Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 1

Beijing has heaved a sigh of relief at the results of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (LY) elections. There will be some fine-tuning of the Hu Jintao administration’s Taiwan-related policies. For example, more emphasis will be put on “united front tactics” to win over the majority of Taiwan residents, especially the business community. But the main strategies to be pursued by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership will remain essentially the same: to put more pressure on Washington to rein in President Chen Shui-bian’s “pro-independence gambit”; military preparation for a possible “liberation warfare” will go on relentlessly; and more efforts will be made to squeeze Taiwan’s “international breathing space.”

After the December 11 elections, which saw a surprisingly good performance by the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), cadres from the CCP’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA), the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), and relevant departments held marathon meetings to discuss the implications for cross-Strait relations. President Hu, who heads the LGTA, has also sought the advice of Taiwan experts in think tanks including the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Military Science, and the International Issues Research Institute, a unit under the Ministry of State Security. The official reaction was given four days after the polls by the cabinet-level TAO. Spokesman Li Weiyi said the LY elections, which resulted in the “pan-blue,” or pro-unification alliance, controlling 114 out of the 225 parliamentary seats, showed that President Chen’s pro-separatist game plan had “lost the support of the people.” The polls also demonstrated, the TAO said, that Taiwan people “want peace, stability and [economic] development” instead of the risky separatist agenda of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In general, Hu and his advisers are relatively happy that their tough tactics against Taipei seem to be working – and that the poll results would justify the continuation of these hardball strategies. Moreover, Hu, who is also running China’s defense and foreign policy, is convinced that with the PLA’s continued modernization and China’s enhanced global influence, it will be that much more difficult for Chen to use means such as changing the Taiwan constitution to achieve separatism.

Beijing’s Taiwan experts, however, also realize that the setback suffered by the DPP as well as its more radical sidekick, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), was due at least as much to erroneous campaign tactics as to voters being scared by Chen’s increasingly bold statements about achieving a “distinct Taiwan identity” if not full-fledged statehood by the end of his second term in 2008. And Chen’s pro-independence “conspiracy” has hardly been dealt a devastating blow. The official New China News Agency quoted Taiwan specialists in Beijing as saying that “the root of cross-Strait tension has not been eradicated, and one can hardly be optimistic about future developments.”

Indeed, at the December 11 polls, the DDP-TSU “pan-green alliance” was able to maintain their traditional 40%-odd share of the popular vote. In fact, the DPP and TSU, which is led by the charismatic former president Lee Teng-hui, together garnered 43.51% of the ballots, 2% more than they did at the 2001 LY elections. Moreover, the total share of votes going to the so-called pan-blue alliance – consisting of the KMT, the much-weakened People’s First Party, and the fast-disappearing New Party – was but 46.85%, or three percentage points down from last time around.

And given that the Taiwan president still has control over the bulk of the island’s political resources, it is possible for Chen to continue to push his independence enterprise by bypassing and circumventing the LY. As an astute politician, Chen has ample experience in mobilizing the masses to follow his lead in battling the perceived “common enemy,” that is, mainland China. Indeed, a number of Beijing-based Taiwan specialists fear that the LY setback might prompt Chen to adopt an even more risky and aggressive approach in stirring up popular sentiments about asserting native-Taiwanese rights – and defying Beijing. In the last six months of the presidential campaign, from September 2003 to March 2004, Chen was able to seize the initiative and dictate the drift of political debate precisely through pushing the envelop on the separatist agenda. Beijing fears that since Chen knows that time is running out, the DPP administration might try even more desperate measures to provoke Beijing – and to secure the support of the island’s majority native-Taiwanese residents.

One post-election instruction given by President Hu was that Beijing should take advantage of the DPP’s temporary setback at the polls to woo pro-stability, middle-of-the-road voters in Taiwan. At an LGTA meeting held last September, Hu had already pointed out that Taiwan-related cadres must do more to “show Taiwan people the concrete benefits of reunification.” Added State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan just before the Taiwan polls: “We must further implement the policy of ‘putting our hope on the Taiwan people’.” Chinese experts said the LY balloting would provide an opportunity for Beijing to boost its “smiling-face, united-front” efforts. For example, the Chinese propaganda machinery made much of the fact that mainland departments had in early December speeded up procedures to enable the sick baby of a mainland-based Taiwan merchant to be sent back to Taipei for emergency medical treatment.

Following Hu’s instructions, Beijing has tried to win hearts and minds by putting an end to discriminatory measures against “green” businessmen, professionals and entertainers, meaning those suspected of being DPP supporters. More attempts will be made to protect the investment, including intellectual property rights, of mainland-based Taiwan businesses. And more tolerance will be demonstrated to the curriculum and operation of mainland schools that cater for the children of Taiwan executives and professionals.

Putting more pressure on Washington to constrain Chen’s separatist gambit could be the LGTA’s top priority in the coming year or so. Even though Bush has yet to begin his second term, Beijing cadres including Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing have expressed cautious optimism that Sino-U.S. cooperation on the Taiwan front will likely be satisfactory in the coming four years. According to a source close to Beijing’s Taiwan-policy establishment, the Hu leadership wanted Bush to take tougher steps to rein in Chen. The policy insider noted that during the first term of the Bush administration, Beijing was able to push Washington to go from the position of merely “not supporting Taiwan independence” to that of “opposing any steps [by Taipei] to upset the Taiwan Strait status quo” – as well as making a public pronouncement that Taiwan is not a sovereign state. “In Bush’s second term, Beijing hopes Washington will move from the stance of supporting a ‘peaceful resolution’ of the Taiwan issue to that of ‘supporting peaceful reunification’,” the source added.

At the same time, military preparation for a possible “liberation of Taiwan” is being revved up. The LGFA has concluded from the LY elections that continued military intimidation is essential to dissuading moderate Taiwanese from backing Chen’s radical “splittist” game plan. Beijing’s determination to maintaining an “armed liberation” as the ultimate weapon against Taiwan independence was made clear during the recent visit to the Chinese capital by Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Ivanov. Partly as a result of the Hu leadership’s aggressive lobbying of the EU to lift its arms embargo against China – the successful resolution of which will enable Beijing to secure advanced European hardware the rest of the decade – General Ivanov promised Beijing that Moscow would make available to the PLA the latest versions of jet-fighters, submarines and anti-missile defense systems. Earlier, Beijing had complained that Russian weapons sold to China were not as sophisticated as those destined for India.

In their meetings with General Ivanov, the two Vice-Chairmen of the CCP Central Military Commission, Generals Guo Boxiong and Cao Gangchuan talked tough about possible military action against Taiwan. For example, General Guo, who is in charge of command and control matters, said the PLA would not “sit idle” if President Chen were to make a move toward independence. A late December National Defense White Paper warned that “the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush [Taiwan independence] at any cost.”

That the Hu leadership is prepared to play hardball the rest of the decade is clear from the speeded-up processing of the Anti-Secession Law (ASL), due to be enacted by the National People’s Congress next March. While the wording of the bill, which was deliberated by the NPC Standing Committee on December 26, had not been released, NPC sources said the main thrust of the statute was that “China will have no choice but to use non-peaceful means [against Taiwan] if pro-independence elements were to unilaterally change the status quo of the Strait – and deliberately take action to secede from the nation.” The sources said the ASL would provide legal justification for a bigger military budget as well as full-scale mobilization – for example, the PLA using civilian infrastructure and transport facilities or calling up more civilian reservists for the war effort.

Finally, the CCP leadership will redouble efforts to strangle Taipei’s diplomatic breathing space. Chinese cadres including diplomats and foreign trade officials are all guns blazing using the country’s new-found economic, diplomatic and military clout to further constrict Taiwan’s room for maneuver on the global stage. At this state, Hu and his foreign-policy advisers are concentrating on the eight African countries – and the 13 Central and Latin American countries – that still recognize Taipei. Through offering trade incentives and even arms sales, Beijing is confident that several of these small countries would in the coming two to three years switch diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. In the recent struggle with Taipei over diplomatic recognition extended by the miniscule island state of Vanuatu, Beijing even enlisted Australia’s help in its battle against the DPP administration. Canberra reportedly put indirect pressure on its neighbor by threatening to withdraw economic aid should the latter abandon Beijing for Taipei.