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China plays the long con in Taiwan

What happened?

This week Chinese president Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s intention to reunify the mainland with Taiwan. Last November, tensions between Taiwan and China also rose when local elections in Taiwan made global headlines as the Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China, gained momentum in anticipation of the 2020 presidential elections. However, despite Xi’s rhetoric of possibly using force and recurring fears of military invasion by China, military confrontation is highly unlikely as this would be disastrous for both sides. Rather, China will gradually integrate Taiwan into its orbit through other means.

What does this mean?

When the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists in 1949, they fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan. Ever since, China has wanted to achieve reunification. However, two things prevent this from happening. First, Taiwanese people desire self-rule (especially young Taiwanese): according to a recent survey, only 3% of Taiwanese want unification. Indeed, while the recent victory of the KMT reflects discontent with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), this dissatisfaction is largely unrelated to cross-strait relations with China and has more to do with the failure of the DPP’s domestic policies. Second, with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. actively supports the status-quo in which Taiwan maintains self-rule without officially recognized independence. As such, Taiwanese sentiment and the support of the U.S. push China towards non-military options.

What’s next?

China will pursue a long-term strategy to pull Taiwan into its orbit. This befits Chinese statecraft principles of patience, long-term vision and tianxia or “all under Heaven” (which includes the idea that as China becomes more powerful, others will naturally move into its orbit). China’s long-term strategy will have multiple dimensions. First, it will use its shadow power to influence Taiwan by spreading disinformation and financing pro-China political candidates. Second, the Chinese economy will increasingly connect with Taiwan. China is making it much easier for Taiwanese citizens to work and invest in China (as it also competes with Taiwan in high tech industries) and China already accounts for over 30% of Taiwan’s trade. In the long-term, this will lead to higher tensions as demographic shifts in Taiwan could boost pro-independence voices, while the Taiwanese economy will increasingly become dependent on China. Lastly, if China sees Taiwan as moving away from the One-China policy by moving towards independence, another military incident like the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995, which also involved the U.S., is possible.