A regular feature of Taiwan Sentinel, ChinaWatch examines developments in China in the areas of internal politics, economics and trade, geopolitics and Taiwan engagement and analyzes their advantages or disadvantages for Taiwan’s standing in the region and the world. This feature is based on the premise that what happens in China has direct relevance for the durability of Taiwan’s de facto independence. ChinaWatch is updated monthly.
North Korea, China and the United States
Rising tensions between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s increasingly robust nuclear and ballistic missile development programs do not appear to be pointing toward war — at least not yet. While U.S. President Donald Trump’s fire and brimstone rhetoric has done much to raise the geopolitical temperature in northeast Asia, responsible people in his administration are still not prepared to sign off on a preventative attack on the North, or indeed on any other military initiative. That in itself makes an American attack extremely unlikely.
To be sure, there are events that could change the situation. One would be the dispatch of a North Korean missile (or missiles) in the direction of Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, which is home to Andersen Air Force Base and other important American military assets. Another might be a further North Korean nuclear test, though in this case China would almost certainly try to calm things down before Trump acted against Pyongyang.
Indeed, the role of China in all things related to U.S.-North Korea tensions is clearly a crucial one. One of the main reasons for Trump’s recent bellicosity — in addition to compelling new evidence of North Korean progress in the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development — is his well-founded conviction that China has not done enough to rein the North Korean nuclear and missile programs in. Among other things, this has convinced him that if he wants to neutralize these programs, he will have to do himself, regardless of the consequences.
In the longer run, China will almost certainly re-enter the North Korean political space as a key player, either as a defender of the Kim Family Dynasty (this if the U.S. launches a preventative attack against it) or as diplomatic intermediary working to develop a framework to encourage the two sides to retreat from the brink.
Taiwan is not immune from what is happening on the Korean Peninsula. Any outbreak of Korean hostilities could badly damage its economy, to say nothing of threatening it physically, particularly if nuclear weapons were deployed in the conflict. Beyond that it also needs to be mindful that a general war in its immediate backyard could give China a pretext to move ahead with its longstanding threat to use force against the island-nation. This is not a sure thing, but given U.S. failure to push back hard against China’s expanding influence in the South China Sea, it cannot be discounted out of hand either. On the contrary, it’s clearly a cause for concern.
New Xinhua List of Banned Taiwan Terms Underscores China’s Break with KMT
China’s official Xinhua news agency has published a new list of banned terms relating to Taiwan, underscoring the extent to which it has abandoned its once vibrant policy of using the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to help bring Taiwan under mainland control.
The new list is first and foremost a direct slap in the face at the notion that the Republic of China — Taiwan’s official name — actually exists.
Henceforth, Xinhua says, using the Republic of China moniker is not acceptable. Nor, it says, are terms like “Taiwan presidential election” and “president/vice president of the ROC.” Probably its most significant move is to ban the longstanding Nationalist Party formula for the “1992 Consensus,” an artificial Nationalist vehicle for moving ahead toward economic and political integration.
During the eight year term of former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT claimed they had convinced Beijing to accept the “one China, different interpretations” label to describe their own-adherence to the “one China” framework. Now, Beijing says, “different interpretations” is formally out the window, a clear declaration that the “one China” subsumed in the formula refers only to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and not to the Republic of China on Taiwan.
In one sense, there is little new in the Xinhua list, largely because it reflects Beijing’s longstanding view that the Republic of China and all its institutions ceased to exist when Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the PRC in October of 1949.
At the same time however, the appearance of the list is a strong indication that the Communist leadership in Beijing has effectively given up on the possibility of a KMT revival following the party’s historic defeat in the presidential and legislative elections of 2016.
In the wake of this change in policy, the Communists have become more and more inclined to adopt United Front and other aggressive tactics to try to undermine faith in Taiwanese political institutions from within. These tactics have included disinformation campaigns against the government of President Tsai Ing-wen, and pinpoint pressure on foreign governments to try to limit Taiwan’s already narrow international space.
It remains to be seen of course what if any results the new Beijing campaign yields. In the meantime though, it is clear that China has finally turned its back on the Nationalists in favor of a more proactive policy to bring Taiwan under its sway, and so end the island’s de facto independence once and for all.
New American Reports Amplify Chinese Missile Threat to Taiwan
Two new American reports on the Chinese missile threat against Taiwan — the first comprehensive surveys since 2010 — suggest that the number of short and medium range ballistic and cruise missiles targeted at the island has grown to more than 2,000, from the previous total of about 1,500. The 2,000 figure does not include second-generation short-range ballistic missiles, which according to the reports, give the Chinese People’s Liberation Army the option of hitting Taiwan with many thousand more.
The reports were put together by the Pentagon and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC). They provide considerable grist for those Americans and Taiwanese who favor the implementation of more robust asymmetric responses from the Taiwanese side.
According to the Pentagon, the number of short range Chinese ballistic missiles targeted at Taiwan has now reached 1,200, and the number of launchers at China’s disposal has risen to 250. (Each launcher can carry one missile). The types of missiles in China’s arsenal include China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s DF-15B, which has a range of 900 kilometers, and the 800 kilometer-range DF-15C, whose specialized warheads are believed to be capable of penetrating Taiwan’s underground defense facilities, a crucial component in the island-nation’s overall defense posture.
Neither the Pentagon nor NASIC reports addressed the crucial question of whether any of the Chinese missiles deployed against Taiwan are equipped with tactical nuclear warheads. The authoritative Jane’s Strategic Weapons Yearbook states that the DF-15 series has this capability, without saying whether it is being used. At the same time a former chief of staff of Russia’s prestigious rocket force command has stated that the PLA may have as many as 30 tactical nuclear warheads for DF-15 series and DF-11A missiles which could theoretically be targeted at Taiwan.
Guo Charges on Ma Ying-jeou as a Chinese Agent of Influence Look Highly Specious
Widely bruited charges by fugitive Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui that former President Ma Ying-jeou was a Chinese agent of influence look extremely specious. According to Guo, a Chinese real estate developer currently in exile in the U.S., China was able to “control” Ma during his time in office (2008-2016) because of unspecified leverage it had over him and his immediate family. The source of his information, Guo said, was a high-ranking officer in the PLA, whom he failed to name. As examples of Ma’s forced cooperation with China, Guo said, the officer cited Ma’s decision to imprison predecessor Chen Shui-bian, his redefinition of the so-called “1992 consensus” and his willingness to bring Taiwan under China’s economic control.
While there is no question that Ma was a strong advocate of more robust ties between Taiwan and China, a close look at his record shows that he failed to deliver on a number of key issues, at least from the Chinese perspective. On trade relations for example, he was stymied in his attempts to ram a controversial economic cooperation measure through the Taiwanese legislature, following massive opposition by the Taiwanese public. At the same time he conspicuously stuck to his guns on the “1992 consensus,” insisting that it permitted the Taiwanese leadership to define the consensus’s “one China” provision however it wished — specifically as the Republic of China, despite Beijing’s oft-repeated claim that that entity no longer existed. Finally Ma was unable to advance his proposal that Taiwan and China — or more properly the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party — sign a formal peace treaty to end the Chinese civil war. Ma originally raised the idea early in his first term in office and later revisited it — albeit briefly — during his 2012 presidential campaign.
By any objective measure, Guo is a controversial character. Since running afoul of the Chinese leadership in 2015, he has published a number of spectacular claims against some of its brightest stars, charging a number of them with systematic corruption and rank abuse of power. As far as is known, his remarks on Ma mark his first foray into Taiwanese politics. He is not considered particularly credible either in China or abroad, though his repeated comments on Chinese corruption have succeeded in making him a dark horse threat to Chinese President Xi Jinping and a number of his closest allies.
KMT Seems Poised to Harden Former Chairperson’s Accommodating China Line
Signs are emerging that Taiwan’s main opposition KMT will adopt a less accommodating position on China once its new chairman is sworn into office on Aug. 20.
The final revision of the new party platform reportedly marks a substantial break with the strong pro-China policies the Nationalists adhered to during the short and unhappy reign of former chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu.
Those policies included a “deepening” of the so-called “1992 consensus,” which reflected China’s insistence that the “one China” in the “consensus” refers only to the People’s Republic of China. Also included in Hung’s approach was support for a formal peace treaty between the sides. Critics of such a treaty see it as an eventual precursor to Taiwan’s absorption by China.
According to Taiwan media reports, the new Nationalist platform will embrace Ma Ying-jeou’s “one China, different interpretations” 1992 consensus rubric, despite recent Chinese statements to the effect that the rubric is unacceptable, because it sanctions the notion that the Republic of China on Taiwan actually exists. China rejects this notion out of hand.
The reports also say that the new Nationalist platform will drop the “no unification” provision from Ma’s well-known “no unification, no independence and no use of force” formulation. Analysts say this is meant to reassure China’s communist leadership that Taiwan under the KMT will have absolutely no intention of adopting a pro-independence line. But it is not seen as an especially meaningful change, particularly within the context of the KMT’s overall relations with Beijing.
The new Nationalist platform is generally seen as the handiwork of chairman-elect Wu Den-yih, who takes up his post on Aug. 20. Widely regarded as a colorless apparatchik, Wu has vowed to improve the party’s fortunes, which suffered a massive setback in Taiwan’s legislative and presidential elections in 2016.
According to analysts, a major reason for the setback was rising popular opposition to the strong pro-China line that Hung Hsiu-chu adopted during her disastrous campaign for the presidency against Democratic Progressive Party incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, as well as general discontent with Ma Ying-jeou’s generally China-friendly policies. But it remains to be seen whether a return to Ma-style “moderation” will have a positive electoral impact for the party, which in addition to combatting widespread doubts about its administrative worthiness, must also deal with rising Taiwanese consciousness among large numbers of Taiwanese, and a marked increase in popular animus toward China.
Leading Chinese Commentator Calls for Taiwan Unification Timetable
A leading Chinese commentator has called for China’s leadership to adopt a 30-year timetable for Taiwanese unification.
Zhou Zhihuai made the call in the Global Times newspaper, a People’s Daily offshoot specializing in international affairs. Zhou is the executive vice-president of China’s National Society of Taiwan Studies and a former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
His Global Times article appeared to come in response to a recent op-ed in this publication suggesting that China could be ready to carry out an armed invasion of Taiwan by late 2018. Zhou characterized that assertion as “speculation (lacking) supporting evidence.”
In his article, Zhou dismissed the importance of any antipathy that Taiwanese might feel if Beijing set a unification timetable, stating that a timetable was justified by pro-unification sentiment in China [editor’s note: always be wary of opinion polls in authoritarian China] and the imperative of carrying out “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
“Today’s China is the closest ever to realizing the great rejuvenation,” he wrote. “An increasing number of scholars are starting to explore the relations between the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and national reunification.”
“National reunification is organically connected to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and it is time for to work out a 30-year timetable,” he wrote.
Zhou implied that the adoption of a 30-year timetable indicated a Chinese willingness to be “patient” with Taiwan, but also made it clear that any accretion in the “provocative” activities of Taiwan’s DPP government would lead to the timetable being speeded up to an unspecified degree.
Since the DPP assumed office 15 months ago, China has been engaged in a wide-ranging effort of Taiwan de-legitimization, featuring disinformation campaigns against the government of President Tsai Ing-wen, and pinpoint pressure on foreign governments to try to limit Taiwan’s already narrow international space.
Zhou’s article neatly reflects the opinions of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in 2013 told former Taiwanese vice-president Vincent Siew that the Taiwan issue “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
“The issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution,” Xi said at the time.