A New Level of Aggressiveness: Recent Changes in Xi Jinping’s Formulation of Taiwan Policy

A New Level of Aggressiveness: Recent Changes in Xi Jinping’s Formulation of Taiwan Policy

On January 2, 2019, President Xi Jinping claimed that China “makes no promise to renounce the use of force” against Taiwan. He made the statement during a speech commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the first “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” (MCT), which ended the two decade-long bombardment of Quemoy in 1979. Though it drew much attention following Xi’s speech in January, the claim has in fact been one of China’s basic stances since the Deng Xiaoping era in the 1980s. Most of Xi’s other talking points, such as “peaceful development” and declarations that “both sides of the Strait are of one family,” are also consistent with the administration’s previous policies. Nevertheless, Xi’s recent rhetoric on Taiwan signifies a new level of aggressiveness—emphasizing unification, disavowing status quo, and developing infiltrative tactics—which is unprecedented, not only under the Xi administration, but also for the twenty-first century.

            In his speech, Xi reiterated China’s fundamental objective of “peaceful unification” with Taiwan. However, the emphasis of this phrase seems to have shifted from “peaceful” to “unification.” In a speech by Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, on the thirtieth anniversary of the MCT, the frequency of the word “peace” was roughly once per one hundred Chinese characters, while the word “unification” was used only half as frequently. In contrast, Xi mentioned “unification” 46 times in his 4,237-character speech—about once per 90 characters—while the frequency of “peace” dropped to only once per 110. It is statistically significant that “unification” has surpassed “peace” and is becoming a more dominant theme in Xi’s discourse [1]. Xi’s assertion that “the country must unify and will unify” suggests that, although the Xi administration has not fully abandoned the endeavor of peaceful unification, peaceful means may no longer be required.

The Chinese government’s tactics toward Taiwanese authorities seem to have moved away from the status quo. The principle method by which Chinese authorities have sought to curb Taiwan’s independence has been the “1992 Consensus.” The Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling party of Taiwan from the end of the Second World War until 2000, defines the consensus as “one China, different definitions”—Beijing refers to China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while Taipei delineates the state as the Republic of China (ROC)—with Chinese authorities’ acquiescence. Hence, the two governments could table the disputes of legitimacy and interact on the basis of the status quo. Though Xi reiterated commitment to the 1992 Consensus in his MCT speech, Chinese authorities have recently started to express discontent with this framework. Wang Zaixi, the former vice director of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, argued publicly in late February that “one China, different definitions” is a KMT red herring, and that the essence of the 1992 Consensus is unification. Considering the strict ideological discipline among Chinese officials, both retired and active, Wang’s words may be an expedient outlet for the Chinese government rather than a reflection of his personal opinion. Wang Yang, the Chinese leader who is responsible for Taiwan issues, omitted the 1992 Consensus in his remarks at the annual assembly of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March. Xi also left the theme out when he addressed Taiwan issues at the NPC. It is unlikely that both of these top leaders failed to mention a critical theme by chance on such important occasions. This change likely demonstrates Beijing’s plans to abandon this conservative framework.

Two new themes preferred by Xi on Taiwanese interaction, “democratic consultations” and “institutional arrangements,” suggest a more infiltrative approach than before. These themes are the outcome of a gradual development of discourse. When Xi came to power in 2013, he used the term “equal consultations” in talks with the KMT leaders. After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidential election in 2016, Xi suggested that “any Taiwanese party” could have consultations with the Chinese government so long as they recognize that there is only one China. In the MCT speech, Xi developed the point further by proposing “democratic consultations” with Taiwanese representatives from “different parties and fields” to discuss “institutional arrangements.” These revised phrases indicate two developments. Firstly, Chinese authorities have broadened their scope to seek Taiwanese collaborators beyond the two major parties. Secondly, the phrase “institutional arrangements” suggests that the Xi administration aims to infiltrate Taiwanese politics, in a move that would ideally lead to political re-organization in Taiwan to shift the status of the cross-Strait relationship toward reunification. On April 18, 2019, Taiwanese billionaire Terry Guo announced that he will run against the incumbent DPP president, Tsai Ing-wen, in the 2020 election. Guo has close relations with China, and his company, Foxconn, has established numerous factories there. His pursuit of the Taiwanese presidency may be an example of how powerful Taiwanese actors could help to achieve institutional changes in Beijing’s favor.

Xi’s speech on the fortieth anniversary of the MCT revealed the future of China’s approach toward Taiwan, demonstrating an aggressive tendency and casting uncertainty on cross-Strait relations. Given that the Xi administration prefers a more proactive strategy for unification, the Chinese government may gradually abandon the framework of the 1992 Consensus and, instead, favor pro-Beijing Taiwanese actors who can carry out Beijing’s political agenda more directly. As China has been expanding power in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, should the Xi administration take intrusive actions to unify Taiwan or should a pro-Beijing administration take power in Taiwan, the United States will be forced to test the strength of its alliance with Taiwan and the extent of U.S. interests in the South China Sea (SCS). If the U.S. does not want to lose Taiwan as an ally, it would have to deter both Beijing and Taipei from moving too close to each other. If, on the other hand, the U.S. makes the strategic calculation to allow Beijing’s heightened control over Taiwan, a move likely to encourage China’s aggression, then the U.S. and its Southeast Asia allies need to be prepared for even stronger subsequent Chinese claims to the SCS. Either scenario will lead to increased tensions between China and the U.S.

[1] Chi-Square p= 4.97486E-23. The frequency of “unification” in terms of “peace” in Xi’s MCT speech is significantly higher than in Hu’s MCT speech.


Concentrating in Global Politics and Security, Sile Chen is a graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Before pursuing her master’s degree, Sile was an award-winning journalist and writer focusing on Chinese politics. She won two SOPA Awards, the highest honor for covering Asia. Her book, Her Battles, was selected as one of the Ten Best Chinese Books in 2017 by Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly).