An indefinite term in office for Chinese President Xi Jinping gives China more space to try new ways of seeking unification with self-ruled Taiwan, where most people prefer autonomy, experts say.
China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, confirmed Sunday that a president can serve an unlimited number of five-year terms, down from the previous two term limit. That outcome means Xi, now 64, can legally keep the country’s top job for life.
The leader who renewed pledges in October to seek unification with Taiwan will have more time to experiment with hard and soft ways of reaching his goal, analysts say. Xi has said the issue of Taiwan’s would-be unification with China cannot be passed to the next generation of Communist leaders in Beijing.
“It’s possible that Xi will not push Taiwan to the negotiating table, for he has more time to deal with Taiwan if (he encounters) no external influence,” said Huang Kwei-bo, international affairs college vice dean at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Staunch goal of unification
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to the Communists and rebased on the nearby island. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s, and government surveys since 2015 have said most citizens oppose unification with today’s authoritarian China.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has vowed to unify with it, by force if needed. Xi said in October he would pursue peaceful unification with Taiwan under a one-country, two-systems model that Beijing has applied to Hong Kong since the U.K. ceded it to China in 1997.
If Xi keeps the top job for a long time, his Taiwan approach will probably intensify but without substantive changes, Taiwanese ruling party legislator Lee Chun-yi said.
In that case, he said, expect more military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan’s leaders along with “soft” measures to charm the public, he said. Earlier this month, China announced 31 measures making it easier for Taiwanese to work, study and invest on the other side.
“I actually don’t think we’ll see much change,” Lee said. “The old policies are the way they are, and the soft measures will get softer and the hard measures harder.”
Previous Chinese leaders, including Xi’s most recent predecessor Hu Jintao, had also made military threats and enticed Taiwanese investors to share in the fast growth of China’s economy that’s now worth over $12 trillion.
More space to experiment
Some in Taiwan call the end of China’s term limits a setback, as transfers of power would let new people and opinions surface in Beijing, said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan.
But a longer-term tenure for Xi could let his government slow the pace of its pressure on Taiwan, she said.
“If he has to step down in 2023, then certainly the clock will be ticking and there will be greater pressure onto the Taiwan issue and its final resolution,” Lei said. “If he doesn’t necessarily step down in 2023, the clock doesn’t have to start ticking today, so that may indicate an easing of direct pressure on unifying Taiwan through more aggressive or even military means.”
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, backed by a party that advocates further distance between the two sides, disputes the Beijing view that both belong to a single China. The two sides have not spoken formally since she took office in 2016.
China in turn has scaled back tourism to the island, sent military aircraft into the skies nearby and blocked Taiwan from United Nations participation.
Xi may veer toward a “soft” approach on Taiwan given the time he has, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.
“It’s not good for Taiwan because it’s certainly going to draw a lot of people from Taiwan, human resources and financial resources,” he added. “Many people will move to China.”
Over the next few years Beijing will probably sustain political and military pressure on Taiwan, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at Washington-based think tank Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Beijing will also offer “inducements to select Taiwanese groups” such as younger citizens and business leaders but “adopt a much tougher approach” if the inducements fail, Glaser said.
Taiwan seen retrenching
Taiwan’s government and citizens will grapple to adapt to a long stay by Xi Jinping, analysts believe. “Not only Tsai Ing-wen’s government, but everyone I know doesn’t know how to deal with that," Shane Lee said.
The Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council said Sunday, in response to the scrapping of term limits in China, that it would monitor Beijing's next moves.
“Cross-Strait ties still need long-term, comprehensive observation,” the Council said in a statement, referring to China-Taiwan relations. “The government will continue paying close attention to development of the other side’s follow-up movements and formulate careful evaluations and responses.”
The end of term limits in China also will remind already skeptical Taiwanese of the gaps between political systems, the lawmaker said.
Taiwan democratized in the 1980s and citizens directly elect presidents who can serve up to eight years in office.