Analysis: Xi puts top brain in charge of Taiwan unification strategy..Nikkei


Wang Huning, left, Xi Jinping and Wang Yi: the three key figures for Taiwan policy. (Nikkei montage/Getty Images/Reuters)CHINA UP CLOSE

Analysis: Xi puts top brain in charge of Taiwan unification strategy

Wang Huning tasked with creating alternative to ‘one country, two systems’KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writerJANUARY 26, 2023 04:00 JST

A source familiar with the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party has pulled back the curtain on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership reshuffle last October.

Why were some leaders retained to serve another term, while others were shown the door?

On the Politburo Standing Committee, there were three members who were 67 years old, technically under the retirement age of 68. All three of them could have stayed, but only one did.

The ones who stepped down were No. 2, Premier Li Keqiang and No. 4 Wang Yang. Only No. 5 Wang Huning stayed on and was promoted in the new lineup.

The source noted that this top leadership change hints at Xi’s political strategy as he aims for a fourth term. “Wang Huning’s mission is to lay the groundwork for Taiwan unification.”

If Wang Huning was retained to handle the Taiwan file, this would be the result of the failure of the “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.  

After massive pro-democracy demonstrations shook Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing quickly enacted a national security law for the special administrative region. It spelled the end of a free Hong Kong.Over a million people took part in a mass protest in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019. (Photo by Takeshi Kihara) 

“One country, two systems” was created when British-ruled Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy. The formula, which originated in the era of former leader Deng Xiaoping, was an important strategy for the future peaceful unification with Taiwan.

But after Xi rose to power and ordered a hardline stance on Hong Kong, Taiwanese public opinion changed dramatically. Clearly, the “one country, two systems” game plan will not work any more. 

The top leaders know this. Xi himself has stopped referring to the formula, including at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress, where he secured a third term.

For Xi, this is not all bad. It gives him a golden opportunity to ditch a Deng-era legacy and work out his own Taiwan unification strategy. And for this crucial task, he has tapped Wang Huning. 

On Jan. 18, state-run Xinhua News Agency announced the new members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body. The inclusion of Wang Huning signaled that he would assume the role of CPPCC chairman, succeeding Wang Yang.

One of the CPPCC’s role is to set strategies for China’s “united front work,” including drawing Taiwan to the Chinese side.

Under this framework, Wang Huning is also expected to become the deputy director of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, the party’s top decision-making body on China’s Taiwan policy. The top director is Xi.Wang Yi, right, will report to Wang Huning on security policies involving Taiwan unification and relations with the U.S. (Source photo by Reuters) 

So what role will Wang play in formulating a Taiwan policy during Xi’s third term?

One source knowledgeable of China-Taiwan relations noted that Wang will be tasked with writing a theoretical unification strategy fit for the Xi era. 

“One may assume that a threat of China using force to unify Taiwan is imminent, but this is not the case. The first step is to launch a new theory that will replace Deng’s one country, two systems. Then pressure will be put on Taiwan based on it,” the source explained.

The source expects this theory to become a yardstick with which to measure progress and to decide if a military operation is necessary.

Wang is a rare politician. He has served three successive supreme leaders — Jiang Zemin, who died recently at the age of 96; Hu Jintao, 80; and Xi, 69 — each time asked to stay on as the leader’s brain.

On security issues, Xi is said to respect the advice of the seasoned Wang. 

When Xi held talks with the rambunctious Donald Trump, Wang always sat beside him to offer advice. Nobody knew what Trump might say, and Xi needed somebody who could think quickly.

Wang’s experience in writing important documents related to security and his past as a professor of international politics at Fudan University prepared him well.

The ability to write in ways that pleases the top leader of the time, however unclear it may seem to outsiders, is perhaps the most important skill to have in the Communist Party.Chinese President Xi Jinping meets representatives of officers and soldiers of the command center, conveys sincere greetings to all of its members and delivers an important speech during his inspection to the CMC joint operations command center, on Nov. 8, 2022   © Xinhua/AP

Wang Huning will be supported by Wang Yi, the 69-year-old former foreign minister, who was promoted to the Politburo. His promotion went against the party’s traditional retirement rule that stipulates that officials do not assume new higher posts after they are 68.

Wang Yi also became director of the party’s Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, making him China’s top-ranking diplomat.

Needless to say, the top diplomat reports to Xi on foreign affairs and security matters. But for policies involving Taiwan unification and relations with the U.S., Wang Huning is also in Wang Yi’s reporting line. 

This is because Wang Yi will become secretary general of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, where Wang Huning will serve as deputy director. Wang Yi once served as the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s government.

As a Politburo Standing Committee member, Wang Huning in one of China’s top seven and has a much higher level of authority than Wang Yi, a Politburo member. 

Xi wants to chalk up an achievement in regard to Taiwan at any cost over the next five years, which would help his quest to seek a fourth term as head of the party in 2027.

China’s policies related to Taiwan will be spearheaded by these two Wangs. Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai assumes the chairmanship of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 18. 

Taiwan will hold an election next January to choose President Tsai Ing-wen’s successor. Tsai will retire in May that year after serving two four-year terms. She cannot run for a third term.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party and opposition Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT, have already entered campaign mode.

Tsai resigned as head of the DPP after the party suffered a resounding defeat in recent local elections. The DPP chose 63-year-old Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, as its new head. He has become the frontrunner in the presidential race.

Unlike local elections, which are affected by regional political structures, Taiwanese voters choose their president based on his or her policy toward China, and the DPP and KMT are already locked in a fierce war of words.

The DPP warns that if the KMT were to come to power, Taiwan would become “a Hong Kong without freedom.” The KMT has responded by saying that if the DPP remains in power, Taiwan will be embroiled in war. 

Xi acquired ultimate power in October. While the use of force against Taiwan is not deemed imminent, Xi could launch an offensive at the snap of his fingers.

Last summer, China held military exercises around Taiwan and fired missiles. The display of force came in response to then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. Since then, Taiwan has become increasingly alarmed at the possibility of a military invasion by China.

Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has also shocked the island.House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is said to be preparing to visit Taiwan.   © AP

China hopes to see the independence-leaning DPP ousted from power in 2024. But as relations between China and Taiwan are extremely tense, it is difficult to decide upon the timing of working out a new Taiwan unification strategy.

If the content of the new strategy is taken as merely a threat against Taiwan, it could backfire. Although China wants to support the KMT, it could end up saving the DPP.

“China will have no choice but to take a wait-and-see attitude for the time being,” one pundit said. “The timing of announcing a new Taiwan unification strategy is probably undetermined. It may be still a long way off.”

Now Kevin McCarthy, who succeeded Pelosi as House speaker, is said to be preparing to visit Taiwan. 

Some think such a visit would come as early as April. If McCarthy makes the trip, there is a strong possibility he would provoke China to again encircle with military drills.

During the military exercises after Pelosi’s visit, China fired five missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone near Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture. The island in the East China Sea, Japan’s westernmost point, sits a little more than 150 kilometers from Taipei.

April would be a time when the nomination race begins to heat up for both of Taiwan’s parties. 

If McCarthy, a Republican, does visit Taiwan, how might the trip affect Taiwan’s presidential battle? How might China’s new Taiwan team respond? And how would Taiwanese voters react?


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