China Politics

Beijing is upping the pressure on Taiwan: 'Expectation of reunification is certainly increasing'

Key Points
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has upped the pressure on Taiwan in recent months.
  • "Having eliminated presidential terms and with the 100-year anniversaries of the Communist Party as well as the establishment of the PRC coming up, expectation of reunification is certainty increasing," one expert told CNBC.
  • But China's assertiveness could backfire for Xi.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, talks to journalists after casting her ballot at a polling station on January 16, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan.
Ulet Ifansasti | Getty Images

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait have risen considerably in recent months, as mainland China's military continues to move closer to the island of Taiwan and as Beijing has sought to diplomatically isolate Taipei.

Mainland China and Taiwan have long had fraught relations stemming from an agreement they should be one country, but a disagreement about which government should rule. Although there have been periods of tension and of reconciliation between the two, Beijing has recently been applying the pressure.

In recent months, Beijing has escalated its military presence in the Taiwan Strait by conducting live firing drills, as well as patrolling the airspace around the region with bombers, spy planes and new fighter jets. The Chinese military had also repeatedly sailed its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, as a direct threat to Taiwan according to a spokesman for Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has also moved to restrict Taiwan's international influence by diplomatically isolating the island. Since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's election in 2016, China has moved to persuade diplomatic allies of the island to switch allegiances, and has so far succeeded on four accounts, including twice in recent months.

Beijing has also moved to flex its muscles on the international stage by pressuring the World Health Organization to deny Taiwan an invitation to the annual World Health Assembly, even as an observer state.

The basis of the tensions between Taipei and Beijing can be broken down into two parts. Firstly, unlike her predecessors, Tsai has shown an unwillingness to accept the consensus with China, stopping just short of calling for independence. Xi has interpreted that as a challenge to China's sovereignty, and has repeatedly stated he would not rule out any form of response, including a military one.

The so-called One China policy — agreed upon by the two governments in 1992 — remains at the center of the disagreement: While both parties concur there is only one China, both sides have different interpretations of the definition.

Xi has shown little imagination and flexibility to date. It is a recipe for tension and continued friction in the cross-strait (relationship).
Timothy Heath
Rand analyst

"Taiwan is trying to challenge the 'One China' policy to deal with a rising China. Taiwan could benefit from increased defense cooperation and international cooperation, especially with China's isolation strategies," Zhang Zhixing, an analyst at Stratfor, told CNBC.

Just last month, on the second anniversary of Tsai's inauguration, she made a number of speeches touching upon the cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and China, among other issues.

Tsai is clearly working to avoid being seen as subverting China, Zhang said, noting that, at the same time, Taiwan has also been distancing itself from Beijing through its actions under her administration. She pointed to Tsai's reconciliatory tone with China contradicting the president's refusal to openly endorse the One China policy.

But Beijing has its own imperatives, and Xi may be looking to change the status quo sooner rather than later.

"The key thing here is that Xi sees Taiwan as a sovereignty issue. Having eliminated presidential terms and with the 100-year anniversaries of the Communist Party as well as the establishment of the PRC coming up, expectation of reunification is certainly increasing," Zhang said.

"Therefore, China will ultimately resort to some form of tactic or strategy to put Taiwan into its orbit, or at least prevent it from further distancing itself," she added.

'Recipe for tension'

Tsai, meanwhile, has repeatedly said she wants to maintain the status quo, Zhang said, noting that "her interpretation of status quo is very different from Xi Jinping's interpretation."

The Statfor expert pointed out that Xi has heavily relied on the 1992 One China agreement.

"If Tsai continues to deny the existence of the consensus, the actions of the PRC will only escalate. Beijing's approach is clear: intensify military presence and assertive actions to show its determination, as well as to prevent foreign intervention by strategically placing its military surrounding Taiwan," said Huang Kwei-Bo, vice dean of international affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

Taipei's city skyline, with the 101 building, viewed from Elephant Hill on October 19, 2017.
Prisma by Dukas | Getty Images

The more Taiwan denies the 1992 consensus, the more China will act to restrict and block its international space, experts said.

Xi's strategy may backfire, however, as increased pressure may lead to further resentment of the Chinese Communist Party by a Taiwanese population that has already been shown to be against reunification.

"Xi has shown little imagination and flexibility to date. It is a recipe for tension and continued friction in the cross-strait (relationship). China is trying to force its form of governance onto Taiwan, which the Taiwanese people do not support," said Timothy Heath, an analyst at Rand, a nonprofit research organization.

The real intent of the US

The U.S. has shown in the past decade that it prefers to maintain the cross-strait balance, but its stance has been evolving. On one hand, Washington clearly identifies China as a strategic competitor on the global stage, but, on the other, China has also shown a growing resolve in its threats against Taiwan.

Tsai may have felt a boost in her quest for Taiwan's pro-independence legitimacy when both the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress started to engage in more pro-Taiwan approaches. In March, President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages visits between officials of the two countries at all levels. Significantly, the bill received unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

More recently, 172 members of the U.S. Congress came out to support Taiwan by asking for the World Health Organization to extend its invitation to Taipei at the World Health Assembly.

National Chengchi University's Huang told CNBC that the shows of U.S. support could actually lead to an "increase in China's aggressiveness."

The real intent of the U.S. remains the biggest question in the cross-strait situation. It comes down to whether Trump is using Taiwan as a bargaining chip, or if there is a real security guarantee being offered, Zhang pointed out.

"It is a bad idea to push for change in status. No country will recognize Taiwan's status, and doing so will definitely anger China, which could stir up conflict. Taiwan also cannot be 100 percent confident the U.S. would come to its aid. Pushing for independence would mean Taiwan unilaterally changing the status quo without China's consent, and the U.S. opposes either side acting unilaterally," Heath said.

The U.S., Huang said, should act as a critical third party to prevent further tension in the Taiwan Strait and serve as communication to both sides.

'Path for peace'

Taiwan does not seek Beijing's consent as a prerequisite to its participation or membership in international organizations, but Taipei also understands that China is a major player in many of the organizations. That was why previous Taiwanese leaders compromised with Beijing, Huang explained.

Huang added: "All international organizations are politically charged, and there is a need to face reality in order to work out solutions."

Meanwhile, most experts agree that China's threats will escalate in response to Taiwan's actions.

Discussing the economic issues faced by Taiwan
Discussing the economic issues faced by Taiwan

"Taiwan, in the short term, may not have immediate threats. But in the long term, it depends on whether the Taiwanese authorities may be doing something — in the eyes of the Beijing authorities — that Taiwan independence seems to be [implied], and the Beijing authorities take initiative to do something against Taiwan," Benson Wong, assistant professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University's government and international studies department, told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"The current path for peace in the cross-strait is diminishing. Although military action will be the last resort, China has never withheld the military option for Taiwan. So China will certainly act if forced to," Wong added.

Ultimately, the Hong Kong Baptist University professor said, Beijing wants to prevent Taipei from further distancing itself from the mainland.

"Unfortunately, that is the mentality of the Chinese government and I don't see Xi's stance changing anytime soon," Heath told CNBC, adding that he expects tensions in the Strait to increase.

Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of countries that have severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen's election as its president in 2016. It is four.