Following a menacing speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping where he threatened violence against Taiwan should it pursue de jure independence from China and laid bare his intentions to push for a “one country, two systems” arrangement for what China considers to be a ‘rogue province’, pro-independence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen clapped back at Xi in comments to the BBC on Wednesday, where she said the island would never accept reunification with China on Beijing’s terms.
After defending the status quo and calling on Beijing to “face the reality” of Taiwan’s continued independence, Tsai declared on Wednesday that the island, which has functioned like a de facto country since 1949, when defeated nationalists led by Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek fled across the Strait of Taiwan to seek refuge from the Communists, would never agree to the “one country, two systems” arrangement like the one that governs Hong Kong.
But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the island would never accept reunification with China under the terms offered by Beijing.
“I want to reiterate that Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems’. The vast majority of Taiwanese public opinion also resolutely opposes ‘one country, two systems’, and this is also the ‘Taiwan consensus’.”
Under the “one country, two systems” formula, Taiwan would have the right to run its own affairs; a similar arrangement is used in Hong Kong.
Since cementing his untrammeled power over the Chinese government and clearing the path for lifetime rule, Xi has exerted more pressure on Taiwan to bend to Beijing’s will. Last year, he successfully pressed for global airlines to identify Taiwan as a part of China, and has authorized threatening military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.
But what are the chances that Xi adopts a more aggressive posture toward Taiwan, one that potentially involves military conflict? One BBC analyst said this possibility remains remote.
If anything, China will probably step up its efforts to interfere with Taiwan’s elections to undermine pro-independence parties, while strengthening trade and other economic ties.
China may be a rising military superpower, but sending an invading army across the choppy, well-defended waters of the Taiwan strait would still be a huge military gamble, with success far from guaranteed.
Beyond the slightly more strident tone, Mr Xi’s speech does not appear to signal any dramatic change in those calculations, especially when you take into account the more conciliatory passages offering a further strengthening of trade links.
If there is to be any warfare, it is likely to be of the cyber kind; China is reported to be stepping up its efforts to influence Taiwan’s elections to hurt the prospects of independence-leaning parties and politicians.
The hope has long been that it will be China’s growing economic might, not military force, that will eventually pull Taiwan into its embrace.
But as the trade war with the US simmers and Chinese leaders wary of foreign interference, Xi’s threats to strike back against foreigners who interfere with Taiwan could create further tension with the US, particularly after a Chinese admiral threatened to “sink two aircraft carriers” to send the US a message.