Taiwan: How serious is Xi Jinping's call for reunification with China and what is the island's status?

President refuses to rule out military intervention in bid to reunite wayward territory with mainland as counterpart Tsai Ing-wen insists on total independence

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 02 January 2019 13:21
Chinese president Xi Jinping on relations with Taiwan

China’s president Xi Jinping has placed renewed pressure on Taiwan’s government over its pursuit of independence from the mainland.

Speaking in a televised address from Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to mark 40 years of co-operation between the superpower and the breakaway island, Mr Xi insisted: “China must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.”

Complete separation would “only bring hardship” and represented an “adverse current from history and a dead end”, he insisted, warning the international community “all necessary measures” would be taken to fend off “interference” in the proposed union.

What is Taiwan’s current status?

The Republic of China on Taiwan, as it is formally known, has existed in its current political form since 1945, when the territory provided a haven for escaping members of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government who “assumed power” over the island.after being overthrown by Mao Zedong’s Communist insurgents.

Contemporary China regards the state as a rogue province within its jurisdiction and not a country in its own right. It has repeatedly flexed its muscles to strong-arm other nations out of maintaining separate diplomatic ties with the two entities: administrations can deal with China or Taiwan, not both.

It has also recently sought to intimidate Taiwan through demonstrations of military might and to alienate it commercially, insisting foreign companies list the territory as a region of China on their websites as a condition of doing business with the mainland.

Many Taiwanese have expressed disquiet about their province’s economic dependence on China and the latter’s suspected attempts at interfering in its free elections. The Sunflower Movement was duly formed in 2014 to protest Chinese encroachment over its autonomy.

Taipei’s separatist president, Tsai Ing-wen, said this week China must “face squarely the reality of the existence of the Republic of China on Taiwan” and “respect the insistence of 23m people on freedom and democracy”.

What is Taiwan’s history?

The first recorded visit of Chinese explorers to the island relates to 239 AD but Taiwan only came to be administered by the mainland when it was annexed by the Qing dynasty in 1683, prior to which it had briefly been a Dutch colony.

During the Qing era, Han migrants from Fujian and Guangdong arrived to set up home in Taiwan, crossing the strait to liberate themselves from rural poverty in those provinces.

In 1895, China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War and control of the island was surrendered to Tokyo. Fifty years later, the fall of Japan in the Second World War in turn allowed China to regain its former authority.

When the ousted Chiang and his Kuomintang (KMT) acolytes arrived in 1945, they took control of Taiwan and ran the territory as the Republic of China in exile, an effective dictatorship, provoking deep resentment from the locals. They intended to use it as a base from which to retake their former homeland, a hope dashed after the UN officially recognised Mao’s People’s Republic as the true China in 1971.

The exile’s son, Chiang Cing-kuo, subsequently began the process of democratisation. By the end of the 1970s, relations with China had improved and mutual restrictions on travel and investment were relaxed, even though Taiwan had snubbed the mainland’s overtures on reunification.

It was at this juncture that Taiwan emerged as an industrial powerhouse, enjoying rapid economic growth and establishing itself as a manufacturing hub, specialising in tech and electronics for global export.

Its first non-KMT leader, Chen Shui-bian, was elected in 2000 and his open support for an independent Taiwan did much to sour the peace.

The more moderate Ma Ying-jeo’s victory eight years later provided Beijing with a more palatable alternative but Ms Tsai’s assent to power in 2016 as head of the Democratic Progressive Party once more drew the issue of Taiwanese independence into the spotlight.

US president Donald Trump called Ms Tsai to congratulate her on her victory, breaking with American foreign policy in place since the Jimmy Carter administration in 1979, risking the ire of Xi Jinping.

By making the call, Mr Trump implicitly acknowledged (intentionally or by accident) Taiwan’s sovereignty and President Tsai’s status as a head of state and world leader, in defiance of China.

The US remains Taiwan’s biggest ally but walks a difficult tightrope, respecting China by not overtly stating its preference for a free Taiwan while simultaneously honouring the bond forged with the island during the Pacific campaign of the Second World War by offering “defensive” military support in the event Taipei should come under attack.

How serious is President Xi’s statement?

China’s president stressed his ambitions for Taiwan were in the greater interests of national security and centred around “peaceful reunification”.

“China won’t attack Chinese people. We are willing to use the greatest sincerity and expend the greatest hard work to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification”, he said.

But despite the broadly conciliatory tone, he refused to rule out a military conquest: “We will leave no room for any form of separatist activities.”

“We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means... The issue of Taiwan is part of China’s domestic politics and foreign interference is intolerable.”

Mr Xi’s proposal for unification is a one-country, two-system framework akin to that seen in Hong Kong since Britain handed over sovereignty to China in 1997. Such a deal would respect the Taiwanese social system and way of life and guarantee their property rights, religious beliefs and other rights, he said.

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But similar pledges concerning the future of Hong Kong have not prevented Beijing tightening its grip on the city, with activists voicing fears about growing pressure on democratic freedoms.

For her part, President Tsai responded to her counterpart’s remarks by rejecting the Hong Kong model, calling on China to respect Taiwanese sovereignty, leaving the matter in its customary stalemate.

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