In March 2016, two months before Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen assumed office, China established diplomatic relations with Gambia. It was a shot across the bow – Gambia had unilaterally broken off ties with Taiwan in November 2013, but Beijing did not immediately move to scoop up another of Taiwan’s former partners. Given the timing – Taiwan’s election was held in January 2016; Tsai was inaugurated in May that year – it seemed clear that China was sending a message to the new administration.
Sure enough, establishing ties with Gambia was just the first step. Since Tsai’s inauguration, Taiwan has lost four diplomatic allies to China: Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and, as of today, Burkina Faso. The last two announcements occurred within less a month of each other. Taiwan now has only 18 diplomatic allies left.
Interestingly, Burkina Faso did not immediately announce that it was establishing ties with Beijing, instead saying that “the current socio-economic challenges facing our country and our region call on us to reconsider our position.”
Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said that “everyone knows China is the only factor” behind Burkina Faso’s change of heart. The two will establish ties “sooner or later,” he added.
“China stealing our allies, pressuring our international space won’t shrink the distance across the strait and won’t allow for peaceful, friendly development of cross-strait relations,” Wu said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it “appreciates” Burkina Faso’s decision.
Prying away diplomatic allies from Taiwan is just one part of China’s strategy to isolate the island, which Beijing considers as a part of its territory. China is in the midst of a serious push to undermine perceptions of Taiwan as an independent state.
In addition to the campaign to persuade Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to recognize China instead, Beijing has prevented Taiwan from receiving invitations to observe international meetings. The World Health Assembly, currently underway in Geneva, did not invite Taiwan for the second year in a row, after an eight-year streak of attending from 2009-2016. In fact, even Taiwanese journalists were turned away from covering the event – part of a larger trend of people holding Taiwanese identity cards not being given the credentials needed to observe or attend United Nations-affiliated events.
China’s campaign extends to minute details as well. In the past months, Beijing has sent warning letters to airlines, telling them to list “Taiwan, China” rather than just “Taiwan” on their websites. Tellingly, it’s working: the Associated Press found that “20 carriers, including Air Canada, British Airways and Lufthansa, that now refer to Taiwan… as a part of China on their global websites.” China also fined a Japanese clothing company for listing Taiwan as the “country of origin” on packaging.
Add stepped-up military drills around Taiwan, as well as attempts to entice Taiwanese citizens to move to the mainland, and it’s clear that China is the midst of in a full-court press.
Even more worrying, Chinese commentators have started hinting that these moves are a prelude to the worst-case scenario: the use of force to achieve Beijing’s 69-year-old dream of bringing Taiwan under PRC control. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2050 sparked fears that this was Beijing’s hard end-date for achieving control over Taiwan.
Recently, some commentators have accelerated that timeline substantially.
An article in South China Morning Post put 2020 as the likely year for China to take Taiwan 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,” author Deng Yuwen wrote.
Even more alarmingly, a recently published book, written by Chinese scholar Chen Guodong, offers a blueprint for forcing Taiwan’s unification “in the summer or fall of 2018 or 2019” by targeting electric systems with short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The subtitle of the book promises “new thinking” on “China regaining Taiwan with zero casualties.”
What is behind China’s newly aggressive stance toward Taiwan? There are a number of factors, all coming together in a perfect storm.
First, Xi Jinping is an unabashedly nationalistic leader. Having pledged to oversee the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi cannot afford to be seen as weak on China’s “core interests” – and from Beijing’s perspective, bringing Taiwan into the PRC fold is the single-most important piece of unfinished business. Given Xi’s nationalistic promises, the public pressure on him to make progress on Taiwan would be immense. But keeping in mind Xi’s push to raise his own status, reflected in a fawning media campaign, it’s entirely conceivable Xi himself is driven to “solve” the Taiwan problem for personal reasons – it could cement his status as the CCP’s single greatest leader. In that sense, the stage for a more hawkish Chinese stance was set when Xi took the reins in late 2012.
At the same time, Taiwan has shifted away from the Ma Ying-jeou era model of embracing ever-closer cross-strait relations. This change became undeniable with the Sunflower Movement of 2014, where young Taiwanese protesters blocked an economic agreement with China that critics said would jeopardize both local businesses and Taiwan’s sovereignty. That signaled an end to the low-hanging fruit of cross-strait relations, but the two sides were no closer to progress on the intractable political issues between them.
Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rode discontent with Ma and his Kuomintang (KMT) to a massive victory in the January 2016 polls. The DPP has a strong Taiwanese identity (as opposed to the KMT, which originally was founded on the mainland) and dreams of independence, though its more pragmatic leaders (like Tsai) have accepted that maintaining the status quo is the most realistic option.
Beijing has a strong – and obvious – preference for KMT candidates, and with Tsai in office China has a pretext to substantially up its pressure campaign. Beijing will be hoping that the political fallout of strained cross-strait relations falls squarely on Tsai and the DPP, so that both are voted out of office in the next elections.
Finally, there’s the U.S. factor. The United States’ more confrontational stance toward China has been accompanied, as is often the case, by stepped up outreach toward Taiwan. For example, the recently signed Taiwan Travel Act provides the legal backing for Cabinet-level exchanges with Taiwan, something China strenuously opposes. Washington has also given the greenlight for U.S. companies to sell parts to Taiwan for the construction of submarines. While these and other developments are welcomed by Taiwanese officials, history has shown that Beijing usually responds to advances in U.S.-Taiwan relations by squeezing Taiwan. And with U.S.-China ties fraying due to tensions over trade and the South China Sea, there’s little incentive on that front for Beijing to play nice with Taipei.
Given the prevailing political winds in China, Taiwan, and the United States, Beijing’s pressure campaign is poised to continue. The real question is just how far China is willing to take things – and whether Taipei and Washington need to start preparing for the unthinkable.