Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Is China planning to take Taiwan by force in 2020?

CommentInsight & Opinion

Deng Yuwen believes Beijing is coming to the conclusion that if it is to achieve reunification with Taiwan, as Xi Jinping has pledged to do at the 19th party congress, it has to do so by force, and sooner rather than later

Does Beijing have a timetable for seizing control of Taiwan? This has been a hot topic for the media and among experts on cross-strait relations. I believe such a timetable exists. If the timeline was rather vague in the past, it has become clearer now. And the US security strategy that President Donald Trump recently unveiled will hasten the pace of Beijing’s plan to take back the island, probably in 2020.

President Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Communist Party congress offers some clues. In the address, he identified “one country, two systems” and the reunification of the motherland as a fundamental strategy of a “new era” for China. This provides a clue to Beijing’s timeline for resolving the Taiwan problem.

According to the report, the new era refers to a period from now until the middle of this century. By 2050, China is to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and become a modern socialist power.

A list of 14 items describe this new era, and one of them involves reunification with Taiwan. This means Beijing must take control of Taiwan by 2050 at the latest.

Plainly, as long as Taiwan remains outside the Chinese fold, the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation cannot happen.

No surprise, then, to hear Xi say that Beijing would never allow “any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory”.

Last month, a Chinese diplomat’s fighting words over the idea of the US sending navy ships to Taiwan were also revealing. Li Kexin, a minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington, warned that port-of-call exchanges between the US and Taiwan would not be tolerated.

“The day a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” he told mainland media.

While it is unlikely the PLA would really start a war over a US Navy visit to Taiwan, the words reflect a consistent belief of Chinese leaders: that Taiwan has to be taken back by force.

Since Xi came to power, the party has been open about its wish for the PLA to be battle-ready. No doubt the army’s first target would be Taiwan.

Also, Xi’s sense of calling would never allow him to tolerate Taiwan’s indefinite separation from the mainland. Whatever one may think of Xi, most people would agree that he is driven by a strong sense of national pride.

That is why, as soon as he came to power, he launched the “Chinese dream” campaign and set out the goal of achieving national rejuvenation. In the party congress address, he painted a picture of the new era that reflected his thinking and linguistic style.

As a leader who is bent on raising China’s global stature to a level that rivals the nation’s glory years in Han and Tang times, Xi would surely not tolerate an indefinite split between Taiwan and the mainland.

Nonetheless, the points raised so far only signal that Beijing has a timetable in mind to unify Taiwan with China, but they do not explain why the PLA could move to take Taiwan by force in 2020.

A combination of factors could point to a military confrontation.

They include Trump’s labelling of China as a strategic rival in his administration’s national security strategy; Beijing’s worry about the pro-independence movement in Taiwan and its belief that it now has the ability to resolve the Taiwan problem once and for all; a misjudgment by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen; and Xi’s sense of his own legacy.

First of all, why would Beijing opt for unification by force, rather than through the peaceful negotiation it has always championed? There are four reasons. First, after extending economic help to the island for years, Beijing has still failed to win the hearts and minds of its people. Instead, cross-strait relations have deteriorated.

Second, as one generation of Taiwanese replaces another, the “Chinese” identity among the people will only grow weaker.

Third, the influence of Taiwan’s political parties is waning. Even if the Kuomintang wins back power, it would not be in a position to lead cross-strait unification.

Fourth, more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force.

Thus, though on the surface Beijing has continued to call for a peaceful reunification, it has in fact ditched the idea.

As Beijing believes it has to use force to reunite with Taiwan, the next step would be to find a good time to do so. The year 2020 offers such an opportunity.

That’s the year when China would be approaching the first of its “two centenary” goals – the establishment of a xiaokang, or moderately prosperous, society by 2021, the 100th year of the founding of the Communist Party.

This would act as a driving force for China to take back Taiwan by force. If China becomes a well-off nation with Taiwan in its fold, it would mean a historic achievement for Xi.

Next, Trump’s national security strategy not only labels China and Russia as America’s “strategic rivals”, it also pledges to maintain strong ties with Taiwan. This will quicken Beijing’s plans to take back Taiwan by force.

In reality, China and the US are, of course, strategic rivals. But by stating it in its security strategy, the US indicates a shift in its long-term policy on China, letting it be known that it would seek to contain China rather than work with it. This would lead Beijing to conclude that it should resolve the Taiwan problem sooner rather than later.

Is the PLA ready for such a battle? In a recent interview, China analyst Ian Easton said he believed the Chinese military would not be ready for an attack in 2020 because of the slow pace of military reform. However, many Chinese analysts would not agree with that view.

At the 19th party congress last October, Xi pledged a major upgrade in mechanisation and the communications systems in the armed forces by 2020, which would greatly enhance the country’s strategic capabilities.

By 2035, he said, China would have completely modernised its defence forces; by the middle of the century, it would become a world-class military force.

The military has come a long way since reforms were launched four years ago. And fighting a war would be the best way to gauge its improvements.

In today’s China, more and more people are advocating the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

A series of military drills focused on Taiwan in recent days has also raised speculation that the mainland is preparing itself for a military invasion. It is likely that such “encirclement patrols” might become routine.

All is set for Beijing to unify with Taiwan by force, except for one thing – a pretext or a reason to take action. Emboldened by US support, the Taiwanese government that Tsai leads may well test China’s bottom line by further cementing its ties with America, such as with the proposed exchanges between US and Taiwanese navies.

Finally, whether Beijing decides to mobilise against Taiwan in 2020 will still depend on the decision of its leaders.

Xi may be tempted to secure the historic achievement of reunification as part of his legacy. Furthermore, if war breaks out, the peacetime systems and procedures will have to be set aside.

This will allow Xi to stay in power beyond his expected retirement in 2022, to give him more time to work on realising the Chinese dream of rejuvenation.

If Beijing takes up arms against Taiwan in 2020, there will be formidable changes for East Asia and the world. North Korea may also risk waging war on South Korea, if its nuclear capabilities are not eradicated earlier.

I do not want to see war breaking out. For this reason, we must pay more attention to what happens in 2020.

Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This article is translated from Chinese


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Six reasons why Catalonia is no model for Taiwan’s independence movement

CommentInsight & Opinion
Cary Huang says a number of factors, but mainly that such a move is likely to lead to major retribution from Beijing and even war, make independence a non-starter. Besides, the global community has already made its position on ‘one China’ perfectly clear

It is no surprise that Taiwan has paid close attention to the recent referendum that took place, amid much controversy, in Catalonia.

But a bigger question is whether independence referendums by Catalans in Spain, as well as among Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, can serve as an important object lesson for the island state, which is debating whether to take a similar approach.

Taiwanese Premier William Lai Ching-te’s recent comments on his commitment to independence further stoke such sentiments, and calls for Taiwan’s legislature to pass amendments legalising such an action are increasing.

However, the differences between the China-Taiwan issue and Spain-Catalonia are more significant than the similarities.

First, in Taiwan, there is not the sense of immediacy that has inspired Catalans to seek outright independence. Despite having just 20 remaining diplomatic allies, Taiwan enjoys de facto independence, similar to any sovereign state, with its own political system, government and army, plus the right to issue its own passport and currency. Catalonia, on the other hand, is officially one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain.

Second, a referendum on Taiwanese statehood would not receive the same international support the Catalans have received, as a great majority of nations, including all major powers, recognise the one-China principle, though many Taiwanese might believe they have no less justification for their endeavour than the Catalans, the Kurds, the Scottish and the Quebecois under international law.

Third, Catalonia accounts for 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP, and many in the wealthy northeastern Spanish region are convinced they would be better off having full control over that wealth. The Taiwan economy, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on trade with the mainland and any political separation would be disastrous for the Taiwanese economy.

Fourth, it is hard to see how a declaration of independence would markedly improve the lives and welfare of Taiwanese, as it would not change Taiwan’s status on the international stage.

Fifth, a fundamental difference is that while both the Spanish and Catalan governments are democratic and their political values are almost identical, there is a huge gap in politics across the Taiwan Strait.

As a thriving free democracy in Asia, Taiwan maintains a model of self-determination, freedom and protection of human rights – the core principles of the United Nations – while mainland China, despite its rising economic clout, remains the world’s last major communist one-party state.

Thus, any attempt to advance the island’s independence would be met with wholesale repression, and possibly war, from Beijing. China has not only promised, but legislated for military action should Taiwan ever declare independence.

Finally, and most importantly, we should note that while the Spanish confrontation is between an armed central government and an unarmed local government, the China-Taiwan conflict would be between two major armies in Asia – a war between them would not only destroy regional peace but also undermine global stability.

Under the current situation, as it is unrealistic to hope that the two political adversaries can live in the same bed or permanently divorce, the best tactic to achieve peace is to maintain the “status quo” before any permanent solution is found.

Any Taiwanese effort to abandon this tactic will risk Beijing’s wrath and could make the US reassess its assistance, which is crucial for the island’s survival.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post

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Plenty of economic challenges ahead for Taiwan’s new president

South China Morning Post
News›China›Policies & Politics
Taiwan politics

Lawrence Chung

Tsai Ing-wen plans to boost ties with Asean and India, but analysts say it won’t be easy to switch from reliance on cross-strait trade

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won’t have time for a honeymoon period when her government rolls into operation for the first day on Friday.

She is facing an even bigger challenge than her Kuomintang predecessor Ma Ying-jeou in reviving the island’s long-sagging economy, analysts say.

Tsai, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has said she plans to introduce five innovative research projects to stimulate the local economy, covering green technology, the internet, biomedicine, intelligent machinery and national defence.

She also plans to increase Taiwan’s economic exchanges with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India in order to cut the island’s economic reliance on the mainland.

However, analysts predict little chance of success for at least two years. And they warn the island’s economy might become even grimmer than it was under Ma due to the possibility of economic snubs from Beijing.

Tsai replaced Ma as the island’s leader on Friday following her crushing victory in January’s presidential election.

She has criticised Ma’s cross-strait economic policy, saying he had placed too much emphasis on the mainland over the past eight years, leading to the island’s overreliance on the mainland market.

Taiwan’s exports to the mainland now account for 40 per cent of its total exports – compared with between 35 per cent and 45 per cent under Ma’s predecessor, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian – with two-way trade worth US$190 billion last year, up from US$110 billion at the end of Chen’s presidency, which ran from 2000 to 2008.

That shows Taiwanese businessmen sensed the market was in the mainland even before Ma opened up trading ties, but the wealth generated has not been evenly distributed among the general public, with large business groups benefiting most. That upset middle-class and grass-roots people on the island, with election experts saying their dissatisfaction was the main reason Ma lost the election.

To promote a change in direction, Tsai recently named a former foreign minister, James Huang, to head her “New Southbound Policy Office”.

“We need to turn Asean into an extension of Taiwan’s domestic market as soon as possible,” Huang, who served as foreign minister from 2006 to 2008 during the final years of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, told a forum introducing the policy initiative on Tuesday.

“If we don’t seize the opportunities in the next five years, we will be left with no interests at all.”

Huang said that unlike the island’s previous “southbound” policy, introduced by then president Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s and later pursued by Chen, which focused on investment and trade, the new one would emphasise the absorption of talent and bilateral exchanges.

“Instead of just tapping their markets, we also want their people and their investments in our innovative industries, such as biomedicine,” Huang said.

But analysts and industrialists have doubts about the effectiveness of the policy – at least for the next two years.

“Businessmen are known for their business sense to look for profits and if they think profits are really there, they should have long gone to Asean instead of clinging to the mainland market,” said Sun Yang-ming, a former vice-president of the Cross-Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation, an independent think tank in Taiwan.

He said the new policy was a politically motivated attempt to twist normal market behaviour.

“I am afraid our economy might turn even worse in the next two years, given her plan to cut reliance on the mainland,” he said. “Besides, even if the new measure works, it will take at least a couple of years to show effects. But can the general public wait?”

An opinion poll released by Taiwan Think-Tank on Tuesday showed that 56.6 per cent of Taiwanese people hoped improving the economy would be Tsai’s priority on taking office. The island’s gross domestic product declined for the third consecutive quarter between January and March, with exports falling for the 15th straight month in April amid a global slump in demand.

A recent Ministry of Finance report showed the Ma government would be handing over a total debt of NT$5.7 trillion (HK$1.36 trillion) to the new government, something that is likely to become a heavy burden for Tsai.

Joyce Lin Juo-yu, director of the Asean Studies Centre at Tamkang University in Taipei, said approaching Asean members would be a “stiff challenge” for the Tsai government, given that Beijing – which had a great deal of influence in Southeast Asia – was also introducing its “one belt, one road” economic infrastructure initiative to woo the same countries.

“It is more important for the new government to show where the beef is if it is to launch this policy,” she said.

Taiwanese businessmen, however, are more concerned about Tsai’s plan to cut reliance on the mainland, fearing that it could lead to economic snubs from Beijing, including pressure aimed at curtailing Taiwan’s participation in regional economic affairs.

“I can see hard times coming if we have to cut our business exchanges with the mainland,” said Tien Yi-show, chairman of the Taiwan Travel Industry Association. “And the tourist industry here will be the first to suffer seriously,” he said, referring to an expected reduction in the number of mainland visitors, which topped 4 million last year.

Steve Lai, executive director of Taiwan’s Supply Management Institute, said: “Transformation of our industries cannot happen instantly, and before that we need the mainland market dearly.”

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Why Beijing has no desire to turn the screw on Tsai Ing-wen and threaten stability across the Taiwan Strait

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

J. Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole says warnings by the international media and marginal players do not reflect the reality among top leaders

If we believed many of the article headlines that have appeared in international media since the January 16 election of Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, we would think the roof was about to come crashing down on the Taiwan Strait. Time and again, articles and editorials have warned that if Tsai refuses to recognise “one China” or the 1992 consensus, Beijing could – or should – punish Taiwan by, among other things, severing all official and unofficial contact. Such alarmism, however, doesn’t pass the reality check.

While ascertaining the future behaviour of any authoritarian regime will always be a challenge, so far, the Chinese leadership has reacted to Tsai’s landslide victory in a predictable fashion, with every indication that it wants a stable relationship across the strait. Therefore, while senior officials have reiterated the predictable lines on, say, Taiwan independence, their language in no way suggests plans for retributive action against Taiwan or escalatory policies that would threaten stability. There are several reasons why.

For one, Tsai’s victory didn’t come as a surprise, and Beijing has had several months to prepare for it. Besides being known for her pragmatism, the president-elect also is a known commodity to Chinese officials who have every reason to expect that both sides will arrive at some sort of modus vivendi for the foreseeable future. At the same time, Beijing is also aware that Tsai has been given a strong mandate, with control of both the legislative and executive branches of government, an electoral outcome that stems in part from a desire by the Taiwanese people for engagement, but careful engagement, with China.

Consequently, rushing the matter would risk pushing over the carefully balanced architecture of cross-strait relations, while punitive measures against the Taiwanese for the democratic choices they make would result in the very opposite of what Beijing has sought to accomplish over the years – to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese by convincing them that a future with China is in their best interest. And, with much more pressing matters to deal with, such as unrest in Hong Kong, tensions in the South China Sea, signs of a slowing economy, and instability, Beijing has every incentive to avoid opening another front.

It is therefore important to pay attention to the language used by Chinese officials who are in a position to influence policy, as well as to determine who their intended audience is: the Taiwanese, the DPP, or the Chinese? When President Xi Jinping ( 習近平) or Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) speak about Taiwan, what they say (and don’t say), who they say it to and where, are probably a much better indication of their future plans than remarks by junior officials, nationalistic military commentators, or academics.

Absent anything truly dramatic by the people who matter in Zhongnanhai, a number of media outlets have turned elsewhere for potential trouble. And there is plenty to be found. We need only to turn to Li Yihu, dean of Peking University’s Taiwan Studies Institute, who recently warned that Tsai’s failure to recognise “one China” and to be clear on the “1992 consensus” in her inaugural speech would have “a great impact on the cross-strait relationship”. Li also said Beijing should “punish two-faced Taiwan entrepreneurs” who profit from business in China while supporting independence.

Reuters, meanwhile, headlined that China had warned Tsai to prove she does not back independence, in an article based on remarks by Wang Yifu, who heads the China-appointed “Taiwanese” delegation at the National People’s Congress as well as the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots.

In these instances, and others, the individuals quoted have little, if any, influence on actual policy in Beijing, and certainly cannot speak on its behalf. A focus on individuals who are but marginal players in this complex relationship misrepresents reality. Let’s wait for clear signals by the players who matter before we run for cover.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based editor-in-chief of, a senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute at University of Nottingham, and an associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China

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Livelihood issues set the tone for Taiwan’s presidential election, not its ‘sovereignty’ tussle with China

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Jonathan Sullivan

Jonathan Sullivan says setting aside the China question is likely to help Tsai Ing-wen win Taiwan’s election race, but learning how to work with China will determine the success of her presidency

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole).

Taiwan’s famously even distribution of wealth has gone to the winds, and social mobility is no longer something that Taiwanese can take for granted. Education in particular is no longer the passport to mobility it once was, with many graduates earning a desultory NT$24,000 (HK$5,600) starting monthly salary.

As widespread feelings of relative deprivation have taken hold, corporations and individuals with political connections have profited from the opening of Taiwan’s economy to mainland China. Squandering their long-held reputation as stewards of the “economic miracle” in the 1960s and 1970s, Ma and the KMT have come to represent the 1 per cent in society. That Ma, a self-styled Confucian elite, has demonstrated contempt for colleagues in his own party and adopts a personal style that combines aloofness with indecision and authoritarian decision-making, compounds the feeling that he does not serve the best interests of regular Taiwanese.

Ma’s China policy is one factor, of course. Economic integration has implications for many sectors in Taiwan, including housing and jobs. Taiwanese companies have long swapped investment in Taiwan for mainland China, even moving out research and development operations, further depressing the domestic job market.

On top of that, Chinese investment in real estate has caused bubbles and made housing unaffordable for ordinary Taiwanese. As in Hong Kong, an influx of Chinese tourists has exacerbated the sense of difference and antipathy towards Chinese people, and has no doubt contributed to an unequivocal trend in public opinion.

During Ma’s reign, the proportion of people who identify themselves as Taiwanese has increased from 45 per cent to 60 per cent, at the same time that Ma has espoused Taiwan’s commitment to being part of the imagined Chinese nation, contrary to the lived experience of Taiwanese who identify with the experience of a liberal democracy.

Taiwan under Ma has become overly reliant on mainland China; one third of Taiwan’s total trade volume is with mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, while Beijing makes no secret of its intention to leverage this dependence. And despite the superficial entente cordiale on show in Singapore, the underlying military threat posed by the mainland is undiminished, while Ma has flubbed professionalisation of the army and steadfastly refused to increase defence spending.

China’s impact on Taiwan is inescapable, but relations with China in the abstract sense of sovereignty and Taiwan’s future status are not the major preoccupation of Taiwanese voters. There is huge controversy around the so-called “1992 consensus”, and resentment at Ma’s attempts to lock Taiwan into a narrowing range of future options. Yet, my sense is that Taiwanese are focused on more tangible issues.

In this respect, Tsai has cleverly put cross-strait relations to one side, emphasising time and again her adherence to the “status quo”. The fact that the status quo is a nebulous concept – does it refer to “one China” or Taiwan’s functional autonomy? – is to everyone’s advantage.

The DPP is vulnerable on its China policy, and going into too many specifics is not to the party’s advantage during the campaign. But since 90 per cent of Taiwanese citizens over many years have evinced favour for some version of the “status quo” (“leading to independence”, “leading to unification”, “indefinitely”), it has become an “easy issue”, inoculating the DPP from attacks on its China position and helping voters set China policy to one side – for the time being at least.

Although she has rightly focused her campaign on social and economic justice, if and when Tsai becomes president, relations with China will inevitably return to prominence. Beijing views Tsai with deep suspicion, including her ability to rein in the more independence-minded factions of a party it regards as “secessionist”. Officially, Beijing will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, while preparing to put the squeeze on Taiwan in the absence of demonstrations of “sincerity” from Tsai.

A major stumbling block will be the “1992 consensus” that Ma has enthusiastically promoted as the “status quo”. Tsai, consistent with many Taiwanese, rejects the notion that an ad hoc agreement between the Chinese Communist Party and a then unelected KMT should dictate democratic Taiwan’s options. As Xi has taken charge of the mainland’s Taiwan policy, marginalising the Taiwan Affairs Office, Beijing’s position on acceptance of “one China”, even in the guise of “one China, respective interpretations”, has hardened. Absent conciliatory noises from Tsai, Beijing will go after Taiwan’s handful of diplomatic allies, increase pressure on the large community of Taiwanese businesspeople living in mainland China and work to support the KMT and marginalise the DPP.

Tsai has intimated that she will put the brakes on Ma’s rapid embrace of China, but in reality she won’t have a choice if Beijing refuses to play ball. Tsai’s plans to reduce inequality, increase provision of social housing, and raise wages are what will get her elected, but developing a framework to manage relations with China is what will make her presidency a success.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and director of research in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham