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China ratchets up ‘carrot and stick’ pressure on Taiwan

China flag. (Unsplash)
September 16, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee this week issued a planning document on turning Fujian Province – the Chinese province closest to Taiwan – into a demonstration zone for “integrated development” with Taiwan.

State-owned nationalist tabloid the Global Times called the plan a “blueprint” for Taiwan’s development as China’s aircraft carrier Shandong led the largest number of warships seen in years into the waters to the east of the island.

Large numbers of warplanes have been probing at Taiwan’s median line of defense, a tactic that, while familiar to Taiwan, seldom occurs in tandem with the collaborative deployment of an aircraft carrier group.

On Monday, Japan’s Ministry of Defense reported that a further eight People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships were transiting the Miyako Strait to enter the Philippine Sea, apparently to join forces with the carrier group, according to USNI News.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense issued a release saying it would dispatch “mission aircraft, ships and shore-based missile systems to respond appropriately.”

China watchers reacted with some alarm to the simultaneous release of “integration” plans and the implementation of threatening military maneuvers.

Patricia M Thornton, associate professor at the Oxford China Centre called the news “chilling,” adding that China has unveiled a Taiwan “economic ‘integration’ as warships conduct maneuvers off coast.”

“Beijing is brandishing the stick of naval and air power in the South China Sea and has now unveiled a new carrot: a plan for closely integrating Taiwan’s economy with that of Fujian Province. So far, the Taiwanese are unimpressed,” wrote the China Project on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In Taiwan a senior military official, General Huang Wen-chi, told media on Tuesday the Shandong “undoubtedly poses a new threat,” even though it is not the first time the Shandong has sailed in waters east of Taiwan.

The last time it did so was in reaction to a meeting between Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. House speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this year. It’s suspected that the activities this week are a response to recent joint exercises between the U.S. and its allies, as well as recent transits of the Taiwan Strait.

‘Historic mission’

China’s planning statement on Fujian Province’s potential to integrate Taiwan says in its preamble that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment,” and is “inevitable.”

In 21 points that are unlikely to win over many Taiwanese investors – who are deeply suspicious of promises made by Beijing – the document outlines how the province of Fujian, which does share linguistic and cultural qualities with the majority Hokkien-speaking population of Taiwan, will play a leading role in the “peaceful unification of the motherland.”

Support for unification – or as the People’s Republic of China calls it, “reunification,” even though it has never governed Taiwan – in Taiwan is very low. Estimates vary depending on the poll and the perceived threat of China or the perceived benefits of business first, but on average in recent years only 8% to 12% of Taiwanese have a positive outlook on Chinese politics and want to see unification take place.

China’s new integration plan nevertheless optimistically calls on Taiwanese to “apply for a Taiwan resident residency permit” and buy homes in Fujian.

“Our take: There won’t be many takers,” wrote Trivium in its daily China analysis newsletter on Wednesday.

Unification theme park

Parts of the latest announced plan date back to China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which pointed to two platforms for “integrated cross-Straits development.”

At least one of them – the Pingtan Comprehensive Experimental Zone in Fujian – seems to still be on the agenda.

Pingtan, an island off the coast of Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian now has a completed bridge and “68 Nautical Mile Scenic Spot” – its distance from Taiwan – in keeping with plans to make the island a “bring Taiwan home to the motherland” theme park.

According to a translation of the new document, China appears to have plans for Pingtan that extend beyond unification-themed tourism, stating that the island will be used “to build a more convenient cross-Strait traffic channel.”

For Taiwanese voters, who have become accustomed to a steady beat of threats and promises by China ever since the island held its first direct presidential elections in 1996 there is nothing new about developments this week.

As one commentator put it, “Measures include making it easier for Taiwanese people to live and work in China, but the plan comes amid major military exercises.”

New carrot, old stick, quipped at least one social media user.