Beijing’s cross-Strait calculus

Author: Wen-Ti Sung, ANU

The long-term outlook for Taiwan’s strategic autonomy from Chinese influence may gradually come into question, even though cross-Strait relations should be stable for the foreseeable future. Intensifying dynamics in the Beijing-Taipei-Washington triangle are contributing to this scenario; in particular, the Chinese leadership’s internal consolidation, growing cross-Strait enmeshment, and US attention deficit.

In Beijing, a favourable combination of institutional integration, political consolidation, and the leadership’s expertise is enabling China’s leaders to manage cross-Strait relations with confidence and patience. Institutionally, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee in November unveiled a new State Security Committee (SSC) with the declared purpose of ‘designing and implementing national security strategy’. The SSC helps centralise China’s foreign and security policymaking apparatuses, which have been troubled by a lack of integration at the top, especially between its civilian, military, and united front arms.

Institutionally, these changes should mean that it is now easier to present a cross-Strait policy that is more coordinated, pragmatic, and oriented towards ‘winning hearts and minds’. This is partly because the new policy environment will be more insulated from inter-agency bickering, coordination challenges, and urges to play the assertive nationalist card regarding Taiwan.

Politically, President Xi Jinping is considered by many as arguably the strongest leader China has seen since Deng Xiaoping. This should come as no surprise, for Xi has an enviable profile that enables him to be an omni-factional man, acceptable to liberals, conservatives and the military. As the leader of the ‘princelings’ faction, Xi is a favourite son of the party’s conservatives and old guards; his populist style and anointment by former President Jiang Zemin are but icings on the cake. Moreover, Xi’s own experience working in the Central Military Commission during his youth, combined with his family lineage as the son of a fabled revolutionary military hero, endow him with significant credibility among China’s military.

Xi has also endeared himself to the party’s liberal wing via his father, who was a champion of Deng Xiaoping’s economic ‘reform and opening’ and a vocal supporter of deposed former liberal leaders, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Ever since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Xi has worked at forging a new coalition with the party’s more liberal ‘Communist Youth League’ wing headed by Premier Li Keqiang. One prominent example is when Xi broke with existing practice and appointed Li’s ally Vice President Li Yuanchao as the party-state’s second-in-command on foreign affairs, and as a de facto Politburo standing member.

Xi’s cross-Strait relations team is also rich in expertise on Taiwan. Xi himself has 17 years of work experience in Fujian and Shanghai, areas with the strongest Taiwanese commercial and cultural presence. His henchman for Taiwan affairs, Politburo standing member Yu Zhengsheng, is formerly a party secretary of Shanghai and has significant family connections with Taiwan. Moreover, Xi’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has just served a five-year term as Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office.

Putting these favourable factors together, China’s leadership under Xi Jinping is well-positioned to exercise strategic patience over the Taiwan issue. Beijing’s patience is predicated on the belief that time is on Beijing’s side, for reasons of economics, military and the perceived attention deficit of the United States. Economically, according to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, in 2011 cross-Strait trade totaled US$127 billion, or more than a quarter of Taiwan’s GDP. Short of deliberate diversification initiatives from Taipei, this asymmetrical economic interdependence can be expected to grow further in Beijing’s favour. As more sectors of Taiwanese society become reliant on cross-Strait commerce, this economic dependency has the potential to spill-over into politics and nurture more Beijing-friendly voices.

The cross-Strait military balance is also evolving in Beijing’s favour. Beijing’s estimated US$117 billion defence budget for 2013 was 11 times that of Taiwan’s, and it is likely Taiwan’s ability to defend against China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities will continue to decline.

There are also signs that the United States may be losing its ability to appreciate the nuances of Chinese policy. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in her first major Asia policy speech in November, argued that the United States seeks to operationalise a ‘new model of major power relations’ with China. This phraseology, which is copied virtually verbatim from Beijing, is highly problematic.

China has been actively promoting the phrase ‘new type of major power relations’ for two purposes: to praise China itself and to criticise the West. The phrase signals to other states that China’s rise will be uniquely peaceful and that it will be different from that of Western powers, whose ascendancy was marked by two World Wars and the ensuing Cold War. Additionally, by advocating that a new model is both virtuous and necessary, the phrase also implies that the ‘old’ Western-led model is broken. America’s adoption of this Chinese term amounts to an act of inadvertent self-criticism. The fact that this phrase was again used by Vice President Joe Biden during his China trip reveals that it may not be merely a one-off oversight but a more profound inability to appreciate the Chinese strategic thought involved in coining such symbolic language.

For Beijing there is little incentive to pursue unification with Taipei in the foreseeable future. Pursuing unification through coercion runs the risk of a costly conflict with the United States. The pursuit, however, of unification through peaceful negotiation — presumably under an augmented version of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula — is also not necessarily desirable. Once Beijing does so, it will be obliged to sustain Taiwan’s economic prosperity, as Taiwan’s experience will be used by all other states as the crystal-ball through which they divine their own futures of living under Chinese influence. At the same time, Beijing may fear that Taiwan’s democracy, which would be guaranteed under the formula, can have demonstration effects within China, and increase pressure for China’s own democratisation from China’s burgeoning middle class.

Given these considerations, China can be expected to exercise strategic patience buttressed by internal political confidence. Cross-Strait relations can be expected to remain stable in the foreseeable future. However, Taiwan’s continued strategic autonomy internationally may gradually come into question. There is an old Chinese saying: ‘Melons prematurely harvested from the trees don’t taste sweet’ (qiangniu de gua butian). With favourable internal and external factors in place, Beijing can patiently await the melon to fall down from the tree on its own.

Wen-Ti Sung is an Asian Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Another version of this article was published on the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin.