Beijing’s Ambitions to Build Cross-Strait Transportation Infrastructure

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 15

Image: Participants taking part in the "Taiwan Strait Passage Study—20 Year Recollection and Exploration Conference” (台湾海峡通道研讨20年回顾与探讨座谈会, Taiwan Haixia Tongdao Yantao 20 Nian Huigu yu Tantao Zuotanhui) hosted by Tsinghua University (January 7, 2019). (Image source: Tsinghua University, January 14, 2019).

Introduction

In January of last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping gave a landmark speech about Taiwan in which he called for the construction of bridges between China’s Fujian Province and offshore islands under Taiwan’s jurisdiction (Xinhua, January 2, 2019). Xi’s speech touched off an aggressive campaign by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and local Fujian officials to promote the bridges—the first stage of Beijing’s ambitious initiative to build transportation links across the Taiwan Strait, a scheme with which Xi first became involved more than two decades ago.

Although this rhetorical campaign mellowed somewhat following the re-election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Beijing has not abandoned its long-term ambitions to construct transportation infrastructure projects—including some of unprecedented scale—across the waters between mainland China and Taiwan. Upcoming annual cross-Strait conferences, and the PRC’s next Five-Year Plan, should shed some light on the future of Beijing’s mission to construct cross-Strait transportation infrastructure.

Beijing’s Longstanding Ambitions to Build Transportation Links Across the Taiwan Strait

In 1987, renowned Chinese scholars Jiang Daquan (姜达权) and Zhang Yicheng (张以诚) submitted a report to the central leadership of the CCP. The report proposed that, following completion of the projected Three Gorges Dam project, China should build tunnels across the Taiwan Strait and Qiongzhou Strait (which separates the Leizhou Peninsula of Guangdong Province from Hainan Island). A summary of the report was included in that year’s “Summaries of Incoming Letters” (来信摘要, laixin zhaiyao) issued by the General Office of the CCP Central Committee and the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, thereby gaining the attention of China’s top leaders. [1]

However, it was Tsinghua University professor Wu Zhiming (吴之明)’s research in the mid-1990s on the Channel Tunnel connecting the island of Great Britain with the European mainland that finally spurred the PRC to begin planning for a cross-Taiwan Strait tunnel. In 1998, Tsinghua University’s Development Research Academy for the 21st Century partnered with National Taiwan University’s Civil Engineering Culture and Education Foundation to organize the first Taiwan Strait Tunnel Conference in Xiamen. The meeting was attended by various PRC officials, including members of the provincial and municipal Taiwan Affairs Offices and the State Oceanic Administration. [2] To date, a dozen such meetings have been convened in Fujian Province and Taipei (Tsinghua University, January 14, 2019; China News Service, October 13, 2019).

Present at The Creation: Xi Jinping’s Early Involvement with The Tunnel Project

Xi Jinping’s personal involvement with the cross-Strait tunnel project dates back to his days as a party-state official in Fujian Province. Former Fujian official You Dexin (游德馨) has described how Xi played a major part in launching the project. According to You’s account, Xi—acting in his capacity as Deputy Secretary of the CCP Fujian Provincial Committee—ordered the Fujian Cultural and Economic Exchange Center to join with the Development Research Academy for the 21st Century in organizing an academic seminar on constructing a cross-Strait tunnel. Soon thereafter, Xi reportedly gave a speech on the importance of the tunnel project to cross-Strait cooperation, as well as its significance to the revitalization of China, at the first Taiwan Strait Tunnel Conference in December 1998 (Study Times, June 24, 2020).

During his final year in Fujian, Xi sent a letter to the third Taiwan Strait Bridge and Tunnel Conference. In it, he expressed his belief that the tunnel project would be enormously beneficial to China’s future development and to the unification of Taiwan with the PRC (China News Service, March 24, 2002). Xi’s initial period of involvement with the tunnel project appears to have ended in late 2002 when he left Fujian. However, he reportedly maintained a special interest in cross-Strait relations after his departure. One former Fujian official has recalled how Xi, who at the time was preparing to leave Fujian to take up his new post in Zhejiang Province, told him that he hoped the official would continue his work on Taiwan affairs and would write to Xi to share ideas on the subject (Study Times, July 26, 2019).

The State of Play When Xi Became General Secretary

When Xi was elevated to the position of CCP General Secretary in 2012, China appeared much closer to constructing cross-Strait transportation infrastructure than ever before. In the years since he left Fujian, there had been significant developments related to the tunnel project. Engineers from both the PRC and Taiwan, as well as economists and other experts, had refined plans for multiple cross-Strait transportation links. The PRC State Council had made the construction of at least one link official policy by including a Beijing-Taipei expressway project in its 2005 National Expressway Network Plan (PRC State Council, September 16, 2005).

For its part, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan had started building a bridge between Greater Kinmen (大金門, Da Jinmen) and Lesser Kinmen (小金門, Xiao Jinmen), two outlying islands under its control located just off the coast of Xiamen. The bridge project was especially important because it aligned with a 1993 ROC proposal to connect Greater Kinmen and Xiamen via Lesser Kinmen (Taiwan Area National Freeway Bureau MOTC, February 2011). It also dovetailed with one of Beijing’s plans for a southern cross-Strait transportation link that would run from Xiamen through Lesser Kinmen, Greater Kinmen, and the Penghu Islands (澎湖岛, Penghu Dao) before reaching its terminus at Chiayi, Taiwan (CCTV.com, April 23, 2002).

Image: Three proposed routes for cross-Strait transportation routes linking Fujian Province with Taiwan. The “Northern Route” (北线方案, Beixian Fang’An) envisions connections from Fuqing in the PRC to Pingtan Island, and then to Taiwan’s city of Hsinchu; the “Central Route” (中线方案, Zhongxian Fang’An) would run from Putian to Nanri Island, and then to the city of Miaoli; and the “Southern Route” (南线方案, Nanxian Fang’An) would extend from Xiamen to the island of Jinmen, then to Penghu Island, and finally to Chiayi in southern Taiwan. (Image source: Ta Kung Pao, October 14, 2019)

Project Progress, and Roadblocks, During Xi’s Tenure

During Xi’s first year as General Secretary, the PRC pushed ahead with its transportation infrastructure plans. In October 2013, it began construction of the Pingtan Strait Road-Rail Bridge (平潭海峡公铁两用大桥, Pingtan Haixia Gongtie Liangyong Daqiao)—a section of Beijing’s planned northern transportation link to Taiwan intended to run from Fuzhou to Pingtan Island, then connect with the ROC’s Matsu Islands—and ultimately, to span the Taiwan Strait in the form of an underwater tunnel to Hsinchu, Taiwan (CNR News, October 30, 2013).

The Pingtan Bridge, which was completed last September, has become emblematic of the sort of one-sided progress the PRC has made on a project that requires cooperation from both sides of the Strait (Xinhua, September 25, 2019). On the Taiwan side, the Kinmen Bridge project, which was originally scheduled to be completed in March 2016, has faced repeated delays (Kinmen County General Affairs Department, May 22, 2011). However, Taiwan’s minister of transportation announced last August that the project will be completed by the middle of 2021 (Taipei Times, August 12, 2019).

Political disputes, not construction delays, have been the biggest obstacles to Beijing’s plans. Early in his first term as ROC president, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) expressed his willingness to consider constructing a bridge between the Kinmen Islands and Xiamen (Office of the ROC President, August 24, 2008). However, Ma and then-ROC Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義)—both members of Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) Party—were circumspect about letting the potential infrastructure project get ahead of evolving cross-Strait relations (Radio Free Asia, February 5, 2009; China Times, December 2, 2009). As events were to prove, the permissive environment that allowed Ma and his administration to conclude several cross-Strait agreements in his first term suffered irreparable damage midway through his second.

Certain groups within Taiwan society grew concerned about the ruling KMT’s far-reaching deals with Beijing and felt that such deals deserved greater public oversight. This popular skepticism eventually gave rise to Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement protests in spring 2014, which succeeded in blocking implementation of the monumental Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. These protests, as well as Beijing’s uncompromising response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in late 2014, reshaped Taiwan’s political environment—effectively precluding further advancement of the cross-Strait transportation link project for the remainder of Ma’s presidency. [3]

Infrastructure and Political Developments in 2018-2019

Since current ROC President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016, Beijing has refused to engage with her government, focusing instead on lobbying Taiwan opposition and local politicians to promote its transportation link agenda (Matsu Daily, May 18, 2018; China Times, February 14, 2019; China News Service, February 19, 2019; Matsu Daily, March 21, 2019). With Tsai’s poll numbers flagging in late 2018 and the next ROC general election in sight, PRC party-state officials and Taiwan opposition politicians saw an opportunity to push the transportation link scheme forward.

At an August 2018 ceremony marking the opening of a water pipeline built to convey freshwater from Fujian to Greater Kinmen, Kinmen County Magistrate Chen Fu-hai called for the creation of the “Kinmen New Three Links” (金門新三通, Jinmen Xin San Tong). This term was a reference to the limited transportation, trade and postal links established between three municipalities in Fujian and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu in the 2000s, known as the “Three Mini-Links.” In addition to the already-completed water pipeline, Chen advocated establishing an “electricity link” and a “bridge link” between Kinmen and China (Kinmen Daily, August 6, 2018).

Xi Jinping put forward a similar idea in his January 2019 speech about Taiwan issues. He urged both sides of the Taiwan Strait to take the initiative in promoting greater connectivity through trade and economic cooperation, infrastructure building, energy and natural resource development, and the adoption of shared industrial standards. To start with, Xi said, the two sides should develop water, electricity, natural gas and bridge links between Fujian and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu (Xinhua, January 2, 2019). The director of the TAO, Liu Jieyi, subsequently branded Xi’s concept the “Four New Links” (新四通, Xin Si Tong); and by extension, the projects aimed at the offshore islands became known as the “Four Mini-Links” (小四通, Xiao Si Tong) (Xinhua, January 2, 2019; China News Service, January 14, 2019; Xinhua, June 17, 2019). Liu and other PRC party-state officials continued to aggressively campaign for the stalled bridge projects, usually in the context of promoting all of the Four Mini-Links (People’s Daily, January 2; Taiwan Affairs Office, January 15).

At the same time, certain KMT officials continued to wage an equally intense campaign in Taiwan to jump-start the infrastructure projects. While running in the KMT presidential primary last year, former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu Li-luan (朱立倫) promised that, if elected president, he would support the Four Mini Links—and identified the proposed bridge to connect Kinmen with Xiamen as the most important of these (Liberty Times, March 26, 2019). KMT politicians Yang Cheng-we (Chen Fu-hai’s successor as Kinmen County Magistrate), and his counterpart in Matsu, Liu Cheng-ying, have emerged as some of the staunchest Taiwan proponents of the linkage projects.

Consequently, the Tsai administration has repeatedly asserted that it—and not local ROC governments—has the authority to manage cross-Strait relations (Mainland Affairs Council, December 25, 2018; Mainland Affairs Council, June 21, 2019). As Beijing tried to circumvent the Tsai administration in pursuit of new linkages with Taiwan, the island’s DPP-dominated Legislative Yuan last year passed a long-awaited cross-Strait agreement oversight bill that will likely present further obstacles to the bridge projects (China Post, May 31, 2019).

Conclusion

In the wake of Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic this past winter, the PRC has relaxed its pursuit of cross-Strait transportation links. However, the PRC has raised the profile of the projects too high to easily abandon them, or to let them stagnate for the next four years. In 2016, Beijing included Beijing-Taipei high-speed rail and expressway routes in its 13th Five-Year Plan (Guancha, March 5, 2016; PRC State Council, February 28, 2017). Furthermore, last October the TAO announced that it had unilaterally started conducting research on building bridges to Kinmen and Matsu (Xinhua, October 16, 2019).

Xi Jinping is too closely associated with the PRC’s cross-Strait transportation link mission to let it languish without suffering reputational costs. Both of Xi’s two immediate predecessors achieved significant breakthroughs in cross-Strait relations during their respective tenures as China’s top leader. Under Jiang Zemin’s leadership, the PRC and the ROC established mechanisms to handle technical and business matters involving the two sides. Before Jiang left office, Beijing and Taipei realized the Three Mini-Links. Hu Jintao, in turn, helped the two sides establish direct cross-Strait flights, trade and postal links (the “Three Links”), and also saw Beijing and Taipei sign the historic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. Xi, for his part, has made little progress in cross-Strait relations despite his long-held interest in the subject. The success or failure of the bridge projects, the most substantial of the Four Mini-Links, will therefore loom large in his legacy.

In the coming months, the PRC is expected to convene some of its annual cross-Straits meetings, some of which were postponed due to COVID-19 (Liberty Times, July 25). Two significant things to watch for are the extent to which the bridge projects will feature in the meetings, and who will be in attendance at those nominally grassroots functions. It is also worth paying attention to the extent that cross-Strait tunnel-related projects feature in the PRC’s upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan. Finally, it will be worth watching whether or not the term “Four Mini-Links” is adopted by senior PRC party-state officials outside the TAO and Fujian. Although many of its projects have been stymied, Beijing has not given up on its ambitious plans to use transportation infrastructure to link Taiwan more closely to China.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington D.C.-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. His main research interests include U.S.–Taiwan relations, cross-strait relations, and East Asian regional security. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, Newsweek, The Interpreter, Asia Times, E-International Relations and TSR Weekly Report. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @KrisAMcGuire.

Notes

[1] “Topographic and Geological Conditions in the Taiwan Strait and Suggestions for Trans-Strait Tunnel” (台湾海峡地形地质特征及其通道工程选线, Taiwan Haixia Dixing Tezheng Jiqi Tongdao Gongcheng Xuan Xian), Keji Daobao (科技导报) (journal article) (September 2008). https://wenku.baidu.com/view/1ff14315a300a6c30c229fa7.html.

[2] “Taiwan Strait Bridge/Tunnel Construction Problem” (台湾海峡桥隧建设问题, Taiwan Haixia Qiaosui Jianshe Wenti), Keji Daobao (科技导报) (journal article) (April 2004). http://www.kjdb.org/CN/abstract/abstract1710.shtml.

[3] Romberg, Alan D.“Sunshine Heats Up Taiwan Politics, Affects PRC Tactics”, China Leadership Monitor (journal article) (Summer 2014). https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm44ar-201408.pdf.