China Watch: Xi Jinping’s Approach Toward Taiwan

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PRC President Xi Jinping denied speculations that China plans to take military action against Taiwan by 2027 or 2035 in his meeting with US President Joe Biden on 15 November, according to US press reports citing an unnamed US official.  If accurate, the statement would represent the clearest signal to date that Xi does not have a firm timeline for unification with Taiwan.  Official PRC media neither confirmed nor denied Xi’s reported statement on Taiwan.

With Washington supporting Ukraine and Israel in two wars, Xi likely perceived an opportunity to persuade Washington to reduce arms sales and military assistance to Taiwan by ostensibly showing “flexibility” on Taiwan.  Xi is not giving up any substantial ground by hinting that the PRC has no current plans to invade Taiwan because Xi told Biden that the PRC is committed to unification and will use force if peaceful methods do not work.  In previous editions of China Watch, we have assessed that PRC leaders would not commit—even internally—to a firm deadline for unification, preferring to maximize their options and react to the changing political environments in Taiwan and the US.

Xi likely sought to indirectly help the China-leaning Kuomintang (KMT) in the 13 January presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan by appearing to take a more conciliatory tone toward Taiwan.  The ruling, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) typically benefits from PRC saber rattling, and DPP presidential candidate William Lai Ching-te has characterized the election as “a choice between China and democracy.”  On the other hand, the KMT—the largest opposition party—advocates closer economic ties and engagement with the PRC and typically benefits when Beijing takes a more conciliatory approach.  The opposition Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which is considering an alliance with the KMT, has also taken a pro-engagement approach toward the PRC. 

  • Lai is the leading candidate, but polls show that a joint KMT-TPP presidential candidate would pose a serious challenge to Lai.  The two parties will announce their decision whether to unite behind a single presidential candidate on or before 24 November, the government-mandated deadline for candidate registration.
  • If the opposition were to win the presidency, Beijing would likely restart official communications with Taipei, which have been suspended since 2016, when the DPP came to power.  Warmer ties between Taipei and Beijing are likely to prompt Taiwan to be more cautious in improving military ties or increase weapons purchases from the US. 
  • If the DPP retains the presidency, Beijing is likely to continue to reject dialogue with Taipei and keep up military and political pressure on Taiwan.  A DPP win, by itself, is unlikely to trigger a PRC invasion, as Lai has promised not to formally declare independence.