Xi Jinping and Taiwan: Change and Continuity with Past CCP Leaders

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 9

President and Central Military Commission Chairman Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the navy headquarters of the People's Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command (source: SCIO)


Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic over three years ago, both cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations have greatly worsened, reaching a post-1979 nadir. This deterioration has coincided with a broad push by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to “struggle” (奋斗) with the U.S. and its allies, whom it sees as trying to contain China’s inevitable ascendancy to superpower status and punish Taiwan, which it views as actively seeking to permanently separate itself from the Chinese mainland. [1] 

In this precarious geopolitical environment, China has accelerated its military buildup, training and signaling to unprecedented levels (China Brief, May 5). As early as 2020, as China stepped up its gray-zone pressure with regular incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a worrisome theory took hold in Washington: an impatient Xi Jinping is determined to speed up unification with Taiwan by armed force. Some U.S. analysts predicted that Beijing would exploit the post-U.S. presidential election tumult to attack Taiwan. “There may never be a better moment for China to strike than the week of Nov. 3,” wrote Seth Cropsey, then the Hudson Institute’s Director of the Center for American Seapower, in September 2020. [2]  However, having faced a military threat from China for more than seven decades, officials in Taiwan had a different  assessment. On the eve of the U.S. elections, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told the Legislative Yuan that “If it [China]wanted to mobilize its forces, it would have had to make some movements and deployments by now” (SETN.com, November 2, 2020).

The PRC’s messaging on Taiwan has remained remarkably consistent over time: insistence on unification, preference for “peaceful reunification” and refusal to rule out the use of force. Nevertheless, concern over a near-term invasion in the U.S. remains intense. The CIA has concluded that Xi wants the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be ready to fight a cross-Strait war by 2027 but has some doubts about the military’s capabilities. Furthermore, the CIA has not found evidence of a specific timeline for such an operation (The Australian, February 27). In fact, no Chinese leader has ever expressly laid out a timeline for unification. Some analysts postulate that 2049, the centennial of the PRC’s founding, by which Xi intends for China’s “great rejuvenation” to be complete, could be a deadline, but he has declined to explicitly set even this distant benchmark.

In January 2021, Xi told cadres at the Central Party School that “time and momentum are on our side” and that “the balance of history is tilting towards China” (Qstheory.cn, March 11, 2021). Though he did not mention Taiwan in the speech, its tone telegraphed steely confidence.

The Power of Coercion 

While every Communist Party leader since Mao Zedong has held up achieving unification with Taiwan as a sacred mission, Xi Jinping is the first with a realistic chance of achieving the goal. During Xi’s decade in power, the Chinese military has made big strides. These improvements have come to the fore in the past year as cross-Strait tensions have spiked.

With its massive live-fire drills in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan, the PLA demonstrated the capability to implement a quasi-blockade of the island. The drills included the firing of missiles over Taiwan, which Beijing claimed “accurately hit their targets” near Taiwanese ports (The Taipei Times, August 16, 2022). The drills held by the PLA in early April, ostensibly in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, were less dramatic but nonetheless suggested that the Chinese military is able to more effectively threaten Taiwan’s east coast than previously believed (China Brief, May 5).

Absent direct U.S. and probably Japanese support, Taiwan could not hold out long against the PLA. Even then, the allies might not win. If they did, it would almost certainly come at a tremendous cost. Moreover, China remains indispensable to the Taiwanese economy. Including Hong Kong, China accounted for 38.8% of Taiwan’s exports in 2022, more than the U.S., Japan, Singapore and South Korea combined (World’s Top Exports). Thus, Xi has greater reason than previous CCP leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin to see unification as within his grasp. Even if he eschews the use of force, the coercive power of China’s military threat could bring Taiwan to the negotiating table.

The recent saga surrounding Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, who sought to run as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate in 2024, called for talks with Beijing and accepts a “one China principle”—albeit based on the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution —that considers Taiwan part of Chinese territory, provides a case in point (Focus Taiwan, May 13). Though Gou ultimately lost out to New Taipei City  Mayor Hou Yu-ih (World Journal, May 17) the outspoken billionaire was still the choice of more than 29 percent of respondents in a recent survey (Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, May 13). Gou has the support of Taiwan’s ultra-conservative “deep blues,” who favor unification for ethno-nationalist reasons, as well as some businesspeople who see economic opportunity in a stable cross-Strait relationship. Hou, who is perceived as less overtly pro-Beijing than Gou, will have to find a way to appeal to this constituency if he wants to prevail in what is sure to be a close election.

For his part, former President Ma Ying-jeou has warned voters that the 2024 election is “a choice between peace and war,” with the implication that Taiwan would lose a conflict with China (RFI, April 7). Ma, who recently completed the first trip to Mainland China by an ex-Taiwanese leader, has previously stated it would be impossible for the U.S. military to intervene successfully on Taiwan’s behalf given Beijing’s advantages (CGTN, April 7; Central News Agency, August 10, 2020).

Dogged Determination

It is not just China’s military power that makes Xi’s Taiwan policy loom larger than that of his predecessors. The Chinese leader has a greater personal stake in unification than any of them, owing to his father Xi Zhongxun’s many years of involvement in United Front Work. In the early years of the PRC, this involved incorporating former KMT officials into the Communist Party. According to American University scholar Joseph Torigian, the elder Xi played a leading role in secretive 1980s united front work that focused on Taiwan. The failed unification efforts reportedly “rankled” Xi Zhongxun in the twilight of his life. On a recent Twitter thread, Torigian recounted two anecdotes that illustrate Xi Jinping’s determination to resolve the so-called “Taiwan question” (Twitter, August 2, 2022). The first is about a conversation between Xi and former German chancellor Angela Merkel, of which the Chinese leader spoke to Ma Ying-jeou during their 2015 meeting in Singapore. “Merkel told Xi Chinese should be more like Germans and give up lost territory to history.” Xi told Ma his answer: “We Chinese are not like you Germans.” Xi also asked Ma “‘what the hell’ former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui believed in.” Xi’s father blamed the independence-leaning Lee for the failed back-channel unification discussions in the 1980s.

Early in his first term, Xi signaled that he would take a more assertive approach to Taiwan than any previous Chinese leader. Xi told former Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew ahead of the 2013 APEC summit that discussing the political side of the cross-Strait conundrum could not be postponed indefinitely (The Taipei Times, October 7, 2013). Xi’s bluntness surprised many observers, as he seemed to be impatient for an elusive political resolution.

In a January 2019 speech that has since become infamous in Taiwan, Xi went further. He restated that the two sides’ political division “cannot be passed down from generation to generation,” but then explicitly called for Taiwan to be incorporated into China under the “one country, two systems” framework that governs Hong Kong and Macau (People.cn, January 2, 2019). In fact, One Country, Two Systems has been in terminal decline ever since Xi came to power. 18 months after Xi called on Taiwan to accept it, Beijing effectively terminated the governance model with the imposition of draconian national security legislation that bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature (China Brief, July 29, 2020).

By linking a political resolution to the cross-Strait stand-off with Taiwan’s acceptance of One Country, Two Systems, Xi inadvertently crippled the chances of the Beijing-friendly KMT in the 2020 presidential election. The KMT had previously managed cross-Strait relations through the vague 1992 Consensus that allowed it to sell “one China” to Taiwanese voters as connoting the Republic of China, rather than the PRC. Now, the KMT had nothing to sell. The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen won re-election in a landslide with 57.1% of the vote (The Taipei Times, January 12, 2020).

Xi responded to Tsai’s decisive re-election with an unprecedented pressure campaign on Taiwan, which did not relent until after he secured a third term at the 20th Party Congress last fall. The CCP’s Taiwan white paper that appeared ahead of the Party Congress, the third of its kind and the first since 2000, did reiterate Beijing’s preference for “peaceful reunification” and did not include a unification timetable or any new military threats. However, it doubled down on One Country, Two Systems as the only valid model of governance for Taiwan. The white paper also omitted a previous pledge not to station troops or administrative personnel in Taiwan after unification (Taiwan Work Office of the CPC Central Committee, Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, August 10, 2022).


With less than eight months until Taiwan’s presidential election, Xi Jinping has fallen back on a familiar strategy: woo Beijing-friendly politicians in the hope that Taiwanese voters will choose the path of least resistance. Now that he has locked down a third term in the top leadership posts and the COVID-19 pandemic is at an end, Xi can afford to strike a less militant tone on Taiwan. The PRC has lifted sanctions on various Taiwanese exports, hosted former President Ma Ying-jeou and emphasized “peaceful reunification” in propaganda channels.

At the two sessions in March, Xi said that “national reunification” is “the essence of national rejuvenation” while pledging to promote “the peaceful development” of cross-Strait relations. He refrained from mentioning the use of force (People.cn, March 13). Fears that Beijing would respond even more forcefully to Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy than it did to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit did not materialize. Indeed, Xi showed that he could keep his eyes on the prize—a DPP defeat in 2024—and not react disproportionately, at least not by the standards to which the world holds the CCP.

At the same time, Xi has strongly resisted any attempt by “external forces” to influence Beijing’s Taiwan policies. After European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told him in April that it is unacceptable to threaten the use of force to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, he responded by saying that anyone who expects to influence Beijing on Taiwan is deluded (Taiwan News, April 13).

While Xi’s dedication to “national reunification” is indisputable, it is important not to confuse that with a willingness to hastily use force against the island, as some military planners do. Nothing Xi has said or done during his decade in power indicates a low threshold for pursuing armed unification.

In the short term, Xi hopes for the ousting of the DPP in Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election, which could pave the way for the resumption of normal cross-Strait exchanges. Thus, Beijing will concentrate on boosting the electoral prospects of Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition in the coming months.

If the DPP prevails anyway, China can be expected to accelerate pressure on Taiwan but will refrain from taking any dramatic action unless it perceives a massive provocation. Xi has too much else on his plate, from a sluggish economy to demographic decline to a cold war with the West to roll the dice on a military operation that could derail the national rejuvenation that remains his priority.

Matthew Fulco is a journalist and geopolitical analyst who worked in Taipei from 2014 to 2022 and Shanghai from 2009 to 2014, and is now based in the United States. He is a regular contributor to The Japan Times, The Economist Intelligence Unit and AmCham Taiwan’s Taiwan Business Topics magazine.


[1] For an official exegesis of the CCP’s view of the ascendancy of China, and Xi’s central role in it, see the historical resolution issued at the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in November 2021: “Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century of Striving” (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), Xinhua, November 16, 2021.