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Wary Taiwan in the growing shadow of China's Xi

 Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, on Monday. AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, on Monday. AFP

Wary Taiwan in the growing shadow of China's Xi

President Xi Jinping’s vision of a resurgent Chinese nation raises a huge red flag for democratic rival Taiwan, with the pressure set to rise now Xi has a lifetime to realise his ambitions.

China sees Taiwan as a renegade province and has long stated its desire for reunification, an ambition strongly opposed by the self-ruling island, which has an elected government, freedom of speech and a deep-seated sense of its own identity.

But with plans to abolish China’s presidential term limits, paving the way for a decades-long rule by Xi and making him the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, analysts predict Taiwan will face a squeeze on multiple fronts, from the economy to defence and diplomatic ties.

“Taiwan is Xi Jinping’s major ambition. He is obsessed by reunification because it will be his place in history, his claim to immortality,” said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.

Bringing Taiwan back into the fold is key to Xi’s vision of China as a global superpower and by doing so he would achieve something even Mao had not, Lam added, describing the island as a symbol of colonial humiliation for China.

Taiwan was ruled for 50 years by the Japanese until the end of World War II and is protected by the United States, its major ally.

Carrot and stick

China’s rubber-stamp parliament is expected to approve a constitutional amendment to scrap the two-term limit for the presidency on Sunday.

In a report to the opening session of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing on Monday, Premier Li Keqiang warned China would not tolerate any “separatist schemes” in Taiwan and would “advance China’s peaceful reunification”.

Solving what he calls the “Taiwan issue” is every Chinese leader’s wish, said Beijing-based political commentator Hua Po, although he believes Xi will turn his attentions to domestic issues first.

“After he has achieved internal stability, he will take more tough and efficient measures against Taiwan,” said Hua, who said those could include armed force.

However, most observers believe China will stop short of military intervention, which would prompt a reaction from the US and damage its international image.

Instead they predict Beijing will continue its aggressive military posturing – in the past year it has upped drills around the island and Taiwan has pledged to boost its defence force against the rising threat.

There will also be renewed diplomatic and economic pressure. China has wooed more of Taiwan’s dwindling number of global allies in the past two years.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University, says Beijing will combine tough measures with a charm offensive, nurturing relationships with Taiwanese politicians and businesses, as well as launching an “information campaign” to show Taiwanese people their vulnerabilities.

“China has more leverage than it has thus far chosen to use – although Taiwan is by no means helpless and simply waiting to be annexed,” Sullivan said.

“It will continue to be carrot and stick.”

Entrenched divide

Xi’s rhetoric against challenges to Chinese sovereignty has also targeted semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where the emergence of activists calling for independence from the mainland has incensed Beijing.

Monday’s NPC report skipped key phrases on the extent to which Hong Kong governs itself, terms which have traditionally been included.

Political freedoms are increasingly under threat in the city with candidates linked to calls for independence or self-determination barred from standing for office.

Taiwan has never formally declared independence from the mainland despite being self-ruling since 1949 and China has said it would respond with force to any attempted split.

Relations have soured in the past two years under President Tsai Ing-wen, who has refused to acknowledge the island is part of “one China” and whose party traditionally supports independence.

Beijing unilaterally cut off official communications with Taiwan shortly after she took office in 2016.

Taiwan will continue to look to its traditional partner the US for backing, but analysts characterise President Donald Trump’s policymaking as unpredictable.

Some on the island are concerned it will be used as a pawn as he negotiates with Beijing on issues from trade to North Korea.

But there are signs of moves towards further support – the US Senate last week passed a bill to encourage visits between Washington and Taipei “at all levels”, angering Beijing.

Washington cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 in favour of Beijing, but maintains trade relations with the island and sells it weapons.

Analysts see no end to the cross-strait impasse, with little prospect Taiwan will come round to Beijing’s way of thinking.

“Xi needs something concrete to justify the extension of his term,” says Chang Ya-chung, political analyst at National Taiwan University.

“Taiwan will feel the increasing pressure.”

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