Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s goal of “reunifying” with Taiwan in his annual New Year’s address on December 31st, stating that achieving China’s “complete reunification” is an “historical mission and an unshakable commitment” of the Communist Party.
Xi’s Comments Seen as Ominous Warning Ahead of Taiwan’s Election
The comments are being widely viewed as an ominous warning aimed at Taiwan, coming just weeks before the self-governing island’s presidential election on January 11th.
Xi stated that reunification “must be realized” and that China “reserves the option of taking all measures necessary” to achieve this goal. He accused “separatist activities” of posing the “biggest obstacle” to reunification and the “greatest hidden danger” to China’s national rejuvenation.
“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.” – Xi Jinping
While Xi reiterated China’s preference for “peaceful reunification” under the “One Country, Two Systems” model currently used in Hong Kong, his remarks are likely intended as an electoral warning for Taiwan. The incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is seeking re-election against the mainland-friendly opposition party Kuomingtang (KMT).
Beijing has aggressively tried to isolate and pressure Taiwan diplomatically and economically under Tsai’s first term, incensed by her refusal to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” that defines China-Taiwan relations. Xi’s messaging appears aimed at swaying Taiwanese voters to support the more Beijing-friendly KMT and penalize Tsai’s DPP through implicit military threats.
Taiwan President Tsai Responds: “Future is for Our People to Decide”
In her own New Year’s address just hours later, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen responded firmly to Xi’s speech by stating:
“I want to remind the Beijing authorities that a free and democratic Taiwan will never accept unreasonable demands made in an attempt to undermine our sovereignty.”
Tsai asserted that the future of Taiwan must be decided by Taiwan’s 23 million people without coercion or threats from China:
“I also want to tell the Beijing authorities that history clearly attests to the fact that the will of the Taiwanese people cannot be broken.”
However, Tsai also extended an olive branch by expressing hope that both sides could “find constructive ways to interact” in the coming year.
International Concern Over Rising Cross-Strait Tensions
Xi’s forceful rhetoric on Taiwan has raised deep concerns internationally that Beijing is laying the groundwork to push more assertively towards outright conflict to impose control over Taiwan on its declared timeline.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that Beijing was engaged in increasingly “provocative rhetoric and coercive tactics” that jeopardize regional stability. The US maintains strategic ambiguity on whether it would militarily intervene, while selling defensive weapons to Taiwan and opposing any unilateral changes from Beijing.
The European Union urged avoiding “rising tensions” across the Taiwan Strait, while Japan’s Foreign Minister stressed the peaceful resolution of issues surrounding Taiwan as important for regional and international stability.
Several Chinese military aircraft and naval ships were detected around Taiwan on December 31st, seen as muscle-flexing to complement Xi’s strident speech.
|Chinese Military Activity Near Taiwan
|December 31, 2023
|8 fighter jets and 3 drones crossed median line
|December 24, 2023
|8 fighter jets crossed median line
|December 23, 2023
|20 fighter jets, 14 military aircraft crossed median line
Xi Unlikely to Push Reunification Before Party Congress Later This Year
Despite the aggressive rhetoric, most analysts do not believe Beijing will escalate to definitive action to subsume Taiwan before the pivotal Communist Party Congress this Fall.
Xi is expected to confirm his unprecedented third term in power – but faces economic troubles and political discontent at home. Widespread opposition in Taiwan also significantly complicates any military approach in the near future.
For now, Xi’s Taiwan messaging represents political posturing to project nationalist strength rather than signaling any imminent invasion or attack plans before consolidating his internal power and maneuvering at the Congress.
Beijing Increases Military, Economic and Diplomatic Pressure
In lieu of outright conflict, Beijing has substantially intensified political, military and economic pressure tactics aiming to weaken President Tsai and the DPP’s chances for re-election.
On December 28th, China announced the suspension of some trade with Taiwan, purportedly over food safety issues but likely seeking to hurt the island economically. This follows Beijing blocking Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 crisis.
The PLA Air Force and Navy frequent forays into Taiwan’s air defense zone are intended to exhaust Taiwanese forces through repeatedly scrambling defenses. These military shows of force also allow the PLA to probe Taiwan’s capabilities and readiness ahead of any potential future conflict.
Finally, China aggressively presses countries to end formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Only 14 small nations recognize Taiwan, the latest El Salvador in 2018, highlighting Taiwan’s increasing global isolation.
Conclusion: Status Quo Likely in Near Term But Risks Rising
In conclusion, while Xi Jinping’s rhetoric sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait, Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine likely deters similar definitive Chinese action on forcibly annexing Taiwan ahead of this Fall’s Party Congress.
However, Xi’s messaging underscores that China’s central leadership remains fully committed to fulfilling its ultimate goal of reunification on Beijing’s terms – whether through coercion, conquest or waiting out generational change within Taiwan.
Ongoing Chinese encroachments intend to incrementally shift the status quo of cross-Strait relations towards its long-term objectives, even absent direct conflict in the immediate future. This continuing assertive pressure highlights rising risks over the medium to long term – setting the stage for more significant confrontation down the road if not properly managed upfront through deterrence and diplomacy.
The coming years will prove critical in determining whether the Taiwan flashpoint flares into open conflict or a peaceful equilibrium preserving Taiwan’s autonomy can endure despite Beijing’s objections. For now, provocation and posturing define an increasingly volatile stalemate but Taiwan’s fate and future remain uncertain.
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