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China’s top leaders adopt measured tone on Taiwan at Two Sessions meetings

China flag. (Unsplash)
March 09, 2024

China’s top leaders have kept the tone on Taiwan measured and succinct at Beijing’s annual parliamentary meetings, despite a recent fatal maritime clash near the Taiwan-ruled Kinmen islands that has increased cross-strait tensions.

In his work report delivered on March 5, Premier Li Qiang only broadly restated China’s usual position on Taiwan, while Mr Wang Huning — the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) fourth-ranked official — kept mention of cross-strait ties to a minimum in another report a day earlier. Mr Li said Beijing will “resolutely oppose separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ and external interference”, while promoting the “peaceful development of cross-strait relations” — language that has remained broadly similar to previous years’.

He was addressing more than 2,800 National People’s Congress (NPC) deputies at the Chinese legislature’s annual meeting in Beijing, a key highlight of the Two Sessions, China’s most important political event of the year.

While it was unusual for “external interference” to feature in the work report, other Chinese leaders have used the term when addressing Taiwan policy in recent years, such as President Xi Jinping at the twice-a-decade party congress in October 2022.

Mr Wang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), did not mention “Taiwan” in his CPPCC work report on March 4, except in relation to an upcoming forum to promote cross-strait development.

Dr Li Nan, visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said the fact that the wording on Taiwan remained largely similar indicates that Beijing’s current Taiwan policy will continue, including with a heavier emphasis on deterrence.

“China may also try to increase Taiwan’s economic integration with China, to raise the costs of independence and to create vested interests in Taiwan, as well as wield economic sticks,” he said.

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Beijing has continued to exert pressure on Taiwan since the latter’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party won an unprecedented third presidential election in January. China views the self-governing island as an inalienable part of its territory.

In February, China stepped up coast guard patrols in waters off Kinmen islands after the incident involving a fishing boat from Fujian province that caused the deaths of two Chinese fishermen.

On Jan 30, Beijing unilaterally declared an adjustment to a flight path that would result in Chinese civilian aircraft flying closer to the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which drew protest from Taipei.

Dr James Char, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that, for now, the Chinese military will probably continue to stick to military operations below the threshold of war to achieve China’s national objectives.

“At least in the near to medium term, the CPC and the PLA will be unwilling to call into question Washington’s status as the incumbent world-class military power, or to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” he said, making reference to the People’s Liberation Army.

This is related to the PLA’s combat shortcomings, particularly in combined arms and joint operations, which throw doubt on whether it can carry out a successful mission across the strait, said Dr Char, who specialises in China’s military and domestic politics.

China’s defence spending for 2024 will be 1.67 trillion yuan (S$316 billion), a 7.2 per cent increase over the 1.55 trillion yuan for 2023. This was revealed in the Chinese government’s budget estimates for the upcoming year issued on March 5.

The growth was the same as in 2023. China has mostly announced increases in the annual defence budget of about 7 per cent in the last decade. During this period, its defence spending has also been kept at a relatively low level of around 1.3 per cent of annual gross domestic product (GDP).

Dr Li, who has written extensively on China’s security and military policy, believes that the 7.2 per cent rise is restrained. “The growth rate has always outpaced GDP growth slightly. If one counts inflation and the fluctuating exchange rate, there may not be a real increase in defence budget.”

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Dong Jun, who was appointed in December 2023 to replace General Li Shangfu, would likely not be appointed state councillor or to the seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC) this week, as personnel appointments were not on the NPC’s agenda issued on March 4.

Previous defence ministers have held those roles. But Dr Char said the lack of concurrent appointments would have little impact on China’s military diplomacy, which the defence minister leads.

“Going through the NPC is but an administrative procedure to rubber-stamp the CPC’s key personnel appointments to provide a veil of legitimacy to the party’s dominance over the Chinese state,” he said. Admiral Dong will likely join the party’s CMC at the next plenum or Politburo meeting before he is appointed to the State Council eventually, said Dr Char.


(c) 2024 the Asia News Network

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