world’s most effective responses to the epidemic. Given this, many in the international community felt that the world could benefit from Taiwan’s knowhow and pandemic management experience and supported its entry into the World Health Organization.
While this bid failed given China’s long-standing opposition to Taiwanese membership, it did pull Taiwan into the international spotlight. Further, Beijing’s aggression vis-à-vis Taiwan has occurred at a time when China’s perceived aggression towards its neighbours has turned head internationally. Support for Taiwan has exploded with everyone from former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott to a grouping of French senators lining up to visit Taiwan.
While this explains Beijing’s enhanced threat perception when it comes to Taiwan, it still doesn’t quite explain why it has chosen military provocations to make its point. Understanding Chinese thinking, it helps to jump back to the 1990s. During this period, a newly democratised Taiwan flirted openly with the idea of proclaiming independence from Beijing. Worried by what it saw occurring across the Strait, Beijing stepped up its military activities in the Straits. Several military exercises and one Taiwan Straits Crisis later, the good folk of Taiwan concluded that the prickly question of independence should be kicked down the road.
This was made abundantly clear in the 1996 presidential election when the DPP candidate calling for independence suffered serious setbacks. Pro-independence politicians took the hint and the can was kicked down the road. Taiwan’s citizens understood that while Beijing did not seriously expect unification to be a workable goal, it could not stand for an outright declaration of independence. Through its military pressure, Beijing may be borrowing its playbook from its earlier success in tamping down enthusiasm for independence.
Any possible solution to the ongoing crisis will require both sides to commit to the same process of dialogue that produced the 1992 Consensus. While Taiwan’s political leadership is unlikely to push for independence, it is clear that a political formula based on eventual reunification will run into fierce opposition domestically. Taiwan increasingly hopes to carve out its own identity and free itself from the burden of fulfilling the dreams of an earlier generation of Chinese who wished to reconquer China under one banner. Ultimately, Presidents Tsai and Xi would prefer to bring down tensions and hammer out a new consensus to reflect new political realities in Taiwan.
While both leaders might hope to kick the can down the road and deprioritise independence as a goal, Tsai’s reluctance to accept the One-China principle will be a significant sticking point. The world will have to wait and watch.
The author is a research associate, strategic studies programme, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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