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MERICS China Security and Risk Tracker 03/2022

Focus Topic: The next Hong Kong: Beijing’s vision for Taiwan

by Helena Legarda

What was supposed to be a relatively quiet August, with China’s leaders relocating to Beidaihe, turned into a tense month as Beijing took escalatory measures to respond to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Beijing swiftly resorted to import bans, carried out large-scale military drills encircling Taiwan and canceled multiple dialogues with the United States in diplomatic retaliation.

Beijing’s tough reaction was an attempt to deter similar visits in the future and drive a wedge between the United States and Taiwan. While it may have failed to achieve these goals, the implied risk is that aggressive military operations around Taiwan and tough retaliation against Western engagement with Taipei could become the new normal.

Besides the immediate response to Pelosi’s visit, the publication of a new White Paper on Taiwan provided clear indications of Beijing’s vision, priorities and likely trajectory on the issue.1 The White Paper is the first on Taiwan since President Xi Jinping came to power. As Xi is likely to secure a third term as party leader at the 20th Party Congress this fall, this blueprint is likely to remain the foundation of Beijing’s Taiwan policy for at least the next five years.

Formalizing current approaches

The State Council released the new White Paper within a week of Pelosi’s departure from Taiwan, which indicates it was already finalized and awaiting publication, probably planned for around the time of the Party Congress. The writing processes and timelines of white papers vary, but previous reports suggest that the drafting process alone for China’s defense white papers can take more than six months.2

This paper therefore reflects the vision for Taiwan held by China’s leadership under Xi, and should not be seen as prompted by the US delegation’s visit. It contains – and helps formalize – many of the same themes and approaches put forward by Xi in the last few years. These include increased military pressure and economic coercion activities from Beijing, and greater attempts to curtail Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. The broad lines of China’s strategy therefore seem set and unlikely to change, though some aspects of Beijing’s approach are likely to intensify.

Greater urgency and growing intransigence

The new white paper shows substantial continuity with Beijing’s two previous white papers on Taiwan, published in 1993 and 2000.3 The CCP leadership’s ultimate goals remain unchanged (“national reunification”) and their preferred strategy is still set out as peaceful reunification without renouncing the use of force. But this new paper also contains some significant differences in both emphasis and content, revealing shifts in the leadership’s approach to reunification and sense of urgency.

For the first time, “national reunification” has been officially linked with Xi’s goal of achieving the “national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in a policy document, though many statements and speeches have already drawn the connection. The linkage brings some urgency to Beijing’s ambition to retake Taiwan as Xi has set the target date of 2049 for achieving national rejuvenation.

Fear that the United States is trying to build a coalition to contain China’s rise also plays a new, and central, role in the white paper. It argues that national reunification is the only way to prevent Taiwan being invaded by foreign powers and attempts by external forces to use of Taiwan as a “pawn” to “undermine China’s progress” and contain it. The risk that China might launch an attack to retake Taiwan is likely to grow in parallel with the CCP leadership’s concerns that such a coalition is indeed developing.

Nuances in Beijing’s approach to achieving reunification have also emerged. For example, Beijing still claims to be ready for consultations with Taipei on the basis of equality and the one-China principle (echoing previous versions). However, growing intransigence is evident too as phrases pledging “all issues can be discussed” in negotiations as long as the one-China policy is respected have vanished.

Similarly, the language surrounding Beijing’s potential use of force to retake Taiwan has become more extensive and sharper in tone. Military force remains a “last resort,” but the 2022 white paper adds that Beijing will only turn to such “drastic measures” if its red lines are crossed. However, these red lines remain undefined and at the whim of the party leadership (beyond often-stated triggers such as moves towards formal independence or Taiwan’s occupation by foreign forces) so the new language will increase uncertainty.

Hong Kong as the model for Taiwan

But the starkest change in this white paper lies in the description of what awaits Taiwan after reunification. The ‘one country, two systems’ model remains the offer on the table, despite Taipei’s formal rejection of this formula.4 The model, however, has clearly changed in Beijing’s eyes.

The 2000 Taiwan White Paper offered a “looser form” of ‘one country, two systems’ than the one in Hong Kong or Macao, by which Taiwan would be able to maintain its capitalist system “for a long period of time to come” and enjoy a high degree of autonomy, and by which the central government would not station troops or administrative personnel there.

The new version promises nothing of the sort. The language pledging the central government would not send troops or personnel to the island has ominously disappeared. So have references to Taiwan’s capitalist system. Instead, and in echoes to the governance model that has been imposed on Hong Kong, the new white paper merely promises that Taiwan may continue with its current social system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region (SAR) “in accordance with the law.” Such SAR status is conditional on China’s sovereignty, security and development interests being guaranteed. As in Hong Kong, this approach would give primacy to central government policies and legislation, eliminating most of the freedoms Taiwan currently enjoys.

In a claim reminiscent of Beijing’s policy that only “patriots” should be able to run for election in Hong Kong,5 the 2022 White Paper also notes that “Taiwan compatriots who support reunification of the country and rejuvenation of the nation” will be “the masters of the region.” The wording seems to imply that those who support reunification with the mainland will be rewarded with political power and influence, while those who resist would face punishment.

This latter group is also likely to be the target of Beijing’s calls for a stronger sense of national identity after reunification, which it considers necessary after years of the DPP’s efforts to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan. China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, made chilling comments on French TV in early August that China would “re-educate” Taiwanese people after reunification, remarks which appear to align with Beijing’s official posture.6

Beijing would like Taiwan to become another Hong Kong. To preempt any criticism of this, the white paper justifies Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong as defending the ‘one country, two systems’ model: “For a time, Hong Kong faced a period of damaging social unrest caused by anti-China agitators both inside and outside the region. […] the CPC and the Chinese government upheld the One Country, Two Systems principle, made some appropriate improvements […] This has laid a solid foundation for the law-based governance of Hong Kong and Macao and the long-term continuation of One Country, Two Systems.”

The risks of normalization

Beijing’s prospects of persuading Taiwan’s population to support reunification have worsened over the decades. Fewer and fewer Taiwanese people identify as Chinese or support any form of reunification with the mainland.7 Offering a Hong Kong-like model after reunification will not change the trend, given the harsh crackdown on Hong Kong’s social and political model. Beijing’s options have therefore become increasingly limited: either pressure and intimidation or outright military action.

Military action to retake Taiwan seems unlikely at present, given Beijing’s own limitations in terms of military capabilities, the need to maintain stability at a time of leadership reshuffles, and the tense international environment. The latter could easily lead to rapid escalation and a conflict of greater dimensions than Beijing feels confident to handle. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have extended China’s timeframe as the military adjusts its plans to absorb lessons learned from that war, though this cannot be said for certain.

The PLA’s rapid reaction to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, however, made clear that Beijing already has well-developed plans for a blockade of Taiwan. Furthermore, it revealed that China’s political and military leadership are increasingly willing to escalate the situation – while remaining short of war – in order to demonstrate displeasure, deter similar actions in future and, above all, to reset the status quo. The recent drills also serve as training and preparation for any future contingency.

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