Chinese leader Xi Jinping has issued a new threat to use military force in Taiwan as Beijing intensifies efforts to achieve unification with the self-governing democratic region, holding up Hong Kong as a model for Taipei.
In a major address on Wednesday, Mr. Xi promised economic gifts to Taiwan if it places itself under Beijing’s rule, saying “with the great motherland’s support, Taiwan compatriots’ welfare will be even better, their development space will be even greater.”
What China calls “reunification” should happen peacefully and Beijing would protect Taiwan’s freedoms, Mr. Xi said, specifically pointing to the Hong Kong model of “one country two systems” as a Taiwanese solution.
It was a notion that Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen immediately rejected Wednesday amid concern that Mr. Xi is directing what Lai I-chung, who chairs the International Cooperation Council of Taiwan think tank, called a “major policy change.”
“Xi Jinping is eager to take unification with Taiwan as a matter of higher urgency,” Mr. Lai said.
In his speech, Mr. Xi reiterated Beijing’s willingness to use its military power in a region it sees as a renegade province.
China will not “promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures” to forestall Taiwanese independence, he said, directing his comments at those seeking autonomy in Taiwan as well as foreign forces — comments seen as a reference to the U.S.
The Chinese president spoke on the 40th anniversary of a 1979 New Year’s pledge by China to halt bombardment of Taiwanese islands in hopes of attaining the “sacred mission” of bringing the two sides together.
Cross-straits ties, particularly economic links, have flourished in the decades that followed. Today, more than 30 per cent of Taiwan’s trade is with China, while some Taiwanese young people have moved to the mainland to seize professional opportunity in the world’s second-largest economy.
At the same time, Taiwan has developed a vibrant democratic system and a deepening sense of local identity that is distinct from China — and, for some, hostile to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
That trend was broadly seen as an undercurrent in the 2016 election of Ms. Tsai, who calls Taiwan a “nation” and, in a Jan. 1 address, said Beijing “must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China,” the formal name for Taiwan.
But Taiwanese voters dealt Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party a serious blow in mayoral elections in November, forcing Ms. Tsai to abandon her position as party chair.
China, meanwhile, has sought to isolate Taiwan under Ms. Tsai, freezing official cross-straits communication, increasing military exercises around the region and persuading a series of diplomatic allies to cut ties with Taipei. Only 16 countries, and the Vatican, maintain formal relations with Taiwan.
Mr. Xi’s speech underscored a changing posture in Beijing, which has moved from seeking to prevent Taiwanese independence toward more actively pursuing reunification.
The Chinese president has been “haunted” by the failure of past policies to bring Taiwan into the fold, said Wuer Kaixi, a former student leader during Tiananmen Square protests who lives in Taiwan and has been active in politics there.
At the same time, Mr. Xi has brought new assertiveness to Chinese foreign policy, underpinned by the country’s rising economic power and a swelling confidence that Beijing now possesses the economic, military and diplomatic sway to achieve its long-held desires.
In Hong Kong, that has meant a more muscular effort to impose Chinese will, including by seizing people wanted by authorities in Beijing. Hong Kong has also banned an independence party, calling it a threat to national security, in a move widely seen as bending to Chinese dictates.
At the same time, “the ambition of China toward Taiwan has also increased,” Mr. Wuer said.
The specifics of Mr. Xi’s address differed little from what his predecessors have said about Taiwan. His words were a ”memo” to Taiwan — and the United States — that “China is considering unification the destiny of cross-straits relations.
And they haven’t given up the use of force,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, a fellow at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association in Taipei. “It was also a message to the Taiwanese voters: In 2020, vote wisely. Don’t nurture any dream of independence.”