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China's Taiwan threats: Tough talk, but what's next?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
March 6, 2024

China's annual legislature meeting adopts a hawkish tone on Taiwan, sending mixed signals about Beijing's plans for the self-ruled island.

Military delegates arrive to the 2024 National People's Congress in Beijing
China has pledged more military spending in 2024 as tension over Taiwan continuesImage: Andy Wong/AP Photo/picture alliance

China's National People's Congress began its most prominent annual parliamentary meeting on Tuesday, kicking off a week of sessions that provide an opportunity for the outside world to gain insight on Beijing's policy direction for the upcoming year.

On Taiwan, Chinese Premier Li Qiang told the rubber-stamp legislature that Beijing would be "firm in advancing the cause of China reunification" as part of the "overall strategy" of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) to "resolve the Taiwan issue in the new era."

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan to be Chinese territory, and President Xi Jinping has made "reuniting" the democratic island with mainland China a long-running centerpiece of his strategic policy.

However, Premier Li's report this year came without the word "peaceful" before reunification, which had been included in language used in previous years.

The ostensibly more hawkish tone comes as China's military continues to conduct regular air and naval maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, including a large-scale exercise in April 2023 that completely encircled the island that came after President Tsai Ing-wen met with high-level US lawmakers.

And in January, Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to become the next president. The party, which will see a third term in office, considers Taiwan as sovereign, but it has stopped short of advocating a formal declaration of independence, which would be a major red line for Beijing.

Beijing has called Lai a "dangerous separatist," and before the election, vowed to "crush" any form of "attempting" Taiwanese independence.

On Tuesday, Premier Li reiterated that the CPP's strategy would continue to "firmly oppose 'Taiwan independence' separatism and external interference."

Li's report also said China's defense budget in 2024 would increase by 7.2%, which is in line with last year's spending, but has more than doubled since 2015.

No big policy changes on Taiwan?

Chang Wu-ueh, a China study professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University, told DW the focus on the wording in Li's report has been "excessively interpreted."

"In general, China's overall strategy still prioritizes peace as the foremost consideration, while non-peaceful means are a last resort," Chang said.

"Key officials in Beijing and important state media have never mentioned the phrase 'reunification by force' They, at most, have only discussed why non-peaceful means should not be abandoned," he added.

How China may allocate its planned defense increase of 7.2%

Wang Hsin-Hsien, an expert on Chinese politics at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told DW that in the sentence prior to calling for "reunification," Premier Li had advocated promoting "cross-strait relations and peaceful development."

Wang said Li's statement simply broke up the meaning of "peaceful reunification" into two sentences.

The experts pointed out that the government work reports during the sessions of the National People's Congress rarely deliver drastic changes in China's policy towards Taiwan.  This year is also not the first time China has omitted the word "peaceful" from its statements on Taiwan.

China uses 'grey zone' tactics on Taiwan

However, expert Wang said that China's statements on its Taiwan policy could become less reliable indicators of its plans, with the possibility that Beijing will now "do more, and say less."

He added that China is increasing using "grey zone" tactics to pressure Taiwan. The Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) defines grey zone operations as "coercion below the level of direct warfare" that includes "information operations, political coercion, economic coercion, and cyber operations."

"China now would just do it without saying it," Wang said, adding this strategy makes Beijing's next moves even more unpredictable.

Most countries, including the United States, do not acknowledge Taiwan as an independent state. China claims international support for Taiwan as interference in Chinese domestic affairs.

However, Washington firmly opposes any attempt to seize the democratic island by force and is dedicated to helping with its defense.

Grey zone tactics could be used to avoid attracting too much global attention.

"This is a significant challenge," Wang said.

"Such approaches are less likely to make the international community feel the pressure. But, for Taiwan, it is indeed a strategic loss," he added.

How can Taiwan defend itself from China?

DW correspondent Tzu-Hsin Chou contributed to this report.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn