After 70 years China loses patience with Taiwan

Taiwanese soldier during exercise
Taiwanese soldier during exercise Jan van der Made

China's president and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping said in a speech on Wednesday that unification of Taiwan with the mainland is "inevitable," warning that Beijing may use force to get the rebellious province back in the fold. The speech marked the 40th anniversary of an earlier “letter to Taiwanese compatriots.” But he hardly paid attention to another, more significant anniversary.


“We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures,” says   Xi Jinping, speaking at a gathering at the colossal Great Hall of the People at Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

Managing national trauma

According to a banner over the podium, the speech is part of a dull-sounding commemoration of a “letter to Taiwanese Compatriots,” that was published in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, on January 1, 1979.

But behind the dull title looms the national trauma that was created by China’s 1947-1949 civil war when forces of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party chased the Nationalist Kuomintang army to the island province of Taiwan.

Decades of hostilities followed, while mainland China was engulfed in disastrous mass campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that cost the lives of millions and pushed the economy to the brink of economic disaster.

During those days, US backed Taiwan, officially known as “The Republic of China.”

Turning tide

But in 1978 the tide turned.

Then leader Deng Xiaoping started his “Reform and Open Door” policy, starting an ambitious program of economic development and casting aside Mao Zedong’s principles of “class struggle.”

Relations with the US improved after US president Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972.

On January 1, 1979, the day that China asked its “Taiwanese compatriots” to put an end to hostilities, pleading for re-unification, the US and China formally established diplomatic relations.

But on the same day, US congress adopted the “Taiwan Relations Act,” stating that "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means are of grave concern to the US," also adding that the US will go on providing Taiwan "with arms of a defensive character."

Indirectly referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, Xi Jinping remarked that the warning to not exclude [military] force was “aimed at foreign forces who seek to interfere and at a tiny minority of Taiwan separatists and their separatist activities.”

Taiwan's territorial claims include [Outer] Mongolia, and parts of Kazachstan and India.
Taiwan's territorial claims include [Outer] Mongolia, and parts of Kazachstan and India. Creative Commons

He added that “the vast majority of Taiwan compatriots ... should be clearly aware that Taiwan independence can only lead Taiwan to a grave disaster.”

Earlier on, Beijing had designed a complicated plan that was eventually aimed at re-unification with Taiwan that goes under the name “One Country, Two Systems.”

The colony-cities of the UK and Portugal, Hong Kong and Macao, were singled out as guinea pigs for this plan: they would be allowed to retain their internal political and economic system; defense and diplomacy would be handled by Beijing.

Today, both Hong Kong (since 1997) and Macao (since 1999) continue to function under the “One Country, Two Systems” structure.

But Taiwan is not happy with it, worried about increased interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s political affairs, when it decided to not live up to a promise of universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive and kidnapping and arresting critics of the regime.

Meanwhile, the US, which is still backing the pro-independence DPP party in Taiwan and continues its yearly weapon sales to the island, may be under pressure to take a tougher stance against Beijing.

“In Xi Jinping's speech, which was devoted to Taiwan relations, he didn't make any direct link with Sino-American relations,” says Michael Dillon, independent China watcher and author of Deng Xiaoping, the Man Who Made Modern China.

“But quite clearly, there is a strong, history link between the two, because the US has been the great supporter of Taiwan, it was largely responsible for helping Taiwan to get off the ground economically, and it supported Taiwan militarily.

Taiwan's diplomatic relations as of 1 January 2019

Total 17 countries

Asia Pacific [6]

  • Kiribati
  • Republic of the Majuro
  • Republic of Nauru
  • Tuvalu
  • Solomon Islands
  • Palau

Africa [1]

  • Kingdom of Eswatini [formerly Swaziland]

Europe [1]

  • Vatican City

Latin America [9]

  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Haïti
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Paraguay
  • St. Christopher and Nevis
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Source: Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“And the Trump administration has re-affirmed its support for Taiwan.”

But he thinks that Washington’s China policy is weakened and confused and says that  Xi Jinping may well be thinking that it is a good time to put pressure on Taiwan because the US is not really in the stronger position that it used to be.

On the diplomatic front, China is gaining ground as well. On January 1, 2019, Taipei had only 17 countries left with which it has diplomatic ties.

Over the last two years it lost Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, Fiji and El Salvador, while relations between Beijing and the Vatican, Taiwan’s only European diplomatic assets, have improved after a landmark deal last september over the appointment of bishops.

If Beijing keeps taking over Taipei’s diplomatic friends, Taiwan won't have any official relations left in the world, and that isolation may make it even more impossible for this island to maintain the status quo of semi independence from China.

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