Xi Jinping is appealing to nationalism in the face of mounting challenges back home—and it could spell trouble for Taipei and Washington.
By Gordon G. Chang — The National Interest
Xi Jinping, in his first speech in 2019 , told Taiwan it had no choice but to become part of China. “China must be, will be reunified,” is how the Chinese ruler put it on Wednesday, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Xi did not break rhetorical or theoretical ground when commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, but he took the occasion to stress Beijing’s willingness to go to war. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” he said. The New York Times reported“rousing applause” for his bellicose lines.
The fact he chose at this time to give “his first major speech” on Taiwan suggests belligerent themes are popular in Beijing.
There is way too much unprovoked war talk in China at the moment, and Taiwan is not the only target. For instance, twice last month a senior officer of the People’s Liberation Army urged unprovoked attacks on the U.S. Navy . In the second such blast, Rear Adm. Luo Yuan wanted Beijing to use its missiles to sink two American aircraft carriers and cause ten thousand casualties.
Bellicosity is never a good sign. In this case, the belligerence is almost surely the result of political distress at the top of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping, due to one policy failure after another, is losing support, and after accumulating almost unprecedented power—adversaries mock him as the “Chairman of Everything, Everywhere, and Everyone”—he has no one else to blame.
With no one else to blame, there is no tactic as effective for him as nationalism.
And there is no nationalist issue for the Communist Party quite like Taiwan. Analysts say Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War, but that’s not technically true. Yes, Mao, the communist leader, chased Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang one, off the mainland of Asia in 1949, but Chiang found refuge in Taiwan.
Today, the People’s Republic of China, the state occupying the so-called “Mainland,” and the Republic of China, the government with its seat in Taipei, both claim to be the legitimate government of “China.” Although only seventeen countries extend diplomatic recognition to Taipei, the civil war, in a real sense, continues.
The civil war also continues because the People’s Republic has never controlled the island. In fact, there have been only a few decades when an ethnically “Chinese” government has effectively ruled Taiwan.
Xi’s argument falls down in other critical respects. “We are all of the same family,” he said Wednesday. “The cross-Straits affairs are domestic affairs.”
Domestic? At least half, and generally about two-thirds, of Taiwan’s people in self-identification surveys deny they are “Chinese” in any respect. They call themselves “Taiwanese.” About five percent—those who came with Chiang in the 1940s or their descendants—see themselves as Chinese only.
Yet no matter how they self-identify, the people who call Taiwan home do not want to be absorbed by Xi’s People’s Republic. His offer of a “one country, two systems” structure for reunification—the formula implemented in Hong Kong—is extremely unattractive. Even Beijing’s friends on the self-governing island, like the Kuomintang Party, are against it . As Gerrit van der Wees, a Taiwan analyst associated with the Global Taiwan Institute, told the National Interest , “Mr. Xi’s empty promises of ‘one country, two systems’ is universally rejected in Taiwan.”
Taiwanese undoubtedly would declare themselves “independent”—in other words, drop the outdated claim to China and declare themselves to be sovereign on Taiwan—were it not for fear of what an enraged Xi would do. So the status quo, which favors the self-governing island, continues.
Many say that, despite what the people of Taiwan think, the United States should just allow Beijing to take the island. That was Nixon’s and Kissinger’s position when they reached out to Mao in the early 1970s, and it was essentially Carter’s view when he formally switched diplomatic recognition on January 1, 1979, not coincidentally the day the National People’s Congress issued the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.
Yet even if Taiwan were America’s to give—it, of course, is not—Xi’s China is unappeasable. The Chinese ruler, in addition to Taiwan, demands substantial portions of India, including the state of Arunachal Pradesh; a number of Japan’s islands in the East China Sea; and just about every island, reef, and speck in the South China Sea.
Furthermore, Chinese state media and state institutions have made it clear that Xi wants to take Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain from Japan, and there is even ludicrous talk in Beijing of “recovering” a large portion of Siberia. Finally, Xi Jinping has been dropping hints that China is the world’s only sovereign state .
At some point, therefore, the United States will have to defend its own sovereignty and confront Beijing. Syndicated radio host John Batchelor this week suggested Americans are not prepared for what is coming. “The American people will not go to war for Taiwan,” he said on his Wednesday show. “Does Taiwan understand that?”
Whether Americans realize it or not, they may end up protecting the island anyway. For more than a century, the United States has drawn its western defense perimeter off the coast of Asia. Taiwan is in the center of that critical line, protecting Japan’s southern flank, where the East China Sea meets the South China Sea.
“Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is not an ‘internal affair of China,’ it is a core interest of the United States,” as van der Wees says. “The U.S. insists that Taiwan’s future be determined peacefully with the consent of the people of Taiwan, and rightly so.”
Nonetheless, Xi Jinping this year could lash out at Taiwan if he thinks he can get away with it. For far too long, Americans, with ambiguous policy, have been sending weak signals. In September, for instance, former Defense Secretary James Mattis vetoed a State Department proposal to station Marine guards at the newly opened headquarters, near Taipei, of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto American embassy.
Cowering in the face of belligerence is no way to keep the peace. A much better approach would be for President Trump to add one more country to the list recognizing the island, perhaps not as the government of China but as the Republic of Taiwan.