The visit of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August can be considered a landmark event in the development of the Taiwan problem. This even had an impact on formal assessments: a few days after the visit, China published a White Paper titled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era”. This is only the third white paper on the Taiwan issue ever issued by the PRC.
The first of them was published in 1993, in the wake of optimism associated with the growth of China’s international role, as well as the restoration of economic and, in part, political ties between the mainland and the island. It outlined the Chinese point of view on the history of the issue and the Chinese vision of the principles for its resolution (a peaceful reunification within the framework of the “one country-two systems” concept). The White Book, as an important component, included the rules of conduct with regards to several points, which China’s diplomatic partners should adhere to in their relationship with the island.
The second White Book, released in early 2000, was published ahead of the fateful Taiwanese presidential election, which was won by the secessionist Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian. This White Paper paid much attention to the previous one, but also paid significant attention to criticising and clarifying the Chinese position regarding various separatist forces in Taiwanese politics.
The new White Paper has a separate paragraph on “victory over separatists and external interference”, which directly points to the role of “certain forces in the United States” in inciting separatism on the island and undermining security in the Taiwan Strait. The White Paper emphasises that the determination of the people of China to solve the Taiwan problem should not be underestimated. Of course, it is repeated that China is committed to the peaceful path of reunification, but will not exclude the possibility of using force.
The new stage of Chinese policy towards Taiwan will most likely be characterised by the more active use of military instruments of pressure on the island. With a formal commitment to a peaceful solution to the problem (the White Paper emphasises that the use of force is possible only as a last resort in response to separatism), the real possibilities for “peaceful reunification” are narrowing.
According to data from public opinion polls in Taiwan, there is virtually no significant number of reunification supporters in the near future.
The majority of Taiwanese (about 54%) are in favour of maintaining the status quo, i.e. for the continued existence of the island as an unrecognised state with an extensive network of international business and humanitarian ties and special relations with the United States and a number of other countries. However, about 25% are in favour of a gradual movement towards formal independence, and about 5% are in favour of an accelerated movement towards independence – even despite the risk of a military clash with the mainland. Only a little over 1% are in favour of speedy unification and about 6% are in favour of a smooth movement towards reunification.
The unrest in Hong Kong in 2019 played an important role in the evolution of sentiments regarding relations with the mainland in Taiwan, which, despite the restraint shown by the Chinese authorities (military formations from the mainland did not enter into the territory and were not used to contain riots), led to the discrediting of the “one country, two systems” concept. However, the Hong Kong factor only consolidated and strengthened trends in Taiwanese politics driving it away from the PRC, which had taken place even before.
Thus, the “peaceful reunification” looks problematic. China has been able to build a powerful infrastructure for economic influence on Taiwan, becoming a key trade and industrial partner for the island. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live and do business in the mainland.
But the PRC has been unable to convert this economic influence and human connections into real political influence in Taiwan. Since the return of the Democratic Progressive Party to power in the 2016 elections, the situation in relations with China has steadily deteriorated.
The PRC Anti-Separatism Law of 2005 considers the exhaustion of peaceful reunification options as a possible reason for launching a “non-peaceful” reunification operation. China avoids setting any time frame for the completion of the reunification process, but emphasises that it cannot “wait forever.” From time to time, there are “leaks” and comments from Chinese experts that some kind of “deadline” still exists, for example, 2027 is the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army of China.
Against the backdrop of an already unfavourable situation, China is also facing a sharp intensification of military, military-technical and political ties between the United States and Taiwan. For example, in 2020, the volume of contracts for the export of American weapons to Taiwan exceeded $5.1 billion. From 2010 to the beginning of 2021, deliveries worth $23 billion were announced. Supply volumes could spike if the US congress passes the Lend-Lease Bill for Taiwan, which is currently under discussion.
The Trump administration began, (and Biden continued) the practice of gradually increasing the level of contacts between officials within the two countries. An important event was the first meeting since 1979 of US national security adviser John Bolton with his Taiwanese counterpart David Lee in 2019. The practice of US military visits to the island to participate in the combat training of Taiwanese colleagues has intensified.
The American arguments: that Pelosi made the visit on her own, almost contradictng the White House and that therefore the visit does not mean a change in policy, have had no effect on the Chinese – they simply do not believe them. The sharp deterioration in relations is evidenced by the fact that Chinese leader Xi Jinping made direct threats to the United States during a telephone conversation with US President Joseph Biden on July 28, four days before Pelosi’s visit. This is the only way to interpret the phrase uttered by the Chinese leader: “if you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned. Such harsh expressions during contacts at the highest level are extremely unusual for the Chinese.
Thus, from the point of view of the PRC, an extremely alarming, unbearable situation has developed on the Taiwan issue: there is a simultaneous increase in separatist sentiments inside the island, an increase of American military assistance to the island, and an accelerated erosion of the One China policy by the United States. The answer was the mobilisation of the resources of the Chinese state to resolve the Taiwan issue in a short time period, if necessary, with the use of force.
At the moment, it seems that large-scale exercises of the PRC armed forces around the island with violations of the existing informal lines of demarcation (the median line in the Taiwan Strait) are likely to become almost permanent. The PRC will build up economic pressure on Taiwan, introducing more and more formal and informal sanctions against the island’s economy, which is very vulnerable to them. Official sanctions have been imposed on Nancy Pelosi and her family, and dialogue with the United States has been suspended on a wide range of issues. China’s attention to the positions of other countries regarding the Taiwan problem has grown.
It is likely that serious military and economic pressure on the island will continue for a long time. We can talk about the beginning of another (fourth) security crisis in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese will measure pressure against trends in Taiwanese politics and US activity in the region. If the leadership of the PRC comes to the conclusion that time has started to work against it, due to the further rapid deterioration of the political situation on the island and the acceleration of the growth of American military supplies, then the demonstrative military exercises are likely to develop into a real military intervention to ensure the reunification of the island with the mainland by force.
from our partner RIAC