What Xi Jinping’s Major Speech Means For Taiwan
On July 1, in a major speech celebrating the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping asserted the CCP had “transformed the future of the Chinese people and nation,” liberating the Chinese people, lifting the nation out of poverty, and ending a period of “darkness.” Xi argued that thanks to the CCP’s leadership, “China’s national rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability.” China would no longer “accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.” He warned that any foreign force that dared “bully, oppress, or subjugate” China “will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Xi’s warning comes as he has overseen a far more assertive foreign policy, crushing Hong Kong’s autonomy, attempting to coerce Taiwan and Australia, increasingly militarizing the South China Sea, and pressing border claims with India. Xi’s language reflects China’s growing confidence and ambitions, but the speech did not reveal a fundamental shift in Beijing’s approach to Taiwan. Although some have argued that Beijing has turned its attention to armed “unification” with Taiwan, Xi’s speech indicates that China’s approach to cross-Strait relations remains broadly unchanged.
Xi devoted one paragraph of his speech to Taiwan, which is worth reprinting in full:
Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China. It is also a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. We will uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus, and advance peaceful national reunification. All of us, compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, must come together and move forward in unison. We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward “Taiwan independence,” and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
First and most significant, Xi affirmed that China’s policy remains one of pursuing “peaceful national reunification;” he did not openly abandon this approach and shift emphasis to employing nonpeaceful means. In a major statement China issued on New Year’s Day 1979, it pivoted from seeking “liberation” to “peaceful unification,” and Xi gave no indication that China is revisiting that stance. In other words, although China has largely alienated the Taiwanese people as a result of its increasing military, political, and economic coercion of the island, and repression of Hong Kong, Beijing still believes that the possibility of achieving “unification” without resorting to military force remains. Had Xi not uttered the phrase “peaceful national reunification,” it would have raised concerns about a shift in Beijing’s Taiwan policy, as happened when the government’s annual work report neglected to use the phrase last year.
Second, Xi did not put a timeline on completing this “historic mission.” In 2013 and 2019, Xi asserted that the Taiwan issue cannot be passed down from generation to generation, imbuing the question of resolving cross-Strait differences with urgency and implying that he would demand to begin political negotiations with Taipei on his watch. In this new speech, however, he did not repeat this language, leaving the question of timing open-ended. Indeed, Xi put more emphasis on opposing Taiwan independence than on pressing “unification.”
Third, Xi continued to link the Taiwan question with China’s “national rejuvenation.” Shortly after he was elevated to leader of the CCP, Xi introduced the “Chinese Dream,” which is defined as “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Achieving the “Chinese Dream” is usually pegged to the “Two Centenaries”: becoming a “moderately well-off society” by the one hundredth anniversary of the CCP and completing “national rejuvenation” by the one hundredth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which will occur in 2049. In this new speech, Xi claimed victory in achieving this first centenary goal. Now, the focus will likely turn to accomplishing the second centenary goal of “national rejuvenation” by 2049.
It remains to be seen how impatient Xi will become in making progress on this agenda and the extent to which he will turn Taiwan into a legacy issue given that he would be ninety-six years old in 2049 and that he seems to desire to drive major change during his rule. In addition, it is still not clear how Xi will define success on the question of achieving “national rejuvenation.” In this speech, “national rejuvenation” is mentioned in the sentence on defeating any move Taiwan might make toward independence. This might indicate Xi is giving himself flexibility to define “national rejuvenation” broadly, content if China is able to show progress toward “unification” by 2049 even if full “unification” is not achieved.
Fourth, although Xi mentioned “One Country, Two Systems” in the context of Hong Kong and Macao, in this speech he did not mention this model when discussing Taiwan. Granted, in 2019, he promoted “One Country, Two Systems” as China’s offer for Taiwan, so it is unlikely that omitting it from this speech represents an abandonment of this approach. This model, however, remains deeply unpopular on Taiwan.
Finally, although Xi called on “compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” to “come together and move forward in unison,” he did not emphasize building cross-Strait ties. By contrast, his predecessor, Hu Jintao, in his speech marking the ninetieth anniversary of the CCP, argued that China and Taiwan should “deepen exchanges and cooperation in all areas and expand interactions across the Strait.” Xi’s omission of such language reflects the current impasse in cross-Strait relations and highlights that there is little reason to believe that cross-Strait ties will improve in the next few years.
In all, Xi’s major speech revealed broad continuity with China’s longstanding cross-Strait policy. Most fundamentally, he did not abandon “peaceful reunification” as China’s goal. He also did not move the goalposts by introducing a timeline on “unification,” demanding that political talks begin in the near future, or redefining “One Country, Two Systems.” Although Xi has put his personal stamp on Chinese foreign policy, he has so far refrained from upending Beijing’s longstanding approach to cross-Strait relations.
What this means for the United States is that it should not undertake rash policies based on the assumption that Xi will invade Taiwan in one, two, or even six years. It should avoid anything inconsistent with the U.S. One China policy, maintain that it does not support Taiwan independence, and refrain from articulating a U.S. interest in keeping Taiwan separate from the mainland. The United States should continue to shift its military assets to the Indo-Pacific, focus on preparing for a Taiwan conflict, and increase coordination with Japan. It should also make clear to China that it would pay a heavy price if it chose to attack Taiwan. More broadly, the United States should strengthen its economic relationship with Taiwan by negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the island and work with Taiwan to increase its voice in international organizations.
While the United States needs to urgently move to bolster deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, there is a fine line between urgency and panic. Its policies should avoid the latter.