Taiwanese flag raised blowing in the wind with blue sky. Photo: iStock

Ever since Tsai Ing-Wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) assumed the leadership of Taiwan in 2016, Beijing has been on the offensive against any notion of independence.  After Tsai refused to affirm the 1992 Consensus and the “one China” framework, Beijing has actively sought to isolate Taipei diplomatically and threatened its shores with its military. In 2017, Chinese military aircraft, including bombers and advanced fighter jets, repeatedly flew an “unprecedented” number of sorties close to Taiwanese air space, according to Taiwanese military officials.  The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) also sailed its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, along the center line dividing the strait between China and Taiwan that same year.

Despite Tsai branding the DPP as a party of peace, it  has a long history of favoring formal independence, as do other political forces on the island.  In February, two former Taiwan presidents, Lee Teng-hui (former Nationalist or Kuomintang president) and Chen Shui-bian, (the first DPP president from 2000 to 2008), formally backed a campaign to hold a referendum on April 6, 2019 over Taiwan’s independence. The campaign was launched by Kuo Bei-hong, chairman of Formosa Television channel, who set the date to mark the 30th anniversary of the self-immolation of Deng Nan-jung, a Taiwan independence and democracy advocate.  

For Beijing, the referendum proposal confirms their suspicion that Tsai is pushing for formal independence, though so far her government has not publicly come out in favor of the campaign. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been a vocal opponent of Taiwan’s independence, and seemingly links reunification of Taiwan with China’s Great Rejuvenation by 2050. In an unexpected address at the close of the National People’s Congress held earlier this month, Xi garnished his loudest applause by warning Taiwan that “All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history.”  His re-elected premier, Li Keqiang, had earlier warned Taipei against any “separatist schemes.”  

Xi’s immediacy is in sharp contrast to Chairman Mao Zedong, who told Henry Kissinger in 1975 that China did not want Taiwan: “It’s better for it to be in your hands… A hundred years hence we will want it, and we are going to fight for it.”  Deng Xiaoping was also notably patient, instructing the next leadership to: “Observe carefully; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

For his part, Jiang Zemin believed: “On the Taiwan issue the Shanghai Communique established a good formula.”  Yet the new Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping appears to have run out of patience and is anxious to project the power he has carefully amassed.  

Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam goes further, believing the return of Taiwan is “Xi Jinping’s major ambition. He is obsessed by reunification because it will be his place in history, his claim to immortality.”  Xi’s ambition is reaffirmed by Ian Easton of the 2049 Institute, who claims in his new book The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia that Xi told Communist Party leaders in 2012 of plans to invade Taiwan by 2020.  Easton posits an invasion could happen before July 2021, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

While the American public may have no appetite for another war or the return of the US armed forces to the island, Mike Pompeo, the new US secretary of state, a China hawk, could push for a forceful stand

Currently, referendums in Taiwan cannot be held based on issues of national sovereignty.  Indeed, in 1979, it was a crime to advocate the total independence of Taiwan from China. However, if that were to change, a referendum over independence could possibly push Xi and his PLA toward a face-saving measure.  While a full-scale invasion is unlikely, Xi could decide on a show of limited military force, to test the will and resolve of the Trump Administration and the American public under the Taiwan Relations Act.

While the American public may have no appetite for another war or the return of the US armed forces to the island, Mike Pompeo, the new US secretary of state, a China hawk, could push for a forceful stand.  So too could John Bolton, the new national security adviser, who once recommended Washington’s recognition of Taiwan’s statehood.

On March 20, Beijing sailed its aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait.  The sailing coincided with warnings issued to Taipei by Xi at the close of the National People’s Congress, and just days after the signing last week of the Taiwan Travel Act by Trump, recommending reciprocal visits by high-level American and Taiwanese government officials.  The incursion drew the attention of Taiwanese defense forces, whose fighter jets and naval vessels shadowed the movements of the group, but so far there has been no reaction from the Trump Administration. For now, a potential referendum is almost a year away, but how the mercurial Trump, his hawkish national security adviser, and his ever-changing administration will react to immediate aggression from the mainland is unclear.   

Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in...

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