Stephen Yates: Did Xi accidentally endorse Tsai’s re-election?

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On its face, this question seems preposterous. After all, the Communist Party of China is dead set to impose its ‘one China’ framework for ‘peaceful unification,’ by force if necessary. How could the leader of China and his party possibly prefer to help re-elect a Taiwan president whose party only accepts a “one China” concept if it is accompanied by a separate and distinct “one Taiwan”?

Hard to believe, and yet, this is precisely what much of the world perceived the net effect to be of Xi Jinping’s January 2nd “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.”

The New York Times captured global reaction in its January 19 article titled, “Faced With Tough Words From China, Taiwan Rallies Around Its Leader.” The piece leads with this key point:

“Just a few weeks ago, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was struggling politically. Her party had lost in key local elections, imperiling her run for a second term next year. But then she got help from an unlikely source: the president of China.”

Over the last two weeks, I have heard a variation of this theme shared around Capitol Hill in DC, among advisors to leaders of US allies, and among friends in the international media. Regardless of what Xi Jinping intended, or how the message was perceived in Taiwan, this judgment now is essentially taken as fact around the world. Xi’s speech directly and almost single-handedly galvanized Tsai’s base and revitalized her bid for re-election.

Interestingly, most of the political and media influencers I spoke with saw the speech as helping Tsai in two distinct ways. First, he handed her an opportunity to respond, with a strength and righteous indignation her supporters had yet to feel in her first term. Second, they saw Xi’s dismissal of the so-called “92 consensus” as a blow to former president Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT.

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The fact that the latter point came across to people who work in politics and media beyond Asia surprises me. However, it is a prime example of how external forces can rally or divide your own base, and what the same does to your opposition.

There seem to be several key consensus judgments of the impact of Xi’s remarks, but no one among the international political and media community has been able to discern what Xi intended, or anticipated, the reaction would be. Did Xi intend to divide the KMT and rally the DPP? Did he intend to provoke a round of international sympathy and support for Tsai? Surely not. So what was his intent – beyond simply threatening Taiwan? And what went wrong?

Speculation as to Xi’s motives has come up with a wide variety of suggestions. Xi is under relatively high economic and political pressure at home, and some suggested the value in China of a nationalistic shot fired at Taiwan outweighed whatever response it may provoke in Taiwan or internationally. Others believe his remarks were not too different from New Year’s messages over the years, and Xi was likely surprised by the reactions. Others took a very different view –  Xi deliberately pressed harder in this year’s message because Beijing believed recent Taiwan elections showed Tsai and the DPP on the run, but Xi and his advisors failed to recognize a huge majority of Taiwan voters still oppose even just talk of unification with Beijing under any current terms.

Throughout my career, I have always been advised by mentors, colleagues, and professors never to underestimate Beijing’s knowledge of Taiwan. “After all,” they would say, “it matters a lot more to them than it does to the rest of us, and they have an endless supply of people to gather and assess information.” Their bottom line: “Never begin with the assumption that Beijing’s actions are born out of ignorance about their target.”

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I still take that counsel seriously. Applied here, it would seem to lead to one or two conclusions. Either Xi did intend to provoke a domestic and international rally around Tsai, or Xi’s standing is so precarious his domestic calculus outweighed any Taiwan or international considerations. If either or both of these conclusions are true, it presents very profound questions for Taiwan voters to consider as they choose continuity or change in national leadership in 2020.

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