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  • Jude Blanchette

Coercion Cul-de-Sac: Upcoming Taiwan Elections and Beijing’s Broken Cross-Strait Relations Approach

Jude Blanchette CLM Issue 78 December 2023
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Ma Xiaoguang
The upcoming Taiwan elections on January 13, 2024 is an important moment to observe what, if any, modifications Beijing might make to its long-standing approach to cross-Strait relations, with its blend of coercion and intimidation on the one hand, with intended economic inducements on the other. After decades of this approach, the PRC appears no closer to its goal of “reunification.” Coercion is pushing the Taiwan people further from the PRC, and economic integration with the Chinese economy is seen as a means of entrapment. Yet a prospective victory of the DDP’s Lai Ching-te, which would mark an important setback for Beijing, is unlikely to provoke any new thinking in academic and policy circles, given the rigid constraints on intellectual discourse. Rather, Beijing will dig deeper into its coercive toolkit.

On January 13, 2024, Taiwan will hold a highly consequential election for both the presidency and for control of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), the island democracy’s legislative body. The election comes at a time of rising military tensions in the region, a rapidly deteriorating geo-economic outlook, and amidst growing military intimidation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).[1] Irrespective of how the Taiwan people vote this coming January, the election marks the conclusion of eight years of leadership by the current president, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen, who is limited to two, four-year terms. A new era, therefore, is set to begin, with Taiwan’s next leader facing an increasingly complex external environment, a fractious U.S.-China relationship, a more truculent Chinese leadership, and an upcoming U.S. presidential election that could see the re-election of Donald Trump. As a result, many observers wonder if the framework that has maintained the relative peace in the Taiwan Strait can persist any longer.[2] The January presidential election thus comes at an important moment in Beijing’s approach to cross-Strait relations. While it can be assumed that a victory by the KMT’s Hou You-yi or the TPP’s Ko Wen-je would result in a short-term diminishment in tensions, how would Beijing respond to a win by the DPP’s Lai Ching-te?

To provide some initial speculation answers, this analysis draws on recent authoritative actions and statements by the Chinese leadership, as well as discourse and debates among Chinese experts and academics focusing cross-Strait issues.

Xi Jinping’s Approach to Cross-Strait Relations

Before discussing Beijing’s pre-election posturing and possible post-election reaction, it is important to briefly review developments since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP ended eight years of rule by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT.[3] As she came into office, Tsai attempted a political balance between the “deep greens” in the DPP, who urged her to take a more declaratory stance on Taiwan’s independence from China, and the public at large, which has settled into a more pragmatic position that seeks neither de jure independence nor a formal reconciliation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Tsai made clear in speeches and interviews that she would make no unilateral changes in the Taiwan Strait, she also did not publicly support the 1992 Consensus, which Beijing has made a litmus test for the prospect of “good relations.” Even though Tsai had used her inauguration speech to send signals to Beijing that she was not seeking to replicate the approach of her DPP predecessor, the ardent pro-independence Chen Shui-bian, Beijing was already deeply distrustful of the DPP and saw Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to affirm the 1992 Consensus as a sign that she would use her time in office to seek an incremental, if not outright, break from Beijing. As one PRC scholar observes, Tsai “[underestimated] Beijing’s determination to defend the one- China principle even at a heavy cost to the cross-Strait relations.”[4]

Yet Beijing’s early reaction to Tsai was also indicative of its growing inability to understand and anticipate Taiwan’s rapidly evolving internal politics. While the KMT – Beijing’s preferred partner – originated and developed along-side, and often in violent conflict with, the CCP, the DPP was entirely a product of an autonomous and democratizing Taiwan. The cracks in Beijing’s understanding were already evident during the otherwise cooperative Ma administration, which saw massive protests in the spring of 2014 in response to the proposed Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that the ruling KMT was attempting to ram through the LY without the agreed-upon clause-by-clause review.[5] Many protestors saw the agreement as indicative of an economic entrapment strategy wherein Beijing would exploit closer trade and investment ties to compel future annexation.

Beijing’s calculus was also complicated by the rapidly evolving U.S.-Taiwan relationship, starting with the unprecedented phone call between recently elected Donald Trump and President Tsai in December 2016. While subsequently published memoirs by Trump administration insiders paint a picture of a president with no inherent interest in Taiwan, the Trump administration as a whole took a number of actions that signaled to Beijing that its ability to control cross-Strait dynamics was being threatened.[6] While many of the Trump administration’s actions were designed to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan ties and help improve U.S. deterrence and Taiwan’s own defensive capabilities, other actions had the effect of destabilizing both U.S.-China and cross-Strait relations, including late administration moves, such as the lifting of long-standing rules governing contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials.

In the midst of these developments, Xi Jinping’s own approach began to shift, even as he remained largely within the parameters laid down by previous administrations. On January 2, 2019, he delivered a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of a message delivered to “Taiwan compatriots” by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. In the original 1979 communication, Beijing’s formal goal of “liberating” Taiwan (by means of a violent overthrow of the local government) had been transformed to “peaceful unification,” which, at the time, augured a more flexible approach to reconciliation. Xi, however, used his speech to tighten the parameters for what Beijing considered an acceptable path forward, most notably by omitting previous commitments to maintain Taiwan’s military and political system post-“reunification.” Furthermore, Xi’s speech arrived just as the political situation in Hong Kong was set to deteriorate, paving the way for Beijing’s near-obliteration of the “one country, two systems” framework that had been put in place at the time of Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom in 1997.[7]

At the 6th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress in November 2021, the CCP Central Committee endorsed the “Overall Strategy for Resolving the Taiwan Issue in the New Era” (新时代党解决台湾问题的总体方略), which was subsequently incorporated into the 2022 Government Work Report and into Xi Jinping’s report to the 20th Party Congress in late 2022. Writing just after the 20th Party Congress, Liu Jieyi, then-head of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), described the “Overall Strategy” as having ten pillars, of which several were merely carryovers from Beijing’s traditional approach to cross-Strait issues.[8] There were other aspects, however, that were distinct to the Xi era, perhaps the most notable being the explicit interrelation between “reunification” and “rejuvenation.” As Liu wrote in the People’s Daily, “The Taiwan issue arose out of national weakness and chaos and will surely be resolved with the rejuvenation of the nation. We should further clarify the important position of national reunification in the overall situation of the national rejuvenation strategy.” While this reunification/rejuvenation connection is open to interpretation, it is in keeping with other statements by Xi that appear to place an implicit deadline for the annexation of Taiwan by 2049, the target year for achieving the PRC’s rejuvenation.[9] The second interesting component of the “Overall Strategy,” as described by Liu, is the need to “insist on resolving the Taiwan issue based on the development and progress of the motherland.” Liu further explains:

It is necessary to grasp the relationship between the development of hard power and the development of soft power, to base the development of the country and the nation on our own strength, to properly manage our own affairs, and to continue to enhance our influence on, and attractiveness and appeal to, Taiwan, thereby laying a more solid foundation for promoting the great cause of reunification.

Here Liu articulates Beijing’s view on the importance of maintaining a favorable balance of military and economic power as the key to influencing both the present dynamics and also the long-term objectives. If Beijing can continue to develop and publicly demonstrate superior military capabilities, this would both deter independence and frustrate the ability of the United States to intervene. And if the Chinese economy can continue to expand, Beijing can, in theory, attract Taiwan capital and investment, and then use this economic integration as a lever to induce movement toward political negotiations.[10]

The next shift occurred in connection to the visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 2, 2022. While a visit to Taiwan by a U.S. Speaker of the House was not unprecedented – Newt Gingrich visited Taipei and met with then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in 1997 – Beijing worried that a visit by Pelosi would now formally set a precedent, and so as it gauged its response to the visit, one clear objective of which was how to impose a cost on both Taiwan and the United States in order to deter future such trips.[11] As soon as Pelosi departed from Taiwan, the PLA undertook one of the largest military exercises in modern history, sending dozens of naval and air force ships and aircraft into the waters and airspace off Taiwan’s main island, sending drones into the airspace over Taiwan’s Kinmen Island, and initiating live-fire rocket and missile launches, including an estimated four missiles that passed directly over Taiwan’s main island. In the period since the Pelosi visit, the pace and scope of PLA activities in the Taiwan Strait have remained at significantly elevated levels, indicating that Beijing has created, and is attempting to normalize, a new floor for its military presence, one that gives it additional options should it decide to use force against the island.[12]

Pelosi’s visit also provoked the August 10 release of the PRC’s third White Paper on the “Taiwan question.” Previous White Papers had appeared in 1993, in the wake of the Wang-Koo talks between Beijing and Taipei, and again in February 2000, less than one month before the election of pro-independence DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian. This pattern indicates the White Papers are a response to Beijing’s unease or uncertainties about cross-Strait developments, when it feels necessary to send a highly authoritative warning signal to Taipei and Washington. The August 2022 White Paper, while remaining broadly consistent with the language in the two previous documents, also hews closely to Xi’s 2019 speech and its emphasis on the circumscribed “one country, two systems” construct.

Taking stock of Xi’s approach to cross-Strait relations during the Tsai Ing-wen era, although there were important developments and a clear deterioration of relations, there was little innovation coming from Beijing. Its main goals remained to deter de facto and de jure independence, while concomitantly to attempt to steer events on Taiwan in the direction of acquiescence to formal political negotiations. In order to achieve the later, Beijing continues to push ahead with its tripartite approach to (1) isolate Taiwan from the international community, (2) achieve and maintain dominance of the airspace and waters around Taiwan, and (3) utilize a comprehensive toolkit of coercion, intimidation, and selective inducements to steer public and political attitudes on Taiwan toward the view that reunification is inevitable.[13] At the same time, Beijing stresses both the potential penalties for outright abjuring or delaying a final unification but also offering prospective economic and diplomatic benefits that would accrue to the Taiwan people in a post-reunification world. Fudan University scholar Xin Qiang describes this policy as “congagement,” combining “confrontational measures in the security, political, and diplomatic fields, with coordinative approaches on economic, social, and cultural affairs.[14]

Yet after nearly eight years of frozen relations with Taipei, and in the midst of a significant escalation in tensions with the United States, Xi Jinping’s cross-Strait policy, like that of his predecessors, remains effective in deterring de jure independence, but thus far it has demonstrated little effectiveness in convincing the people on Taiwan that unification with the PRC is a worthwhile goal.[15] Although there is close to no appetite on Taiwan for a formal declaration of independence, polls in Taiwan continue to show threadbare support for unification with the PRC and a growing trend of a strengthened “Taiwanese” (台湾人) identify on the island.[16]

Wang Huning Formulates a New Approach?

On January 18, 2023, it was announced that Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning had been tapped to lead the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (中国人民政治协商会议, or CPPCC), and therefore by precedent would nominally lead the united front work (统战工作) component of Beijing’s reunification efforts. Subsequently, Wang was named deputy head of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, which is led by Xi, and president (会长) of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (中国和平统一促进会). Given that Wang is a close Xi adviser and in the past had reportedly led previous efforts to formulate macro-political strategies and slogans, including the “three represents” of the Jiang Zemin era, many speculated that he had been installed in his new position to fundamentally rework Beijing’s strategy for reunification.[17]

Yet from what can be gleaned from Wang’s many public remarks since assuming leadership of the Taiwan portfolio earlier this year, there remains little substantive shift in approach from the main pillars of Beijing’s previously articulated reunification strategy, including as outlined in recent authoritative documents, including the 2022 Taiwan White Paper, the 20th Party Congress report, and the 2021 “Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century.”[18] While warning against “Taiwan independence,” “separatist activities,” (分裂活动), and “interference from external forces” (外部势力干涉), as well stipulating the necessity that any political leader in Taipei must embrace the 1992 Consensus, Wang’s public comments have also extolled the shared cultural inheritance and “common aspirations” between the PRC and Taiwan as well as the significant benefits to Taiwan firms and individuals if they push for closer economic integration.[19]

A centerpiece of this recent approach is the “Cross-Strait Integrated Development Demonstration Zone” (两岸融合发展示范区), which Wang unveiled at the 15th Cross Strait Forum (第十五届海峡论坛) on June 15th.[20] The full plan, which was jointly issued by the CCP Central Committee and the State Council, was not made public until September 12, contains measures to strengthen economic, financial, infrastructure, and people-to-people ties between Fujian province and Taiwan, all of which servicing the stated goal of “[promoting] the process of peaceful reunification of the motherland.”[21] Key pillars of the new “demonstration zone” include building and strengthening transportation and critical infrastructural ties with Kinmen (金门) and Matsu (马祖), which are controlled by Taiwan, even though they are situated 2.5 and 5.5 miles from the PRC, respectively. The plan also offers the prospect of expanded opportunities for Taiwan companies working in the fields of agriculture and technology, although details on implementation remain scant. The overall intended message, however, is clear: integrate with the mainland for a better life.

While this theme of “integrated development” (融合发展) and its purported benefits to Taiwan are not new, having been a feature of PRC discourse on Taiwan since the early 2000s, its recent amplification is notable, likely an effort to influence voting in the upcoming Taiwan election but also to address the growing concerns Taiwan companies and investors have about the regulatory and geopolitical risks associated with the PRC market.[22] As one cross-Strait expert at East China Normal University describes the plan, “[it will] help Taiwan compatriots and enterprises obtain more development opportunities and more space for development so that they can better participate in the mainland's high-quality development and integrate into the new development pattern (新发展格局).”[23] Justin Lin Yifu, the noted economist who fled Taiwan for the PRC in 1979, told an assembled audience at the 15th Cross Strait Forum, “The development of the motherland is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Taiwan compatriots.”[24] More broadly, Beijing sees its control over its domestic mega-market and a sophisticated industrial-manufacturing ecosystem as a critical tool in ultimately persuading – or compelling – Taipei to enter into formal political negotiations.

Yet, at the same time Beijing extols the virtues of the Chinese market in the lead-up to the January election, it has been waging a campaign of targeted, yet shifting, economic coercion. This has entailed the removal of previous restrictions on selected imports from Taiwan into China, while concurrently initiating new de facto trade regulatory sanctions on other firms, products, and individuals, often targeting DPP-friendly constituencies in agricultural-heavy southern Taiwan.

In January, Beijing lifted import bans on sixty-three Taiwan companies that had been barred from the Chinese market, yet on April 12, just six days after President Tsai transited through the United States and met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the PRC Ministry of Commerce announced it had launched a “trade barrier investigation into Taiwan’s trade restrictions on mainland China.”[25] Laying bare the political calculations behind the measures, the investigation was set to conclude on October 12, or, under “special circumstances” (特殊情况下), it could be extended to January 12, 2024, just one day prior to the presidential and LY elections. When announcing the measures, a spokesperson for the PRC Taiwan Affairs Office claimed that “The DPP authorities have been engaging in political manipulation to incite cross-Strait confrontation, which shows it is intent on its political self-interest and ignores the interests of businesses and people on the island,” adding that, “this will only reduce the space for Taiwan's economic development and harm the vital interests of Taiwan compatriots.”[26] In August, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office stated that the investigation had already found Taiwan to be in violation of the requirements of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that Taipei and Beijing had signed in 2010. Although Beijing has not yet announced that it will pull out of the agreement, many analysts see such a move as a likely reaction to a possible election victory by Lai Ching-te (赖清德) in January (as will be discussed below).[27]

However, not all of Beijing’s coercive actions are targeting the DPP. In October, Chinese tax authorities initiated an investigation into Foxconn, the company founded by Terry Gou (郭台铭), who, until late November, was running for Taiwan president as an independent. While the ultimate reason for the probe is unclear, nationalist media outlets strongly suggest that Beijing was unhappy about Guo’s entrance into the race and the risk that it would peel votes away from the KMT. As Global Times declared, “The investigation is normal, but it may impact the elections, said experts, noting that if the secessionists who seek ‘Taiwan independence’ win the elections, that would be a huge disaster to the peace and stability of the region, and the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, including the ones in the business circle, should work together to prevent disaster from happening.”[28]

Short-term Implications of a Lai Ching-te Victory

Beijing’s formal position on Lai is clear, having long framed him as an immutable “secessionist,” who, working with “outside forces” (i.e., the United States), will push for outright independence if elected, as opposed to what some PRC Taiwan scholars argue was Tsai’s “hidden” independence agenda.[29] Of course, Lai’s previously articulated positions on cross-Strait issues support some of Beijing’s base assertions, including his now oft-quoted comment that he is a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” (务实的台独工作者). Although subsequent comments by Lai and his campaign have sought to contextualize his views on independence and clarify that his post-election approach to cross-Strait issues will remain consistent with that of Tsai, the official propaganda narrative from Beijing has remained unbending in its framing of Lai has a “secessionist” working in collusion with the United States to bring about Taiwan’s independence.[30] Like Tsai, Lai has also refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus, which, as noted above, is Beijing’s foundational litmus test for sorting Taiwan politicians into the category of friend or foe.[31]

But Beijing’s Lai Ching-te histrionics betray its unsophistication about – or deliberate misrepresentation of – Taiwan’s partisan politics. For example, Lai has repeated a phrase first used by President Tsai: “We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan.” Somewhat predictably, Beijing interprets this as a clear sign that both Tsai and Lai are closet “secessionists,” but in fact such an utterance reflects the DPP’s evolution since democratization began in the late 1980s. As Taiwan-based political scientist Nathan Batto observes, “political elites [in Taiwan] who support independence have largely come to the same conclusion as the country’s people; rather than quixotically challenging the status quo, most of them have decided that any differences between their ideal position and the status quo are minor – and not worth fighting over.”[32]

Since Lai was announced as the DPP presidential candidate in April, Beijing has actively sought to frame the upcoming election as a choice between stark and binary outcomes, or as one Xinhua commentary frames it, “At present, cross-Strait relations are facing a choice between peace and war, prosperity and recession.”[33] The not-too-subtle implication is that if voters choose an alternative political party and candidate, they can expect closer, more stable, and more economically beneficial relations with the PRC. For its part, the KMT has been echoing these sentiments, with one KMT spokesperson declaring, “[Lai Ching-te’s] candidacy has not only run a risk of worsening tensions across the Taiwan Strait but raised international concerns about a potential military conflict becoming more likely than during Tsai's presidency.”[34]

Given the above, Beijing would most certainly see a Lai victory in January as a significant setback for three reasons. First, the election of a candidate who Beijing had spent the previous several years demonizing as an unrepentant secessionist would, if we follow Beijing’s own political logic, severely limit space for dialogue. Second, a DPP victory in January will mean the KMT – which Beijing clearly prefers – has lost the last three consecutive presidential elections, casting into severe doubt its effectiveness as a force for political opposition. Finally, given its stated assumption that the United States prefers the DPP to the KMT, a Lai win would complicate Beijing’s calculations vis-à-vis its relationship with the United States.[35]

Given this, how might Beijing respond to the immediate event of a Lai victory?[36] While it should be expected that Beijing will adopt some of the following options immediately after the January elections, it will also be watching for signs that Lai will use his inauguration speech in May to make "provocative” remarks, or beyond that, to use his first few weeks or months in office to push for actions deemed “reckless.” Below, then, are possible reactions in four of the main pillars of Beijing’s cross-Strait coercion strategy. A key assumption of this analysis is that Beijing will seek to send an early “brushback pitch” to the new Lai administration, as well as to the United States. In addition, years of anti-Lai domestic and foreign propaganda mean that Beijing will feel some self-imposed pressure to make an initial display of displeasure.

  • Economic. Beijing has already sent numerous authoritative signals that it is contemplating terminating the ECFA, which would result in a reimposition of full tariffs on hundreds of Taiwan products exported to the PRC. Some analysts expect the actual impact on the Taiwan economy as a whole would be limited; while some specific sectors, including petrochemicals and textiles, would feel pain, the overall composition of the PRC-Taiwan economic relationship has advanced in ways that render the ECFA less critical to Taiwan than it was when first agreed upon more than a decade ago.[37] Chinese authorities might also implement a suite of de facto punitive actions, including unofficial import bans on products and companies linked to DPP stronghold regions, or targeted investigations of companies with DPP links. Additional restrictions on Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan might be introduced, although Beijing’s previous restrictive policies, put in place in 2019 and 2020, have all but halted the flow of tourists to Taiwan. Cross-border investment and capital flows are another area in which Beijing might attempt to inflict punishment, including by measures to limit the flow of capital to/from Taiwan as well as “window guidance” restricting the ability of Taiwan firms operating in China to repatriate accumulated profits.

  • Military. Displays of military power have long been Beijing’s standard tool to display its anger or anxiety about actions and developments in Taiwan as well as about those actions taken by the United States. Well-known cases include the PLA’s response to Lee Teng-hui’s trip to the United States in 1995 and its large-scale military exercises in the immediate wake of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022. Thus, some form of military exercise is probably the most predictable aspect of Beijing’s response to a Lai victory. The question, however, remains at what severity. At the lower end of the spectrum would be a simple amplification of PLA Air Force (PLAARF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) planes and ships, which are already at nearly unprecedented levels, in the Taiwan Strait in the days and weeks following the election. Moving to the right of the spectrum, the PLA might consider the overflight of Taiwan with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in addition to missile launches that travel into the airspace over Taiwan, similar to PLA actions last August. This might be done in conjunction with, or substituted by, incursions into Taiwan’s 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, something that the PLA has been flirting with since the summer.[38] Finally, building from its playbook used after the Pelosi visit, the PLA might also consider again announcing a pattern of maritime closure zones that circle Taiwan’s main island, thus mimicking a possible future blockade. But now, Beijing might consider stopping and inspecting civilian and commercial ships that attempt to travel through the zones.

  • Lawfare. One year after the re-election of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian on March 24, 2004, the National People’s Congress in Beijing passed and promulgated its Anti-secession Law (反分裂国家法), which spells out the conditions for the use of “non-peaceful” means in the event of movement toward independence by Taipei. Public disclosure of the draft law was first made in December 2004 by Xinhua News Agency, just six months after Chen’s inauguration. While the law has no functional jurisdiction over Taiwan, its purpose is to utilize “legal warfare” (“lawfare”) to give binding credibility to Beijing’s previously articulated red lines. Beginning in early 2022, the Taiwan Affairs Office and Chinese state media began to circulate rumors that the National People’s Congress was contemplating a “National Reunification Law” (国家统一法). While the idea of a possible reunification law had been circulating for several years, the fact that the TAO directly addressed the issue during a February 23, 2022, press conference indicates that Beijing was seeking a public discussion of the law’s future possibility. It is unclear exactly what such a law could do, but some analysts foresee possible language around legal liability for “Chinese citizens and Taiwan compatriots” engaging in actions detrimental to the cause of reunification.[39] Irrespective of the actual language in the law, if such a law were to be passed, its likely goal would be to send a further signal of Beijing’s resolve to resolve independence and achieve reunification.

  • Diplomatic. As of this writing, Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with twelve United Nations member-states and the Holy See, making a total of thirteen diplomatic partners. Aside from the Vatican, the remainder are small economies with important trade relationships with the PRC and thus they are susceptible to targeted campaigns seeking to induce a switch of recognition to Beijing from Taipei. In its package of punitive measures, Beijing will peel off one of these countries, although such an action might also be saved for use immediately following Lai’s inauguration speech in May, which Beijing will watch closely for possible inflammatory language, thus needing to keep some escalatory options available for later use. Of course Beijing needs a willing partner in order to facilitate the switch, and many of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies still find value in their relationship with Taipei. But Beijing largely holds the cards here, given the vast asymmetry in economic resources it can bring to bear.

Conclusion: The Coercion Cul-de-Sac

What is clear from Beijing’s recent actions and statements is that it has lost any sense of creativity and flexibility in its dealing with Taiwan under DPP leadership. Part of this is due to the deeply engrained view that Taiwan is seen through the lens of rivalry with the United States. As international relations scholar Zhu Feng recently stated at a forum on the Taiwan election held by Nanjing University, “The root of understanding the Taiwan issue lies in understanding the development and direction of the great power game between the United States and China.”[40] Chinese officials and scholars are increasingly seeing the Taiwan issue as a cudgel for the United States in its perceived long-term strategy of weakening China and undermining the CCP. The phrase “using Taiwan to contain China” (以台制华) now permeates both official statements and expert analyses in China. Such a framing inevitably leads to a diminished agency for Taiwan and the Taiwan people, who are seen as mere pawns in great power competition between the U.S. and the PRC.

Beijing is also struggling to find meaningful “carrots” to persuade the people of Taiwan to support movement towards formal political negotiations on “reunification.” Because Beijing’s agenda of social and economic integration is so overtly tied to reunification (i.e. annexation), otherwise positive-sum technological, investment, and trade relations with the PRC are viewed with deep skepticism in Taiwan. And because Beijing uses economic coercion as a political tool to punish actors and voices that deviate from the correct line on unification, there is an added disincentive to seek strengthened economic ties with China.

The debate on cross-Strait issues in China – at least the portions of the debate that are in the public domain – is also exceedingly narrow. Expert analysis focuses on how to implement a post-reunification “one country, two systems” framework, despite the fact that there is no demand signal coming from Taiwan supporting such an approach.[41] Research on Taiwan’s internal politics is largely filtered through a prism that sees the hand of “secessionists” and external meddling by the United States as the key inhibitors of better cross-Strait relations, ignoring almost completely the impact of Beijing’s own actions and approach. Finally, much of the discourse is spent extolling the supposed stability and prosperity dividend the people on Taiwan will enjoy once a unification agreement is hammered out between Beijing and Taipei. With reunification, the argument goes, comes political and geopolitical stability, economic prosperity, a rebalancing of Taiwan’s budget away from security and toward pressing social issues, and expansion of diplomatic space that would accompany incorporation into the PRC.[42] Where criticism does exist, it is subtle, and where there is an awareness of Taiwan’s severe anxiety about a future with the PRC, it is referenced lightly or obliquely.[43] Thus, the gap between the reality on the ground in Taiwan and the policy and scholarly conversation in China is growing by the day.

At the end of the day, then, Beijing finds its toolkit increasingly geared toward coercion. This works to an extent, in that the looming threat of violence limits Taiwan’s international space and domestic political options, but it does not lay a path for mutually agreeable and peaceful settlement of this 74-year-old dispute. For that, Beijing will need to fundamentally reassess its goals and strategies, which, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, seems an unlikely possibility.

About the Contributor

Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Previously, he was engagement director at The Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing, where he researched China’s political environment with a focus on the workings of the Communist Party of China and its impact on foreign companies and investors. His book, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.


[1] See Jude Blanchette and Bonnie Glaser, “Taiwan's Most Pressing Challenge Is Strangulation, Not Invasion,” War on the Rocks, November 9, 2023. Available at

[2] See, for example, Ivan Kanapathy, “The Collapse of One China,” CSIS Brief, June 17, 2022. Available at

[3] For a more thorough discussion of cross-Strait developments since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, see Bonny Lin, “Enabling ‘Patriots’ to Be Masters of the Island: Evolution of Xi’s Policy on Taiwan Since 2013,” China Leadership Monitor, Issue 73, September 1, 2022. Available at

[4] See Xin Qiang, Mainland’s Taiwan Policy: From Peaceful Development to Selective Engagement (London: Routledge, 2022), 35–37.

[5] For a thorough treatment of the protests, see Ming-sho Ho, Challenging Beijing's Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan's Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019).

[6] See, for example, John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 313. “Although it came in several variations, one of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to the Resolute desk and say, ‘This is China.’”

[7] It is also important to note that in highlighting the importance of the one country, two systems framework as the sole path to peacefully resolving cross-Strait differences, Xi set the political parameters for Chinese experts working on cross-Strait issues, and, as a consequence, the academic space for conceptualizing future cross-Strait outcomes has narrowed dramatically. On the connection between Xi’s speech and the scholar-expert community, see Huang Jichao (黄继朝) and Jin Huanyu (靳环宇), "当前大陆学界’一国两制’台湾方案相关研究述评” (A Review of Current Research in Mainland Academia on the “One Country, Two Systems” Formula for Taiwan), CSIS Interpret: China. Originally published in Taiwan Studies (台湾研究) on August 1, 2021. Available at

[8] Liu Jieyi (刘结一 ), "坚持贯彻新时代党解决台湾问题的总体方略" (Adhere to the Party’s Overall Strategy for Resolving the Taiwan Issue in the New Era), CSIS Interpret: China. Original work published December 1, 2022. Available at

[9] For more on this, see Jude Blanchette, Briana Boland, and Lily McElwee, "What Is Beijing’s Timeline for ‘Reunification’ with Taiwan?" CSIS Interpret: China, May 26, 2023. Available at

[10] This aspect of China’s cross-Strait strategy has been explored in depth by outside scholars during the past twenty-plus years. See, for example, Chien-Min Chao, "Will Economic Integration Between Mainland China and Taiwan Lead to a Congenial Political Culture?" Asian Survey 43, no. 2 (March/April 2003), 280–304.

[11] This point was made to the author in multiple private conversations with Chinese scholars and government officials. See also “阮平总领事就美国国会众议长佩洛西窜访中国台湾地区接受《怀卡托周报》专访” (Consul General Ruan Ping Gives an Exclusive Interview to Waikato Weekly Regarding Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan, China), August 3, 2022. Available at

[12] For a comprehensive accounting of PLA activities related to Pelosi’s visit, see “Tracking the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis” ChinaPower. Available at

[13] For a careful analysis of Beijing’s operative strategy, including its growing use of lawfare, see Michael J. West and Aurelio Insisa, “Reunifying Taiwan with China through Cross-Strait Lawfare,” The China Quarterly, published online May 30, 2023. [14] See Xin Qiang, “Selective Engagement: Mainland China’s Dual-Track Taiwan Policy,” Journal of Contemporary China 29, no. 2 (2020), 535–552.

[15] For more on this dynamic, see Phillip C. Saunders, “Three Logics of Chinese Policy Toward Taiwan,” in Crossing the Strait: China’s Military Prepares for War with Taiwan, ed. Joel Wuthnow, Derek Grossman, Phillip C. Saunders, Andrew Scobell, and Andrew N.D. Yang (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2022), 35–63.

[16] Poll data available on the website of the National Chengchi University Election Study Center. Available at

[17] Katsuji Nakazawa, "Xi Puts Top Brain in Charge of Taiwan Unification Strategy," Nikkei Asia, January 26, 2023. Available at

[18] While Wang has spoken several times about “new concepts, new thinking, and new strategies” (新理念, 新思想,新战略) for Taiwan work, this remains unexplained in detail and is directly tied to Xi Jinping’s “Overall Strategy for Resolving the Taiwan Issue in the New Era” (新时代党解决台湾问题的总体方略), which will be discussed below.

[19] See, for example, “2023两岸企业家峰会10周年年会开幕式在南京举行王沪宁宣读习近平总书记贺信并致辞” (The Opening Ceremony of the 10th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Cross-Strait Entrepreneurs Summit 2023 Is Held in Nanjing. Wang Huning Reads Out the Congratulatory Letter from General Secretary Xi Jinping and Delivers a Speech), November 15, 2023. Available at Xi’s letter to the summit follows a similar line, stating, “We will continue to work to promote cross-Strait economic exchanges and cooperation, deepen cross-Strait integrated development in all fields, improve systems and policies that enhance the well-being of Taiwan compatriots, and help Taiwan compatriots and Taiwan enterprises integrate into the new development pattern and achieve high-quality development.” See “习近平向2023两岸企业家峰会10周年年会致贺信” (Xi Jinping Sends a Congratulatory Letter to the 10th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the 2023 Cross-Strait Entrepreneurs Summit), November 15, 2023. Available at

[20] “中国大陆制定关于设两岸融合发展示范区的意” (Mainland China Formulates Opinions on Establishing Cross-Strait Integrated Development Demonstration Zones), 联合早报 (Lianhe zaobao), June 18, 2023. Available at

[21] “中共中央 国务院关于支持福建探索海峡两岸融合发展新路 建设两岸融合发展示范区的意见” (Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Supporting Fujian in Exploring New Paths for Cross-Strait Integrated Development and Building a Cross-Strait Integrated Development Demonstration Zone), September 12, 2023. Available at

[22] According to data from the Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs, investment in the PRC has declined 44 percent since 2016, whereas investment to other markets has surged by nearly 100 percent. See Keoni Everington, “Taiwan Investments in China Have dropped 44% Since Tsai Took Office,” Taiwan News, September 12, 2023. Available at

[23] Chen Shilian (陈士良), "推动两岸融合迈向和平统一" (Promoting Cross-Strait Integration Toward Peaceful Reunification), October 29, 2023. Available at

[24] “两岸一家亲 相向谋未来: 第十五届海峡论坛综述” (The Two Sides of the Taiwan Strait Are Like One family and Seek a Future for Each Other : A Summary of the 15th Straits Forum), June 20, 2023. Available at

[25] “商务部公告2023年第11号 商务部关于就台湾地区对大陆贸易限制措施进行贸易壁垒调查的公告” (Ministry of Commerce Announcement No. 11 of 2023 on the Investigation into Trade Barriers Regarding Taiwan’s Trade Restrictive Measures against the Mainland), April 12, 2023. Available at

[26] “Chinese Mainland’s Probe of Trade bBarriers Imposed by Taiwan Is ‘Normal Procedure’: State Council Taiwan Affairs Office,” Global Times, October 11, 2023. Available at

[27] Brian Hioe, “China Threatens to End ECFA Ahead of Elections,” New Bloom Magazine, November 11, 2023. Available at

[28] Liu Xin, Yang Sheng, and Xing Xiaojing, “Mainland Tax, Natural Resource Authorities Inspect Foxconn Companies in Several Provinces,” Global Times, October 22, 2023. Available at

[29] See representative comments by Zheng Jian, a scholar at Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute. “赖清德当选民进党主席 专家:四个理由证明民进党不撞南墙不回头” "Lai Qingde Is Elected Chairman of the DPP. Experts: Four Reasons Prove that the DPP Will Not Look Back Unless It Hits the South Wall,",环球时报 (Global Times), January 15, 2023. Available at

[30] It is worth noting that Lai’s views on the subject of independence are more nuanced than they are understood in either Beijing or Washington DC. Indeed, Lai has come under fire from the pro-independence “deep greens” in the DPP for comments that were perceived to be insufficiently resolute. See Russell Hsiao, “The DPP’s 2024 Presidential Candidate-in-Waiting: William Lai,” China Brief (Jamestown Foundation) 23, no. 4 (2023). Available at

[31] As Mao Zedong wrote in 1926, “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution,” in “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. 1. Available at

[32] Nathan Batto, “Taiwan Is Already Independent,” Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2022. Available at

[33] “时评: 赖清德的狐狸尾巴藏不住了” (Commentary: Lai Ching-te’s Fox Tail Can No Longer Be Hidden), 新华社 (Xinhuashe), July 26, 2023. Available at

[34] Thompson Chau, “Taiwan Opposition Frames Election as Choice of 'War or Peace',” Nikkei Asia, April 21, 2023. Available at

[35] While the formal position of the United States government is one of neutrality toward all political parties on Taiwan, U.S. officials and policymakers occasionally make statements that support Beijing’s view that the U.S. does, in reality, support the DPP. See Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass, “How the United States Can Support Taiwan’s Democracy,” CSIS, June 15, 2023. Available at

[36] None of the options discussed in this section are meant to imply that Beijing has to react to a Lai victory with tools of coercion. The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party have autonomy and agency, of course. Beijing could well decide to ignore Lai’s dismissal of the 1992 Consensus and instead pursue a more conciliatory approach to cross-Strait relations. That being said, the following discussion focuses on what Beijing is likely to do, not what it must do.

[37] Yen Huai-shing, "Taiwan Should Abolish the ECFA," Taipei Times, August 17, 2022. Available at

[38] Chinese state media is quite open about this threat. As the Global Times stated, “The defense authority on the island of Taiwan might want to use the concept of a contiguous zone to hype ‘threats’ from the PLA, but Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, so it is legitimate for the PLA to operate anywhere on and around the island” (emphasis added). Liu Xuanzun, “PLA Aircraft Approach 24-Nautical-Mile Line of Taiwan Island,” Global Times, June 25, 2023. Available at

[39] Liu Jincai (柳金财), "从‘反分裂’到‘促统一’?倡议制定《祖国统一法》若干思考与建议” (From “Anti-secession” to “Promotion of reunification”? Some Thoughts and Suggestions on Advocating the Formulation of the "Motherland Unification Law"), 华夏经纬网 (Huaxia, March 10, 2022. Available at

[40] “国际关系学院举办’2024年台湾地区领导人选举结果预判’学术研讨会” (The School of International Relations Holds an Academic Seminar on “Predicting the Results of the 2024 Taiwan Election”), October 10, 2023. Event readout can be found at

[41] For a high-level overview of PRC expert scholarship on how a “one country, two systems” framework could be implemented in Taiwan, see 黄继朝 (Huang Jichao) and 靳环宇 (Jin Huanyu), "A Review of Current Research in Mainland Academia on the “One Country, Two Systems” Formula for Taiwan (当前大陆学界“一国两制”台湾方案相关研究述评)," CSIS Interpret: China, originally published in Taiwan Studies (台湾研究) on August 1, 2021. Available at

[42] According to former vice president at the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Wang Zaixi, “At [the time of reunification], Taiwan, as a highly autonomous special administrative region, will be subordinate to the mainland under a central government, which will once and for all solve the problem of historical political differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits, and Taiwan will be able to enjoy long-term political stability.” See “2023环球时报年会系列报道之二——两岸统一:将带给岛内民众哪些好处,” 环球时报, 2022年12月19日(2023 Global Times Annual Meeting Series Report 2: Cross-Strait Reunification: What Benefits Will It Bring to the People on the Island), Global Times, December 19, 2022). Available at

[43] To take one indicative example, Zhou Zhihuai, executive director of the China Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification (中国和平统一促进会), uses just a few sentences at the end of a lengthy exploration of how social integration can drive progress toward “reunification.” He concludes, “In addition to the obstruction and interference from the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces represented by the Democratic Progressive Party and external forces, the island's anxiety over reunification is also difficult to dispel. The social trend of resisting reunification on the island due to the so-called different social systems and different lifestyles is still there.” See Zhou Zhihuai (周志怀), “两岸社会融合与统一后台湾的长治久安” (Cross-Strait Social Integration and Long-term Peace and Stability in Taiwan after Reunification), 中国评论月刊 (China Review), October 2023. Available at

Photo credit: China News Service, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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