China tries to calm ‘nationalist fever’ as calls for invasion of Taiwan grow

Minnie Chan

Beijing is trying to calm rising nationalist sentiment after a growing chorus of voices called for China to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic by invading Taiwan.

A number of commentators on social media have called for the island to be reunified by force – something Beijing has never ruled out – but some analysts say the authorities want to play a longer game and are now trying to cool the “nationalist fever”.

An article published earlier in the month in the magazine of the Central Party School, which trains senior officials, drew historical parallels with the Qing dynasty’s conquest of the island in the 17th century to highlight the importance of patience and careful planning.

The Qing, who came from Manchuria, seized power in Beijing and northern China in 1644 and gradually consolidated their control over the Chinese mainland in the following decades.

But the last remnants of the defeated Ming dynasty fled to Taiwan in 1662 and expelled the Dutch colonists.

An 18th century map of Taiwan drawn up following its conquest by the Qing dynasty. Photo: Handout

The 5,000-word article in Study Times, written by historian Deng Tao, said the Qing had spent the next 20 years preparing for the invasion and conquest of the island and argued that they had also used political, diplomatic and economic measures to achieve their goal rather than just relying on force.

Deng said the Qing had managed to isolate the island’s rulers diplomatically and sent representatives to the island to court support among its Han Chinese residents by offering them incentives to return to the mainland and escape the heavy taxes imposed by their rulers.

In the meantime, the Kangxi emperor had been building up and training an invasion fleet that successfully took the island in 1683 and incorporated it into the Qing empire.

‘Too costly’: Chinese military strategist warns now is not the time to take back Taiwan by force

Recently a number of commentators and retired military commanders have called for Beijing to retake control of the island, where the defeated Nationalist forces fled in 1949 following their defeat in the civil war.

Some former military leaders have argued that the United States – which is bound by law to help the Taiwanese government defend itself – is presently unable to do so because all four of its aircraft carriers in the Pacific have been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Some legal commentators, including Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University, in Beijing, have called on the government to consider the use of force and argued that an “anti-secession” law ratified in 2005 gave it the legal authority to do so.

Tian argued in an article published on the news website Guancha.cn that political and social developments on the island meant it was impossible to resolve the situation peacefully and said anti-government protests in Hong Kong showed that the “one country, two systems model” – which Beijing hoped to use as the basis for reunification with Taiwan – had failed.

One commentator argued that the anti-government protests in Hong Kong showed peaceful unification under “one country, two systems” was impossible. Photo: Warton Li

Official communications between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been frozen since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was elected as Taiwanese president and rejected the one-China model as the basis for relations.

But in a separate article published on the social media platform WeChat, Qiao Liang, a retired air force major general who is seen as a hawkish voice on the mainland, argued that now was not the right time to take Taiwan by force.

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He warned it would be “too costly and risky” and said China should wait until it had the economic and military strength to challenge the US.

A Beijing-based military source said the mainland authorities still hoped the situation could be resolved peacefully and the majority of Taiwanese still wanted to maintain the status quo.

“Maintaining the stability and prosperity of Taiwan before and after its unification is still the top priority for the mainland,” the source said.

Lee Chih-horng, who lectures in cross-strait relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the articles by Deng and Qian indicated that the government wanted to stick to its own timetable for Taiwan unification.

Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai Ing-wen’s election as Taiwanese president. Photo: AFP

“The Beijing leadership has now realised that they need to cool down the nationalist fever as calls to take Taiwan by force have become too emotional, with many on mainland social media stirring up the topic for attention,” Lee said.

“As Qiao said, Beijing realises now is not a good time to take Taiwan back by force, but [President] Xi [Jinping] will come out up with the ultimate solution to solve the Taiwan issue.”

Two years ago Fang Bing, a professor at the People’s Liberation Army’s National Defence University, told state broadcaster China Central Television that Beijing’s timetable for unification with Taiwan would neither be “slowed down when the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang comes to power, nor stepped up when the DPP becomes the ruling party”.

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