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Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen have been on the opposite side of an existential argument since it was first posed by Lee Teng-hui more than 20 years ago. (Nikkei montage/source photos by AP/Reuters/Getty Images) 
China up close

Xi Jinping's red line on Taiwan goes back to Lee Teng-hui

Chinese leader now confronts 'two states' protege in popular Tsai Ing-wen

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Few in 1999 would have expected Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen to be leading China and Taiwan today. But in a sense, they were already facing off across the waters back then thanks to another figure: Tsai's mentor Lee Teng-hui.

Twenty-one years on, Lee is dead and troubling signs are again appearing over cross-strait relations.

"Xi Jinping is confident that he knows more about Taiwan than anybody else," said an elderly Chinese Communist Party cadre living in a lower-tier city.

Lee, called the "father" of Taiwan's democracy, looms in the background of this thinking. The former Taiwanese president, who died last month at age 97, drew Xi's anger in 1999 by proposing what became known as the "two states" theory.

"Rubbish," Xi snapped in an interview in Fujian Province that September. The two states argument "exposed Lee Teng-hui's fundamental motive of plotting the division of our homeland," Xi told reporters from Nikkei and other media outlets.

Then-President Lee had only recently outlined his view that China and Taiwan maintain "special relations between two countries." This infuriated Beijing as it clashed with its One China principle -- that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. A 46-year-old Xi had just been promoted to acting governor of Fujian, across the Taiwan Strait from the island. Cross-strait tensions ran high, fueled in part by large-scale military drills spanning Fujian.

Tsai, who was a talented political scholar at the time, supported Lee's work on the two states theory.

A strong mentor-protege relationship was born through the work, which reflects the pair's shared awareness as benshengren --people who had already lived in Taiwan before 1945 and their descendants. But Tsai was still working behind the scenes. No one saw her as a future candidate to become Taiwan's top leader. It was not until 2004 that she joined the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. She became Taiwan's president in 2016.

The same is true for Xi, who succeeded Hu Jintao as the Communist party's general secretary in 2012 and then as Chinese president in the spring of 2013 despite having been a dark-horse contender in the succession race.

Fast forward to Monday, when a flurry of breaking news came out of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Alex Azar, the U.S. health and human services secretary, met with Tsai, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan since Washington severed diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. Just before their meeting began, Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait -- the de facto cease-fire line between China and Taiwan.

The same day, Hong Kong police arrested vocal pro-democracy figures Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai, as well as others, on suspicion of violating a new national security law. The offices of Lai's Apple Daily, a newspaper critical of the Chinese Communist Party, were searched by scores of police.

Agnes Chow's arrest in Hong Kong on Aug. 10 might have been a predetermined response by Beijing to a Trump administration official's visit to Taiwan.   © Reuters

The timing suggests the actions of the Chinese military and Hong Kong police might have been part of a predetermined response to the Azar-Tsai meeting. If true, this would signal a dangerous state of affairs.

Taiwan has become entangled with the China-U.S. tensions over the coronavirus and Hong Kong.

Chinese opposition in May prevented Taiwan from joining a virtual annual meeting of the World Health Organization as an observer, despite support from the U.S. and other countries. This led to the U.S. and Taiwan rapidly moving closer, as symbolized by Azar's visit.

Xi cannot let his guard down because his opposite number, U.S. President Donald Trump, is not bound by conventional wisdom. In December 2016, before taking office but after his electoral triumph, Trump held a telephone conversation with Tsai. The surprise call created a crisis for Beijing.

In another unfavorable development, the U.S. Congress in 2018 passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages exchange visits by high-ranking officials. At the time, the law received little notice. Many thought the Trump administration, eager to show voters progress in trade negotiations with Beijing, would not risk sending officials to Taiwan anytime soon.

Alex Azar became the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan since the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with the island in 1979.   © Kyodo

But the coronavirus, the Hong Kong crackdown and the WHO controversy have drastically altered the situation. Beijing cannot overlook the possibility that U.S. cabinet officials will make frequent visits to Taiwan in the future.

The question is how China will respond. Will it take provocative action against Taiwan? In 1996, shortly before Lee won Taiwan's first direct presidential election, China fired missiles into waters off the island as part of a military exercise.

On the other hand, Xi also experienced a historic thaw in cross-strait relations while in Fujian, where he spent nearly 17 years of his political career. At the beginning of 2001, direct travel between mainland China and Taiwan's outlying islands officially opened for the first time since the Nationalist Party fled to the island in 1949. What were called the xiao san tong (three small links) allowed for direct transportation, trade and postal service between Fujian and the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu.

There is no knowing whether Xi's "confidence" in his dealings with Taiwan will prevent a clash or lead to a dangerous overconfidence. He has been dealt a difficult hand.

A signboard in Xiamen, where Xi served as vice mayor in his early 30s, declares: "Let's unify China through one country, two systems." It stands on the city's shore facing Taiwan's Kinmen, about 2 km away. But the slogan is becoming increasingly unrealistic in the Xi era.

A signboard in Xiamen, about 2 km from the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, declares, "Let's unify China through one country, two systems."

China's opaque internal power struggle will also affect future developments around the Taiwan issue.

Xi seeks to cement his status as China's top leader for the long term at the party's next national congress in 2022. But he faces constant doubts about whether he has achieved results commensurate with an extended reign. Trying to break with long-standing party customs would inevitably put him under pressure from within, either openly or behind the scenes.

External crises often provide an opportunity for rulers to tighten their grip on internal affairs. Former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who led China's "reform and opening-up," used the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 to consolidate power at home, despite having no urgent need to fight.

Today, some Chinese regions are encouraging households to stockpile emergency supplies and have started civil defense training. A former deputy head of the party's International Liaison Department recently urged people to brace for the worst-case scenario in ties with the U.S.

It is worth remembering that U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan always carry the risk of sparking a clash.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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