Taiwan Leader Rejects Unification Under Heightened Pressure From China’s Xi
By Chun Han Wong (Wall Street Journal)
Jan. 2, 2019 6:31 a.m. ET
Beijing offers to accommodate the self-ruled island’s democratic system
BEIJING—The leaders of China and Taiwan sparred over the prospects of unifying the two territories, with Beijing’s offer to accommodate the island’s democratic system swiftly rebuffed by Taipei.
In a tightly calibrated 33-minute speech meant as an address to Taiwan on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said differences in political systems can’t be used as an excuse to resist unification. He promised Taiwanese people a peaceful and prosperous future with the mainland while suggesting that Beijing’s patience would wear thin if its overtures fail.
“Differences in systems aren’t an obstacle to unification, much less an excuse for separatism,” Mr. Xi said in nationally televised remarks before an audience of government and military officials in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. He said unification between China and Taiwan is inevitable and that while Beijing prefers peaceful means for achieving that goal, military measures remain an option.
His remarks were seen as a direct response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who said Tuesday in her New Year’s Day address that the island’s people want to preserve their own political system. Hours after the Chinese leader’s Wednesday speech, Ms. Tsai rejected his offer, saying Taiwanese voters won’t go for the proposal, known as “one country, two systems.” The framework would place the island under China’s rule with limited autonomy, as has been done in Hong Kong.
“Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems,’” Ms. Tsai said. “The vast majority of Taiwanese public opinion also firmly opposes ‘one country, two systems.’”
The exchange shows how the decades-old split, a remnant from the Chinese civil war, remains bitter and potentially volatile, with intensifying pressure from Mr. Xi to change the status quo.
China and Taiwan are locked into rising tensions over the coming year, with a heightened risk of escalation, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
While bringing Taiwan under Communist Party control has been a longstanding priority for Communist leaders, Mr. Xi has pressed the issue with greater urgency, portraying unification as a marker of national greatness. His government has exerted political and economic pressure on Ms. Tsai since her election three years ago, to punish her for refusing to acknowledge that the mainland and the island are part of “one China”—which her predecessor did.
Mr. Xi’s speech on Wednesday marked a continuation of that campaign, modulating between inducements to unification and implicit threats. While his speech broke little new ground on policy, its tone was less compromising than his predecessor’s, suggesting impatience.
“We are willing to create broad space for peaceful reunification but will leave no room for any form of separatist activities,” Mr. Xi said. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of using all necessary means.”
The military option, Mr. Xi said, would be used to counter outside interference and Taiwan independence. Those labels have been previously applied to the U.S., Taiwan’s main international backer, and to supporters of Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally backs independence from China.
President Trump has stepped up U.S. support for Taiwan, signing legislation in the past year to encourage higher-level contact, and the U.S. military has sent warships through the Taiwan Strait.
The U.S., like most countries, doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan, having switched diplomatic recognition to China four decades ago.
Taiwan’s separate status is a legacy of the civil war in which Mao Zedong’s Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government from the mainland. After decades of violent skirmishes, Beijing declared its policy shift toward peaceful unification in a 1979 open letter to Taiwan, the 40th anniversary of which Mr. Xi marked with Wednesday’s speech.
In keeping with his recent approach toward Taiwan, Mr. Xi included enticements in his speech, including pledges to deepen trade links, build a common market between the two economies and welcome Taiwanese youth to “fulfill dreams” on the mainland.
The mixture of indirect threats with economic incentives shows that Beijing intends to maintain pressure on Taipei by driving a wedge between Ms. Tsai’s government and the Taiwanese people, especially those who disagree with her policies toward China, said Alexander Huang, a professor at Taipei’s Tamkang University.
The Chinese leadership’s approach toward Taiwan appeared to pay off when Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party suffered heavy losses in local elections in November. As a result, Ms. Tsai stepped down as head of the party, and Taiwanese political watchers say she is vulnerable to challengers for re-election next year.
Ahead of that campaign, Ms. Tsai appears to have calculated that she can’t meaningfully engage with the Chinese leadership and adopted a more forceful posture that her supporters prefer, which antagonizes Beijing even more, said SOAS’s Mr. Tsang.
In rebuffing Mr. Xi on Wednesday, Ms. Tsai appealed to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy—a point of pride for many Taiwanese—that developed after decades of autocratic rule and stands apart from China’s authoritarian order.
“China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China, Taiwan,” she said, nodding to the territory’s official name. She said Beijing must “not reject the democratic system that the Taiwanese people have built.”
The “one country, two systems” formula Mr. Xi offered up for Taiwan has been Beijing’s stock proposal since the 1980s. Beijing used it to bring Hong Kong—a capitalist enclave and former British colony—back under China’s control.
Its appeal, always limited in Taiwan, has waned further in recent years as Taiwanese have watched Hong Kong’s civil liberties erode. Beijing and the politicians it backed in the territory have stifled opposition and stymied calls for direct, open elections.
Ms. Tsai reiterated conditions for political dialogue between Taiwan and China, saying such discussions must be conducted between governments. As a democracy, no person or group can represent Taiwan in talks with China unless they are authorized and supervised by the Taiwanese people, she said.
—William Kazer in Taipei contributed to this article.
Write to Chun Han Wong at email@example.com