News analysis

Mixed signals from China on Taiwan?

Beijing seems to be sending out mixed signals in recent days about how it plans to handle ties with Taiwan as the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) prepares to take power, going by the varied use - and omission - of politically sensitive phrases by top Chinese leaders.

The mixed messaging, say observers, could be Beijing just testing the waters for a possible tweak in its cross-strait policy or perhaps an attempt to bait Taiwan's incoming President Tsai Ing-wen into openly supporting the "one China" principle.

President Xi Jinping on Saturday stressed the importance of upholding the 1992 Consensus - agreed between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) that there is "one China" but subject to different interpretations - as a basis for maintaining "healthy interaction" across the Taiwan Strait. In making his first public remarks on cross-strait ties since the DPP won the presidential and legislative elections in January, Mr Xi effectively dismissed any hopes that China had softened its stance on the political consensus, as interpreted by some after remarks by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

During a visit to the United States last month, Mr Wang did not mention the 1992 Consensus but said he hoped whoever holds power in Taiwan would accept the provision in its Constitution that the mainland and the island belong to one China. He was seen as extending an olive branch to Ms Tsai, who will be inaugurated as president on May 20.

Mr Xi also employed phrases that differed somewhat from those of Premier Li Keqiang and top political adviser Yu Zhengsheng.

Mr Xi declared Beijing's firm opposition to Taiwan independence (or tai du) and secessionist (fen lie) actions, phrases not uttered at China's political meetings since 2008 after cross-strait ties boomed under the Kuomintang in Taiwan.

He also made references to liang an yi jia qin, a phrase meaning Beijing and Taipei are as close as family, which has been used by Chinese leaders since 2013. But Mr Yu, ranked No. 4 in the Communist Party, did not use the phrase when he opened the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference annual session last Thursday.

As if to allay concerns of a more hardline cross-strait policy after Mr Yu's speech, Premier Li, who is No. 2, said Beijing would uphold the liang an yi jia qin ideal when he delivered the government work report at the opening of the annual parliamentary session on Saturday.

Given the Communist Party's penchant for sending a consistent message on core issues, some observers find the mixed messaging perplexing.

"Isn't cross-strait policy directly under Xi Jinping's charge? Why are there different messages from the mainland?" political analyst Shih Cheng-feng of the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan said, adding that the DPP might now be less inclined to outline its mainland policy anytime soon.

Political observer Li Fan, who runs Beijing think-tank World and China Institute, said Beijing could be signalling it is open to a different expression from the DPP on upholding the "one China" principle. "The mainland knows the likelihood of Dr Tsai agreeing to the 1992 Consensus is low as it is seen as a pact initiated by the KMT. What matters most to Beijing is that the principle continues to be upheld," said Mr Li, citing how Mr Xi had stressed the need to agree on the core meaning of the consensus.

But Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said: "Given current cross-strait relations and especially Xi's personality, I don't think the mainland will back down from its demands for Tsai to uphold the 1992 Consensus. Now that the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 leaders in China have spoken about it, I believe Tsai is in a difficult position."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Mixed signals from China on Taiwan?'. Subscribe