(211211) -- XIAMEN, Dec. 11, 2021 (Xinhua) -- A performance is staged during the 13th Straits Forum in Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, Dec. 11, 2021. The forum, which is the largest annual event across the Taiwan Strait focusing on people-to-people exchanges, kicked off here on Saturday. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)

OPINION – China’s White Paper on Taiwan and its political implications

The immediate publication of a “White Paper on the Taiwan question and China’s reunification enterprise during the new era” has significant political implications for cross-strait relations in the short and long term. Specifically, the White Paper’s content reveals the combination of softline and hardline strategies adopted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the question of Taiwan’s future immediately after the highly controversial visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taipei.

First and foremost, the White Paper reiterates China’s long-standing position of its sovereignty over Taiwan. It uses a large proportion of the content to refer to Taiwan as an inseparable part of China from a historical perspective. It also cites the resolution of the United Nations in October 1971, stating that Taiwan is a province of mainland China. The utilization of historical facts internally and the US resolution externally buttresses the legal foundation of the entire White Paper on Beijing’s sovereign position on Taiwan.

Second, the White Paper emphasizes the concrete economic benefits of Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China, including cross-strait economic interactions, the large amount of bilateral trade, the tremendous number of mainland visitors, the participation in the mainland’s Belt and Road initiatives, the rise of the Chinese cultural renaissance, and the concrete economic gains of the Taiwan people. Economic enticement remains a hallmark of the whole White Paper.

Third, the White Paper for the first time emphasizes that Taiwan, if reunified with the mainland, would be able to witness the establishment of foreign diplomatic missions and organizations, a scenario that points to more “diplomatic space” conferred by Beijing on the province of Taiwan. This kind of “diplomatic space” is new in the PRC’s design of the “Taiwan model” of “one country, two systems.” 

Fourth and most interestingly but alarmingly, the White Paper does not renounce the use of military force to deal with Taiwan on the one hand, and it does not mention that Taiwan, after reunification, would retain its own military on the other hand. 

Reading the two points together, the White Paper carries an implicit message that if Taiwan’s military resists any mainland’s forceful efforts of reunifying the island, military conflicts would be inevitable. As such, the White Paper does not mention that Taiwan would retain its own military in the future if both sides reunify, unlike one of the nine points of reunification as mentioned by the late Marshal Ye Jianying in September 1981. Point three of Marshal Ye’s nine-point formula said: “After the country is reunified, Taiwan can enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region, and it can retain its armed forces. The Central Government will not interfere with local affairs on Taiwan.” The phrase of Taiwan retaining its armed forces is prominently missing in the White Paper, meaning that the PRC considers the use of force, if necessary, to deal with Taiwan’s question and future – a negative impact of Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.

Coincidentally but worryingly, Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen said on August 12 that in the face of the mainland’s military “intimidation,” she and the Taiwan military would rally to ward off such “intimidation.” 

Fifth, the White Paper says explicitly for the first time that the issue of reunification with Taiwan cannot be transferred to the next generation indefinitely – a negative message implying that the mainland would consider a military option if the peaceful means to reunify Taiwan are exhausted, as Article 8 of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law states. As such, the White Paper remarks that cross-strait dialogue and discussion can proceed in stages – a positive message to Taiwan if the island’s authorities decide to trigger negotiation with the mainland side. The combination of hardline with softline strategies is prominent in the content of the White Paper on Taiwan’s future.

Sixth, the White Paper severely criticizes the United States for not only its “external intervention” in mainland China’s domestic affairs but also its moves to foster “separatist” activities in Taiwan. The Pelosi visit has obviously angered the PRC to such an extent that Beijing utilizes the White Paper to lay out its official perspectives and justifications for any next moves to deal with Taiwan.

What will be the next moves? 

Predictably, the Party Congress in October will very likely come up with concrete measures and statements over Taiwan. 

During the meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March 2022, there were a few mainland delegates mentioning the possibility of enacting a Reunification Law on Taiwan. It means that the Reunification Law, if enacted later, would likely spell out the red lines that cannot be tolerated by the central government in Beijing. Specifically, the conditions of Beijing’s use of military force would be spelt out clearly.

Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law says: “In the event that the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Moreover, the State Council and the Central Military Commission “shall decide on and execute the non-peaceful means and other necessary measures as provided … and shall promptly report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.”

There was a speculation that the mainland authorities would perhaps spell out who are the Taiwanese “separatists” in case of any elaboration of the Reunification Law. In fact, the mainland media have already named some of these Taiwan people in public.

If PRC authorities choose to spell out the conditions under which the Chinese state “shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” over Taiwan, they would become the red lines that the Taiwan people would have to observe.

The White Paper was published at a time when a Kuomintang (KMT) leader, namely its vice chairperson Andrew Hsia Li-yan, decided to lead a delegation to visit the mainland, including the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. 

Hsia’s visit attracted public expectations and criticisms. Some Young Turks within the KMT criticized his visit as “inappropriate,” while the supporters and members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ridiculed him as acting as a dove “surrendering” to the mainland. Interestingly, within the KMT, two factions emerge on Hsia’s visit. Eric Chu praised his visit as an attempt at fostering a dialogue with the mainland authorities, while some other “light green” members of the KMT said that his visit “deserves some discussions.”

According to some KMT members, if Hsia does not visit the mainland, the KMT’s electoral performance by the end of 2022 would be severely affected because most of the Taiwan voters would see the mainland’s military exercises and drills in six zones outside the island as an “intimidation” with detrimental electoral impacts on the KMT. In other words, without any go-betweens mediating between Taiwan and the mainland, many Taiwan voters would likely cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of the DPP candidates in the upcoming county and mayoral elections – a hypothesis remains to be tested.

Interestingly, Hsia resigned from his position as a Taipei district councilor and an adviser, emphasizing that his trip to the mainland was made on a personal basis. Despite his controversial visit, some Taiwan observers praised Hsia’s visit to the mainland as a gesture of goodwill amid tense cross-strait relations. Professor Liu Chin-tsai of the Department of Public Affairs at Taiwan’s Fo Guang University said that Hsia’s visit created “a peaceful buffer zone” between Taiwan and the mainland.

In conclusion, the White Paper published by mainland China on Taiwan is politically significant. For the first time since Marshal Ye’s nine-point formula was published in September 1981, the mainland does not mention that Taiwan would be allowed to maintain its own military after reunification – a worrying sign pointing to the preparation for a possible conflict, although Article 9 of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005 states that the Chinese state “shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan” in case of “employing and executing non-peaceful means.” Nevertheless, the White Paper also emphasizes peaceful reunification as a priority, demonstrating the concrete economic benefits and “diplomatic space” to Taiwan if the island authorities opt for a peaceful reunification. Most importantly, for the first time in the PRC’s official remarks on Taiwan, the negotiation and dialogue can proceed in stages – a positive message to the Taiwan people. However, the challenge to peace and prosperity to Taiwan depends on the ruling authorities, whose current strategic calculations of relying on the US and other countries ironically appear to be a recipe for potential disaster. Judging from the PRC reactions, there will be crises and opportunities for a potential breakthrough, if and only if the Taiwan side realizes and grasps such hidden opportunities.