Taiwan a Growing Thorn in China's Side As Xi Jinping Feels 'Unification' Pressure

As Chinese President Xi Jinping oversees nationwide celebrations for this week's Communist Party of China (CPC) centennial, officials with the ruling party continue to warn others away from its perennial "Taiwan question," which remains further from Beijing's ideal solution than any time in recent memory.

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), has a rich history that far predates Japanese occupation and the post-war era, in which the ROC's ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) moved its capital to Taipei at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and began a divisive period of martial law that would last 38 years, its effects still felt today.

While separated from the newly founded People's Republic of China by the narrow Taiwan Strait, the island nation would undergo fundamental changes—the loss of key diplomatic allies and a democratic transformation into a multi-party state in the 1990s—that would see it both rediscover and forge its own unique identity.

In Beijing, meanwhile, officials never renounced their ambition of "unification" between China and Taiwan. It is a topic that has been on the lips of every leader from Mao to Xi, with the party's current chairman particularly keen to underscore that fact.

The Chinese leadership insists it intends to pursue peaceful unification, while at the same time refusing to rule out the use of its growing military might to settle the dispute in its favor. Observers note the significance of this official policy position as Taiwan's democracy-loving public drifts ever further from Beijing's offer of carrots, leading instead to its frequent use of sticks.

Taiwan President Celebrates Re-election Victory
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves at her supporters outside the Democratic Progressive Party's headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, where she was declared the winner of Taiwan's presidential election on January 11, 2020. Chan Kwok Shing/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

But as the CPC hails Xi as the country's new paramount leader—highly likely to secure an unprecedented third term at the 20th Party Congress next year—many have pointed to his government's bellicose approach to cross-Taiwan Strait relations and its nationalistic "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy as some of the reasons why Taiwan, which China declares a "core interest," shows little interest itself in accepting the Communist Party's rule.

In a January 2019 address, Xi extolled the virtues of China's "one country, two systems" model, used in Hong Kong and Macau, and said the division across the strait should not be allowed to continue for another generation. A year later, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was re-elected in a record-breaking landslide as the public announced its decision.

The Chinese government characterizes Tsai and the DPP as pro-independence, despite her double election victory on a mandate of maintaining the cross-strait status quo. Since 2020, Beijing's response has been to step up its economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taipei.

The majority of analysts agree that Xi, in spite of the more assertive tone and increasingly colorful threats, seeks to deter Taiwan's de jure independence rather than forcefully occupy the island—at least in the short term. But China's escalating aggression is such that Taiwan's plight has garnered the attention and sympathy of international partners and the press, seemingly leaving Beijing no choice but to further ramp up its coercion in order to establish more resolve.

Taiwan Voters Celebrate President's Landslide Re-election
Supporters of Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, wave flags and banners as they await the result of the presidential elections on January 11, 2020, in Taipei, Taiwan. Tsai was re-elected as Taiwan's president as voters displayed their disapproval of Beijing by opting for a leader who had campaigned on defending their country from China. Carl Court/Getty Images

There have been no better examples of this in recent years than the U.S. and Japan, respectively Taiwan's most important international backer and, especially in recent years, its most simpatico neighbor in Asia.

During the administrations of Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, as well as under their Japanese counterparts Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, Washington and Tokyo have shown Taipei unprecedented levels of support despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations, fending off wave after wave of Beijing's protests, which some see as piling on the pressure for Xi to deliver on the Taiwan promise he and his officials have explicitly guaranteed their nationalistic Chinese public.

Sense Egbert Hofstede, a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, argues that understanding of Taiwan in China is actually "extremely limited."

"Any attempt to show understanding for or even just explain Taiwan would be snuffed out by the government and hacked to pieces by outraged nationalists," he told Newsweek in a recent interview, suggesting the truth about Taiwan's public opinion may never see the light of day across the strait.

"The 'academics' and officials in China's Taiwan Work system rely only on their own work and pro-China publications ... to construct what is an alternative reality," he said.

Sense says China has created "high expectations" when it comes to Taiwan. Beijing has been adventurist in the past, he notes, "but starting an invasion of Taiwan would be a much more serious matter than anything that has come before."

The Taiwan Strait neighbors communicate through dedicated government agencies rather than their respective foreign ministries, since neither formally recognizes the other. But the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in Taipei and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) in Beijing have not held meaningful high-level talks since Tsai assumed office in 2016.

Each blames the other for the impasse, which persists despite Tsai's attempt to restart dialogue by appointing a new MAC minister in February.

Taiwan's Chiu Tai-san urged Beijing to share in the "warmth of spring" and later called for "constructive ambiguity" over the question of sovereignty. Both offers were dismissed by the TAO, which continues to insist on Taipei's recognition of the so-called "1992 Consensus" and its "one China" principle, which declares Taiwan a province of China in no uncertain terms.

According to Shan-son Kung, an analyst with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) in Taipei, two major changes during Xi's second term have led to the current cross-strait stalemate.

"The first is that the people on both sides of the strait have increasingly different positions on reunification. DPP's victory in 2016 represented that the people of Taiwan were dissatisfied with the KMT government's policy of approaching China," he said.

"Second, former President Trump started a new confrontation between the United States and China and increased support for Taiwan. This makes Taiwan more inclined to support the United States rather than China," he argued.

Kung says the Taiwan Strait deadlock will remain, and as Xi continues to hold political power, "China's Taiwan policy will continue to be tough."

The DPP and the main opposition KMT party should continue to try and persuade China to engage in meaningful dialogue in order to "coexist peacefully" without provoking each other, he said.

Kung noted the need to replace Beijing's one China principle, which is "no longer accepted by the people of Taiwan."

Faced with mounting military pressure from across the strait, Taiwan has publicly voiced its determination to defend itself, regardless of China's unification timeframe.

Behind the scenes, Tsai's administration has continued to purchase defensive arms from Washington and follow its strategic advice. This has included making structural reforms within the island's own armed forces, especially its reserves, which observers say are unmotivated and undertrained.

There is also the important matter of having a better understanding of its enemy. Defense Ministry-backed INDSR—Taiwan's first dedicated national security think tank—was established in 2018 to complement this object.

Beyond its coastal military build-up, "gray zone" coercion, political obstruction and continued disinformation campaigns, it remains unclear how else China intends to win hearts and minds in Taiwan. In any given discussion about Taipei, Beijing's most common response is to stress Taiwan's inalienability as part of the Chinese mainland, as well as the inevitability of unification.

Xi Jinping Oversees Chinese Communist Party Celebrations
Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping appears on a large screen as performers dance during a mass gala on June 28, 2021, marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party at the National Stadium in Beijing, China. China will officially mark the100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Asked whether Taipei would congratulate China's Communist Party on its 100-year anniversary, the MAC told Newsweek: "The Communist Party's authoritarian regime lacks respect for democracy and human rights, and the ability to reflect on historical errors. There are vast discrepancies between the Communist Party of China and the values shared by the international community."

"As the Communist Party of China marks its centennial, it continues its political warfare and military threats against Taiwan. This is not conducive to healthy relations and interactions across the Taiwan Strait," the council said.

Its statement continued: "We urge the Communist Party of China to respect historical fact, acknowledge the Republic of China and respect the insistence of Taiwan's 23 million people on the development of cross-strait relations, democracy and freedom; renounce the imposition of political frameworks on and the forceful suppression of others, and manage differences through constructive dialogue so cross-strait relations can start on the path of healthy interactions."

"We call on the Communist Party of China to face the challenges of this 'new era,' implement democratic reforms as soon as possible and return power to the people," the council added.