Xi woos Taiwan opposition ahead of pivotal presidential vote

Andrew Hsia, deputy chairman of Taiwan's main opposition party the Kuomintang speaks to the media before travelling to China at Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan, Taiwan. - Reuters

Beijing (Bloomberg): Chinese leader Xi Jinping appears to be recalibrating his hardline approach to Taiwan in the year before the island holds a presidential election that his government’s preferred negotiating partner has a shot at winning.

Kuomintang Vice-Chairman Andrew Hsia is expected to visit China on Wednesday, the latest in a series of friendly gestures between the one-time foes in the Chinese Civil War. Hsia is expected to visit several Chinese cities over nine days including the capital, where he’s likely to meet Song Tao, a former top Communist Party diplomat who now oversees affairs across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has also signalled it intends to resume imports from more than 60 Taiwanese food companies that were among exporters it barred last year. That move pulls back on an unofficial punishment China has used to show displeasure with President Tsai Ing-wen for activities such as fostering ties with the US.

"Now as Taiwan’s presidential campaign is about to start, it’s a good time for Beijing to lessen its sanctions against Taiwan because if it doesn’t, sanctions are going to be a major liability for Beijing-friendly politicians in Taiwan,” said Wen-ti Sung, a specialist on Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations at Australian National University. "That’s what we’re seeing now.”

While it’s too early to say the extent of the shift, the strategy coincides with China adopting a more conciliatory tone in its dealings with the US and its allies since Xi and President Joe Biden met in Indonesia in November. The fence-mending is aimed at addressing a collapse in public support across the developed world and refocusing on an economy that has been battered by three years of strict Covid Zero rules.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been scheduled to visit Beijing to start this week, in the first such trip by a top US diplomat in more than four years. Blinken postponed those plans due to an uproar over a Chinese balloon that the US says was spying on the country. Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao also met with his Australian counterpart Don Farrell on Monday.

When asked whether China is adjusting its approach to the island, Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian said Wednesday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that her nation’s "policy on Taiwan is consistent and clear and won’t change based on Taiwan’s political situation.”

In a further sign of China’s apparent softer tone on Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army command in the east - the military unit that would spearhead any invasion - released a video over the weekend intended to mark a Chinese holiday with the people of Taiwan. It spoke warmly about the PLA protecting the well-being of the Chinese people over the long term and the good life of "the family” on both sides of the strait.

Yet, it mixed images of fireworks and relatives hugging with fighter jets and short-range ballistic missiles, a reminder of the weapons China fired over the island in response to then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August. A possible visit by Pelosi’s Republican successor, Kevin McCarthy, may show how much China has calibrated in its approach.

McCarthy may visit the island either later this year or next year, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said Tuesday. McCaul, a Texas Republican, said he would lead a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan this spring.

The presidential election that Taiwan has scheduled for January 2024 is one reason for Beijing to adjust its game plan toward securing control over the democratically run island. Tsai is unable to run again due to term limits, opening up the field to new candidates including Vice President William Lai, a top challenger to be the DPP’s candidate.

Lai once described himself as a "political worker for Taiwanese independence.” That type of rhetoric angers Beijing, whose officials often lash out at the DPP for its "collusion” with the US, Taiwan’s main military supporter.

New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih and Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou are the KMT’s current front-runners, according to a poll last month by TVBS, a major Taiwanese broadcaster.

The KMT’s strong showing in local elections in November opened the door to it possibly claiming its first presidential election victory in a decade. Its efforts to win over voters would be aided by China overhauling its image in Taiwan, which in recent years has been marked by threats to invade, elevated economic and political pressure on Tsai’s government, and a crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong.

More than 78% of the public said they felt China held an unfriendly attitude toward Taiwan’s government, according to a survey that the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei released in October. Some 61% said Beijing was unfriendly to the Taiwanese people.

Despite having lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists in the civil war in the first half of the 20th century, the KMT is Beijing’s preferred negotiating partner in Taiwan because they both share the notion that the island is a part of China.

That preference was on display in August last year, when the KMT’s Hsia visited China amid lingering tensions over Pelosi’s visit. Hsia shrugged off criticism of the trip from Tsai and some in the KMT to lead a delegation that focused on business-related issues. Under Tsai’s KMT predecessor, former President Ma Ying-jeou, Taipei and Beijing eased decades-old restrictions on tourism and investment.

"Engaging in dialogue with the KMT allows Beijing to say that cross-strait dialogue is taking place even as it eschews dialogue with the Tsai administration,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst at Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy research organization.

"It also allows the KMT to present itself to Taiwanese voters as the party capable of delivering dialogue - and therefore a more stable relationship - with Beijing, which appeals to segments of the Taiwanese population.”

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