Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen. Photos: Xinhua, Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen. Photos: Xinhua, Reuters

China this week closed its largest ever military drills in the Taiwan Strait with a series of important statements, including the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council issuing its third White Paper, the title of which reveals the “new normal” of its Taiwan policy.

The title of this third White Paper on Taiwan reads: “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.” The paper contains content quite distinct in tone and tenor from the two earlier White Papers on Taiwan.

In a nutshell, the White Paper asserts that reunification is not only the Communist Party of China’s “historic mission” but is also “indispensable for the realization of China’s rejuvenation.” It claims the party has adopted, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, “new and innovative measures in relation to Taiwan.” This “new starting point for reunification” is referred to as the “new normal” of China’s Taiwan policy.

Clearly, in the case of all civilizational states, especially those with imperial impulses and system-shaping capabilities, understanding the symbolism of semantics is significant in interpreting their likely trajectories, with implications far and wide. And given this prognosis, the “new normal” of China-Taiwan ties has become the subject of media commentaries.

Shifting saliences

To begin with, the title of the White Paper issued this week – the first one under President Xi Jinping – marks a significant change in stance from the earlier two, which were titled “The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue” (February 2000) and “The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China” (August 1993). 

That change is the inclusion of “New Era” in the title, which is defined by Xi as distancing China from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your strengthens and bide your time” thesis. Especially now, in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, where Xi will be seeking an unprecedented third term in office, this radicalization has been there for all to see.

Second, the title of this paper also involves an interesting twist of words, from “reunification of China” to “China’s reunification,” which alludes to an assertion toward a more China-driven reunification. This reminds of a similar earlier twist from Chairman Mao Zedong’s “liberation” of Taiwan to Deng’s “integration of Taiwan,” saying the same thing while using different semantics.

The third distinction is more operative and much too “in the face” to be missed even by cursory China watchers. Here, compared with the White Papers of August 1993 and February 2000, it has expunged their earlier commitment that “any matter can be negotiated” as long as Taiwan accepts that there is only one China and does not pursue separatist policies. This again reinforces Beijing’s growing conviction in effecting this reunification on its own terms.

Fourth, unlike the earlier two, this third White Paper showcases relatively stronger allusion toward use of military power in effecting reunification. It elucidates how in the “new era,” “with significant growth in its political, economic, cultural, technological, and military strength, there is no likelihood that China will allow Taiwan to be separated again.”

This assertion, of course, is explained in terms of military advancements of Taiwan and other foreign powers seeking to split China, implying United States and its friends and allies.

Fifth, the release of the White Paper this week was accompanied by other statements to reiterate China’s non-renunciation of use of its military. This element was, for example, elucidated on Wednesday in a formal statement issued by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

Announcing the successful completion of military drills in Taiwan Strait, it said, “But we will not renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and all separatist activities.” 

All this is now being called the “new normal” of China’s Taiwan policy and China-US ties, where extensive military drills are expected to become more regular to effect blockage of sea routes and the airspace of Taiwan, thereby circumventing its ever growing economic partnerships and further reducing the number of nations that continue to recognize Taipei as a sovereign nation-state.

This ratcheting up in cross-Strait relations, however, has implications way beyond China-US-Taiwan triangular ties.

Strategic implications

The fact that Chinese state media reporting on military drills has been seen as alluding to transgressions across the Taiwan Strait’s median line becoming a “regular” exercise has already had a visible impact on regional supply lines, with companies assessing short-term and long-term costs and strategies.

At the least, these military drills have demonstrated Beijing’s capacity to inflict an enormous yet uncontested disruption to regional trade flows as and when it chooses. In the midst of post-pandemic resilience initiatives, these disruptions are bound to trigger panic.

Even a cursory glance at these trade flows shows how, for the first half of this year, about half of the world’s container fleet and nearly 90% of its largest vessels by tonnage passed through the Taiwan Strait connecting East Asia to markets worldwide.

It is well understood that any tension in the Taiwan Strait will imply trade routes becoming extended, increasing transit times and pushing up freight rates, with goods and services reaching consumers much later and at a much higher price. 

But would not such disruptions be equally counterproductive for China’s own whopping foreign trade, especially its commerce from its eastern ports of Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo and Guangzhou, the four largest ports facing the Taiwan Strait? The answer to this is obviously negative. 

China may be world’s largest trading nation, but the world has witnessed President Xi’s sustained willingness to sacrifice economics for his politics; see for example his “zero Covid” strategy that continues to shut down large parts of the country, greatly slowing down its economy. 

However, what brings relief is the broad consensus around how China remains strongly circumscribed in its tactics. Unleashing a direct military strike seems as yet completely unaffordable among its policy choices.

So instead of an incessant amphibious attack, China is likely to choose a strategy of verbose “warrior diplomacy” accompanied by intermittent unannounced and unacknowledged naval and aerial blockades of Taiwan, and make this routine the “new normal” of its time-tested “gray-zone operations,” which will make the American response indecisive.

When elephants fight …

As the saying goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. All this “new normal” does not augur well for Taipei.

For instance, at end of its recent military drills, the People’s Liberation Army’s East Theater Command said in a statement: “Theater forces will keep an eye on the changes in the situation in the Taiwan Strait, continue to carry out training and preparation for combat, organize regular combat readiness patrols in the direction of the Taiwan Strait, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” 

On Wednesday, this was corroborated by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reporting that a total of 17 Chinese fighter jets flew across the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

China claims that it is the United States that is trying to change the status quo by strengthening and upgrading its relations with Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. So, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told China Central Television (CCTV) on Tuesday, “China has no choice but to fight back and defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But while China persists in the view that its relations with Taiwan are an internal matter and that it reserves the right to bring the island under its control, by force if necessary, Taiwan rejects China’s claims, saying that only the island’s people can decide their future.

The United States, meanwhile, continues to claim that visits to the island like the recent one by the Speaker of its House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, are routine and that China is using them as pretexts to ratchet up its force posture against Taipei.

Then there are internal disjunctions of Taiwan’s democracy, which have witnessed the cyclical nature of the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sharing power on a two-term basis. This logic forecasts the KMT, seen as relatively much cozier with Beijing, coming back to power in 2024.

Some of this was demonstrated in how, even before China’s military drills had ended, Andrew Hsia, deputy chairman of the KMT, flew to China for what his party said was a prearranged visit to meet the Taiwanese business community. Understandably, President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the currently ruling DPP, called this “disappointing to our people,” even though Hsia’s China visit involved no official meetings or even a visit to Beijing. 

China’s neighbors meanwhile are taking notice of this power posturing, though their responses remain disjointed.

Whereas newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was the only regional leader to give Pelosi the slip even when he was in same city, India is planning high-altitude joint military exercises with the United States less 100 kilometers from the tension-ridden China-India ceasefire line, and its timing in October will coincide with China’s 20th Party Congress in Beijing.

All this does not augur well for regional peace and security.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

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Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and professor of diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is president of the Association of Asia Scholars; adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.