When All Else Fails: Beijing’s Conservative Stance On Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 14

By Andrew Thompson and Zhu Feng

The on-going transfer of power in Beijing is contributing to the “politicization” (zhengzhihua) of China’s foreign policy, causing commentators and policymakers in Beijing to emphasize a hard-line ideology on Taiwan. Beijing’s current, ideologically-charged atmosphere has had an impact on the Mainland’s Taiwan policy, effectively preventing a pragmatic approach or an “innovative” policy response. Likewise, the concurrent election seasons in the U.S. and Taiwan prompts leaders to focus on the domestic ramifications of all decisions (and sometimes ignore the impacts of “domestic” decisions on foreign policy). With political seasons dominating policy in Beijing, Washington and Taipei, policymakers in each capital are constrained in their abilities to propose or implement policies that would contribute towards peaceful resolution of the cross-straits crisis.

Following Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration speech on May 20, a broad consensus among elites in Beijing has emerged in support of a hard-line rather than an accommodating approach to prevent Taiwan independence. Some consider the conservative response to Taiwan to reflect a struggle at the highest levels of government caused by Jiang Zemin’s attempts to hold on to power and possibly retain his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission. As a result, supporters of current president Hu Jintao and allies of Jiang Zemin are engaged in a struggle that has been described as causing “two centers” to form within the party, a potentially dangerous situation which threatens to destabilize the government and country.

The split is causing officials, academics and the media to carefully consider their positions on particular issues, and ensure that they are not personally vulnerable to attacks from other factions. In order to prevent being perceived as “weak,” a consistently conservative, ideological discussion has dominated discourse. This conservatism has been limited to foreign policy focusing on preventing Taiwan’s independence and Hong Kong’s democracy. China’s approach to reigning in Taiwan is dependent upon the U.S. cooperating and applying pressure on the Chen administration, and not sending signals that encourage Chen, such as allowing high-profile “stopovers” in the U.S., and weapons sales. Growing interdependence between the U.S. and China will likely prevent the rhetoric on Taiwan from spilling over into anti-Americanism. Bilateral cooperation on international affairs is increasingly important and balanced, covering key issues of mutual interest such as North Korean issue, the Global War on Terror, and the rebuilding of Iraq. However, a hard line by the Chinese leadership on Taiwan is likely to cause stress in the otherwise positive China-U.S. relationship. The election season in the U.S. will also affect the administration and congress’ response to China. U.S. politicians are not likely to sympathize with communist leaders threatening a democratically elected government.

China’s Stranded Strategy

While China is clearly dependent on the U.S. to contain Taiwan, the conservative, hard-line in Beijing is preventing a new, more pragmatic approach that could yield results that are ultimately favorable to China. China’s old “two-handed strategy” has been unsuccessful at preventing Taiwan’s steady drift towards independence, culminating in Chen Shui-bian’s re-election. The two-handed strategy, with one hard and one soft hand, China sought to use the “soft hand” to passively appeal for the island’s return to China, for example, opening its market to Taiwanese investment and business, while the “hard hand” sought to deter Taiwan’s move to de jure independence by deploying missiles opposite Taiwan and asserting its willingness to use military force. Beijing will increasingly employ a “pull-push approach” replacing the “two-handed” policy. Although there are similarities to both approaches, the new strategy will increasingly emphasize the “hard hand” by “pushing harder” to prevent Taiwan from its steady drift away from the Mainland, since it is apparent that the passive, soft hand has not been effective. It is not merely priority change, and most importantly, constitutes a decisive shift in Beijing’s estimates of the murky situation in Taiwan. Beijing may have concluded that war is evitable due to the changing domestic dynamics of Taiwan and the U.S.’ inability to reign in Taiwanese leaders.

China is now struggling to implement a new approach that can be referred to as a “push-pull” strategy, providing that the current ideological climate in Beijing does not derail efforts to implement this two-pronged approach. The “push-pull” strategy balances China’s coercive threat of force, the “push,” with the benefits that unification would bring Taiwan, the “pull.” China’s resolve to use force in the event of Taiwan’s declared independence is unquestioned, and likely supported by the majority of Chinese citizens. However, coercive measures have had little effect on bringing Taiwan closer to China, and have even benefited President Chen and Taiwan independence supporters. Despite the fact that the coercive measures have been counterproductive towards achieving the Mainland’s goals, the political climate in Beijing appears, at the moment, to favor a hard line.

Many Chinese strategists realize that a hard line has produced unsatisfactory results and that emphasis increasingly needs to be placed on “the pull,” or enticing Taiwan into a peaceful resolution, and wooing the Taiwanese people into a “one China” paradigm that is acceptable to leaders on both sides. A charm offensive entails multiple, attractive offers and policies presented by China to the Taiwanese leaders and people. These offers are possible because they do not substantively degrade China’s sovereignty claims and do not strategically challenge China’s development in economic, diplomatic or international security arenas. Examples of new approaches would include opening China’s agricultural market to Taiwanese products, which would economically benefit southern Taiwan, an area which generally opposes reunification. A second offer would elaborate on notions that China’s sovereignty can not be divided, but can potentially be shared, giving Taiwan a clearer indication about their circumstances in a “one China” paradigm. As part of this offer, China would be able to make room for Taiwan in international organizations, such as the World Health Organization. A third offer would comprise more favorable economic and trade treatment for Taiwan, including progress on the three-links, and an economic program similar to the Hong Kong CIET. Careful management of these offers by China, including timed implementation and consistent upgrades, would create a varied and effective set of tools by which China could offer incentives to Taiwanese leaders, and importantly the voting public of Taiwan, to encourage eventual, peaceful reunification.

Three Constraints, One Fear

In 2004, the Taiwan situation is influenced by a unique occurrence whereby the China, Taiwan and the PRC, are simultaneously undergoing contests of leadership transition, which will undoubtedly affect foreign policy for each of the three players. Significant risks are presented as leaders in Beijing, Taipei and Washington gauge public sentiment and their political opposition and calculate policy responses based on domestic considerations.

Perhaps the largest risk is that Beijing will be unable to implement new, pragmatic strategies that foster peaceful reunification. The hard-line, ideological stance that is currently dominating discourse in Beijing presents a significant concern, because it prevents internal debate which is necessary to validate any official offers to Taiwan. Additionally, ideological conservatism magnifies China’s response to perceived actions in the U.S. or Taiwan which can be construed as supporting or encouraging Taiwan independence. For instance, routine low-level meetings between Taiwan and U.S. officials can be construed in Beijing as significant affronts, resulting in counterproductive retaliation against U.S. interests.

Following Chen Shui-bian’s narrow re-election this spring, there is considerable concern in Beijing that Chen and his administration will make a more concerted push for de jure independence, making rapprochement with China impossible. Already considered an unreliable partner by the mainland, there is the distinct possibility that Chen does not consider himself to be in a position to accept any offers or incentives from Beijing. If Beijing is able to overcome internal politics and chart a strategic course of inducements for Taiwan, there is the fear that Chen will snub Beijing, and be unable to grasp the moment when it arrives. The possibility that Beijing can make an honest and forthright offer and Chen will receive it “cleanly,” without twisting it or responding with an unacceptable counteroffer, appears unlikely at the moment

Washington faces its own political constraints due to domestic politics, which could strain relations with Beijing in the short term. With national elections approaching in November, Congress, the administration and political contenders will be hard pressed to publicly support Beijing at the expense of Taiwan. The administration will continue to reassure China that the U.S. adheres to a one-China policy, presenting an opportunity for Democrats to exploit the administration’s stance (particularly on jobs lost to China), and inviting pressure from House and Senate Republicans to provide support and protection for democratic Taiwan. The long-stalled agreement to provide advanced weapons to Taiwan is picking up pace as Taiwan approaches their December legislative Yuan elections. With elections looming, the Bush Administration and Congress are looking to bring good economic news to defense contractors, shelving concerns about China’s reaction to the sales.

Conclusion – Unrealistic expectations

The final concern is that Washington will have unrealistic expectations of both China and Taiwan, while Beijing will have unrealistic expectations of the U.S. and Taiwan, resulting in disappointment on all sides. The U.S. is in a better place to understand Chen’s shaky political ground and his need to balance factions while gaining votes both from the middle and his core constituency. However, Beijing’s political system of opaque power struggles and internal debate shaping a monolithic façade, makes it hard for the U.S. to understand the constraints on Beijing’s policy making. For China, the logic is different. China does not trust Chen and ignored his political base, and has instead focused its attention on the “pan-blue” parties, reflecting their lack of appreciation for the interrelation of parties and personalities that have emerged with Taiwan’s democratic system. The fundamentally different political systems and viewpoints were revealed in both Beijing and Washington’s contrasting reactions to Chen’s inauguration speech on May 20.

Looking forward, China will continue to rely on the U.S. to pressure Chen, while the U.S. will expect China and Taiwan to make serious efforts to open dialogues. However, China maintains significant doubts about Chen’s sincerity, and Chen consistently gains among his supporters by playing David to China’s Goliath, providing him little incentive to seek détente. The prospects for short-term improvement in this atmosphere are not good. The fall Party plenum in Beijing, the November elections in the U.S. and December election in Taiwan will dictate how each party assesses the others during this sensitive period. For the second half of 2004, like sleeping birds, leaders in each capital will have both feet in their own nest, with one eye peeking at events in other trees.

Zhu Feng is currently the visiting fellow at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Professor Zhu is the director of the International Security Program at the School of International Relations at Peking University.

Drew Thompson is a researcher at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Thompson lived in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai for 7 years in the 1990s.