By Jianli Yang
For most observers, a potential cross-strait military conflict is the most alarming global geopolitical risk facing the world in 2023. The numerous military deployments and movements that occurred across the Taiwan Strait around the New Year give a strong impression of rising temperatures and tensions.
Of course, how the conflict will ultimately play out remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the use of force against Taiwan to achieve “motherland reunification” is one of the top leader Xi Jinping’s political goals. More than any of his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) predecessors, Xi is making a conscious effort to make “reunification of the motherland” his legacy, and he has been gradually developing and implementing the policies and strategies necessary to achieve this goal. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass protests, and an economic crisis, Xi has never wavered from his strategic plans for the annexation of Taiwan.
Xi recognizes that peaceful unification with Taiwan is becoming less likely as public opinion in Taiwan continues to shift away from the CCP’s hegemonic aspirations. In recent years, Xi’s military preparations have been both conspicuous and intense. Most recently, building on China’s escalating military harassment of Taiwan following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island nation in 2022, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) kicked off 2023 with three high-intensity military exercises that were widely viewed as cross-strait combat drills.
During a press conference on January 11, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang didn’t mince words on the matter, stating that the PLA’s drills were meant to serve as “a stern warning against the escalation of provocations by Taiwan and the U.S., which have damaged peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Analysts have noted Xi’s recent overhaul of the CCP’s top staff in charge of Taiwan affairs. At the CCP’s 20th National Congress in October 2022, Xi unexpectedly appointed Wang Huning, a political theorist for three generations of CCP leaders, as the fourth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee. The ranking means Wang will serve as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the “two sessions” of the National People’s Congress and the CPPCC in March, as is customary.
The main task of the CPPCC is the “united front.” In layman’s terms, the united front is the CCP’s strategy to draw in CCP outsiders – including elites and celebrities, ethnic minorities, people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, and overseas Chinese communities – with Taiwan bearing the brunt. Wang Huning will soon become deputy head of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, the CCP’s highest decision-making body on Taiwan issues, headed by Xi Jinping himself.
The reason why Wang’s appointment comes as a surprise is that, unlike all previous CPPCC chairmen, Wang does not have any local political experience, nor has he followed a traditional bureaucratic career path in CCP agencies. He previously headed the Central Policy Research Office for many years, and his background makes him a rare combination of national policy advisor, chief speechwriter, and chief political theorist for Xi. Last December, Wang appeared at a meeting of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots and the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, and also delivered a congratulatory speech at the annual Cross-Strait CEO Summit (CSCS), indicating that he has already begun to preside over Taiwan affairs.
This new personnel arrangement reveals a shift in Xi Jinping’s thinking on Taiwan reunification. Although Xi is aware that peaceful reunification has become unlikely, he now needs to introduce a new doctrine on Taiwan reunification to replace the old “one country, two systems” paradigm and then apply pressure on Taiwan on this basis to make a name for himself. The new doctrine will be used as a yardstick to measure the progress of China’s efforts to reclaim Taiwan, and will be used to determine whether military action is necessary.
The governance principle of “one country, two systems,” first proposed by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, has served ever since as the CCP’s institutional and strategic framework for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan. But after Xi’s hardline stance on Hong Kong – the poster child for “one country, two systems” – and China’s implementation of a Hong Kong National Security Law in mid-2020, public opinion in Taiwan has shifted dramatically, with nearly 90 percent of Taiwanese now opposing the “one country, two systems” principle.
Thus, analysts believe the reason Xi chose to appoint Wang Huning is to make use of his theoretical and propaganda expertise and experience to build a new strategic framework for China’s annexation of Taiwan and an accompanying model for a united front in the Xi era.
In short, even as the prospects for peaceful reunification diminish, the CCP’s strategy to gain sovereignty over Taiwan is inextricably linked to a carrot-and-stick approach. While the international community has recently focused more on the “stick,” Xi has also conveyed a willingness to offer a “carrot” to the island nation.
The difference between Xi’s speeches on two recent holidays, just three weeks apart, illustrates this. In his speech at the State Council’s annual Spring Festival reception on January 21, Xi declared that the CCP would “resolutely fight against separatism and foreign interference in major struggles and secure a dominant position in cross-strait relations.” Meanwhile, in his ceremonial New Year’s address on December 31, he mentioned that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are “one close family.” He expressed his hope that “compatriots” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait would “create a lasting future of prosperity for the Chinese nation.”
For Xi Jinping, unification with Taiwan is an indispensable goal. Xi hopes that the Chinese, the Taiwanese, and the international community will all accept China’s use of the “stick” as the norm. However, he needs the “carrot” to legitimize his eventual use of military force to annex Taiwan. Since the old offer of “one country, two systems” has not only lost its appeal but is even considered poisonous by the Taiwanese, can Xi rely on Wang to grow a new kind of carrot to solve the Taiwan dilemma?
This article first appeared in The Diplomat on Feb 7, 2023