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Respect or Use of Force? China-Taiwan Divide Seen Getting Deeper


FILE - A Taiwan Coast Guard officer stands guard under a Taiwanese flag in the East China Sea, north of Taiwan, April 9, 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Taiwan Wednesday it’s time for the two sides to unify and didn’t rule out using force to make that happen. A day earlier, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told China to respect her government’s existence and the democratic resolve of her self-ruled island’s people. Tsai rejects Beijing’s claim that both sides fall under one flag.

The conflicting speeches, timed one day apart, indicate the division between the two old rivals over unification and the lack of a channel to discuss differences. If acted on, they will extend or worsen 70 years of strained relations, analysts believe.

“With the current situation between China and Taiwan, I don’t think there is that foundation of trust for any kind of in-depth discussion of debate on these issues,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence, referring to Tsai’s ideas. “The key is whether there is that foundation of trust. That needs to be first established.”

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The fleeing Nationalists re-based their government in Taiwan, but the more militarily powerful China insists that the two sides must eventually unite, by force if necessary.

Stern words from Beijing

President Xi thundered against past efforts in Taiwan to become legally independent of China and said the two sides should pursue a “one country-two systems” model of unification that his government applied to Hong Kong in 1997. China said that year it had given the former British local autonomy.

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) looks on as his tea cup is replenished during the second plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 9, 2018.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) looks on as his tea cup is replenished during the second plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 9, 2018.

​“Peaceful unification and ‘one country, two systems’ are the best methods of realizing unification between the two sides,” Xi said as cited by China’s official Xinhua News Agency. This course, he said, “gives ample consideration to Taiwan’s actual situation and will help Taiwan’s long-term peace and stability after unification.”

The president suggested more exchanges and did not rule out use of force if needed to fight Taiwan independence.

“We want to make our biggest effort to achieve peaceful unification because this method is most beneficial, but we don’t give up the use of weapons,” Xi said.

His speech marked the 40th anniversary of the statement from the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress calling for unification with Taiwan.

Taiwan leader demands respect

Taiwan’s president demanded in a New Year’s speech that China recognize her government and respect the resolve of the island’s 23 million people.

“Here I want to appeal to China that it must see correctly the existence of the Republic of China, Taiwan, must respect the 23 million Taiwanese people’s resolve for freedom and democracy and must handle existing agreements equitably and peacefully,” Tsai Ing-wen said. “It must also be that only organizations authorized by the two governments can sit down for talks.”

These “musts,” she said, form the “most basic and most key foundation for the positive development of relations between Taiwan and China.”

The president, elected in 2016, rejects Beijing’s dialogue condition that both sides talk as parts of one “China” and on Tuesday warned local officials against exchanges with Beijing based on “vague prerequisites.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during a New Year's day press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 1, 2019.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during a New Year's day press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 1, 2019.

China has responded to her rejection by flying military aircraft near the island, squelching Taiwanese foreign diplomacy and scaling back Taiwan-bound group tourism.

Fallout from speeches

This week’s speeches could deepen the China-Taiwan gap if Xi pushes ahead or Taiwanese opposition party figures engage him against Tsai’s will, scholars say.

Most Taiwanese say in polls they oppose Xi’s goal of unification, and the Communist leadership doesn’t recognize the autonomy of Taiwan.

“The demands for unification on the one-China principle violates the will of the Taiwanese people,” said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies.

“We have freedom, democracy and human rights, so how can we be one country, two systems?” he asked. “It’s impossible. Hong Kong is a great example. Since Hong Kong was returned to China, its freedom and democracy have faced a lot of limitations.”

Use of force against Taiwan would hurt China by inciting a response from Japan and the United States, Michael Tsai added.

Further eroding the chance of dialogue, the Taiwan president probably spoke Tuesday to deter Taiwan’s opposition party mayors and magistrates from holding their own talks, said Shane Lee, political scientist with Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.

The opposition Nationalist Party, whose candidates won 15 of 22 local seats in the November midterm elections, takes a more Beijing-friendly view than the ruling party.

“I think she doesn’t want the local officials to have private connections with Xi Jinping or any other PRC officials,” Lee said. “I think she thinks that that’s not only immoral but almost illegal.”

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