A Chinese flag flies during a pro-unification rally in Taipei. A Republic of China (Taiwan) flag is on the right. Photo: Central News Agency

The fundamental argument behind Xi Jinping’s push for the latest constitutional amendment that allows him to rule the People’s Republic of China with absolute power and for an indefinite period is that (only) he could help realize “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

A central piece of such a great “Chinese Dream” – a nationalist vision of China as the pre-eminent global power by 2050 overtly championed by Mr Xi since he came to power in 2012 – is to regain control of Taiwan

Thus, it came as no surprise that in his first key speech after successfully getting the National People’s Congress, the PRC’s rubberstamp legislature, to constitutionalize his extended power and prolonged rule, he delivered a strong message about Taiwan.

Closing the NPC’s annual session on Tuesday, the now emperor-like figure vowed that China would protect “every inch” of its territory and was ready “to fight bloody battles” against its enemies. He blatantly warned, any attempts to split China “are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history.”

The televised and stringently nationalistic address, which also marked the start of his second term – or, more likely, his lifetime tenure – was primarily aimed at the domestic audience, especially those puzzled by his extraordinary power grab or questioning his legitimacy.

The PRC sees Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China (ROC), as a renegade province and have sought to bring it back to the fold for decades but have failed. His determination – and especially success – to reunite the island would certainly help Xi justify his long rule.

Yet, despite the fact that the newly ordained president for life insisted that Beijing would continue to seek a peaceful unification, his stern warning was also directed at the self-ruled island and its backers, notably the United States.

In response to Xi’s remarks, Taipei reportedly said it was resolute in its conviction to defend Taiwan’s “sovereign dignity” and its people’s well-being. It also hoped that, with its new administration, Beijing “can break free of clichéd thinking of strong intimidation.”

The US has likewise adopted a tougher posture vis-à-vis China on the Taiwan issue. Just four days before the Chinese leader’s speech, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which “encourages visits between officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels”, despite warnings and threats from Beijing.

The bill was unanimously passed in both the House and the Senate and this clearly shows how strong the American support for the self-ruled island’s security and democracy is.

That was also the message Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the US Department of State – the first high-ranking US official to travel to Taiwan after the bill came into law – brought to the island during his recent visit.

Speaking at a high-profile American Chamber of Commerce (ACC) event attended by many business leaders and political figures, including Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, in Taipei on Wednesday, Mr Wong stated that the US-Taiwan relationship is built on three main certainties.

They are: (1) “Taiwan’s democracy and resulting development are an example for the entire Indo-Pacific region;” (2) the [US], Taiwan, and all of our other like-minded partners can work together to strengthen the rules-based fabric of this region;” and (3) the [US’s] commitment to the Taiwan people, to their security, to their democracy, has never been stronger.”

In elaborating his first point, in which he also asserted that the US government and the American private sector “will do their part to ensure Taiwan’s stellar international example shines brightly,” the diplomat apparently took a shot at Xi’s tightening grip on power, saying “Dynamic, broad-based, and sustainable economic growth can never hinge on the whim of a dictator.”

Obviously, Beijing has been angry with the Taiwan Travel Act, and Wong’s Taiwan visit and his message.

But for the US and especially for Taiwan, China’s increasing forcefulness and its march toward autocracy under Xi’s rule are bringing them closer together. All of this will make the democratically governed island’s unification with the communist-ruled mainland more difficult and distant.

The Trump administration has adopted a tougher posture toward Beijing, not only on the Taiwan issue, but also on a wide range of important matters and fronts.

In fact, as stated in the Trump government’s key announcements and documents, such as National Security Strategy(NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Nuclear Posture Review(NPR), China is now painted as a top security concern and a strategic competitor that seeks to challenge the US’s regional and global eminence – not only economically and militarily but also politically and ideologically.

While Trump and many of his top aides are, ideologically, more critical of China than their predecessors, Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy since Xi assumed power has significantly contributed to America’s harsher stance toward Beijing.

That Taiwan Travel Act was unanimously endorsed despite the current high polarization in Washington indicates not only the US’s robust support for Taiwan, but also its growing concern about the ambitions of an autocratic, powerful and forceful China under Mr Xi.

As a result, as Mr Wong himself stressed, the US, which “has been, is, and always will be Taiwan’s closest friend and partner,” will “do more” to deepen its ties with the island in the years to come.

After Wong, Ian Steff, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing, also made a five-day visit to Taiwan from March 22.

Taiwan’s leaders and people are undoubtedly encouraged by the US’s latest developments.

Wong’s remarkable compliments about Taiwan’s democracy are not new. Two formers US presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush, already cited it as an example for the region and the world to follow in 2016 and 2007, respectively.

But his remarks certainly resonated well in – and possibly beyond – the 23-million-people island, because Wong implicitly contrasted Taiwan’s “democratic flourishing” from what is currently happening under “the whim of a dictator” in the PRC.

Indeed, while people may have different views about the “one China policy”, they can hardly deny that apart from size and population, the democratically governed ROC has fared much better than the authoritarian one-party PRC, in all main aspects – from personal income and economic freedom, to press freedom, transparency, democracy and happiness.

For instance, in its 2018 Economic Freedom Index, that covers 12 freedoms, from property rights to financial freedom, the Heritage Foundation ranked the island 13th and the mainland 110th(out of 180 territories/countries).

The United Nations’ latest World Happiness Report, put the former 26th (out of 156) where the latter came in 86th. The main six areas used to measure happiness are “income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.”

For the Taiwan people, whether their island should reunite with the mainland or not is a matter of their own decision – not to be taken by their leaders and absolutely not by the communist leaders in Beijing.

Having lived a free, prosperous and happy life in such a multi-party democratic society for decades and now witnessing the political repression facing their 1.3 billion peers in the mainland, it’s very unlikely, if not unthinkable, that they will be keen to give up their way of life for a strictly censored one under an autocratic rule.

In other words, while China’s dream of peacefully reuniting with Taiwan was unrealized before, it is, and will be, even more unattainable.

The concern is that, with failure to achieve a peaceful reunification, which also means failure to realize his grand goal of “national rejuvenation” in his lifetime, backed by hawkish voices, a nationalistic, autocratic Xi may use force.

Should this happen – and God forbid – it would certainly lead to a major military conflict.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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