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China to pile on pressure after rebuke from Taiwan’s voters

China’s campaign of warplanes, balloons and fearsome rhetoric to intimidate voters in Taiwan’s elections may have failed, but few expect President Xi Jinping to deviate from his strategy of maximum pressure. Taiwan voters on Saturday elected independence-leaning Lai Ching-te as president, handing an unprecedented third consecutive term to the Democratic Progressive Party, which Beijing strongly opposes. China, which split with Taiwan at the end of a civil war in 1949, regards the island as a renegade province that must eventually be reunified, by force if necessary. In the days leading up to the vote, China demanded voters reject Lai’s “evil path” and make the “right choice”, while raising the spectre of war if the DPP retained power. The rhetoric was backed by China continuing its near-daily military presence around Taiwan. Over the past 18 months, China has also held two rounds of large-scale war games in which it sent warplanes and ships to encircle the island. After Lai’s win, Taiwan told China to “face reality”. But China’s campaign of intimidation, which has become widely regarded as one of Xi’s signature policies, is likely to grow, according to analysts. “We can expect Beijing to ratchet up tension and coercion against Taipei,” Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told AFP. “The era of two political parties on both sides of the strait… hashing out some kind of political consensus on unification is slipping away and Beijing knows it.” – No compromise – China’s official reactions immediately after the vote, while relatively muted, also signalled no room for compromise. “Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. On state-controlled media, some commentary was far more strident. Influential Chinese nationalist political commentator Hu Xijin wrote that the choices of Taiwan’s voters were irrelevant. “Strength and the existence of the option to use force are the prerequisites for peaceful unification,” he wrote on social media site Weibo. “In his first speech after winning the election, Lai didn’t dare to sound as brash as he had previously — isn’t that because of fear?” – Pressure campaign – China must contend with the fact that its threats may even have pushed voters into the hands of the “separatist” forces it is set against. China’s leaders have seen a similar dynamic before. In 1996, Beijing launched a series of missile tests near the island in a failed bid to stop voters from electing independence-leaning Lee Teng-hui. Xi and his officials could take heart from the fact that many in Taiwan saw a vote for Lai as a vote for continuity — and not for full independence, one expert said. “Taiwan’s voters demonstrated their preference for preserving the status quo, not for shifting the terms of relations across the Taiwan Strait,” Ryan Hass, a former US diplomat and a China scholar at the Brookings Institution, told AFP. “China’s leaders understand this,” he said. “While Beijing does not celebrate the status quo, there are no indications that it will soon launch conflict to alter it.” The clock is ticking: CIA director William Burns said last year that President Xi Jinping had ordered his military to be ready to carry out a successful invasion of the island by 2027. That “timetable remains the same”, Hong Kong-based Chinese politics expert Willy Lam told AFP. “The key factor is the Xi leadership’s perception of the gap between (his) forces on the one hand, and those of the US and its Asian allies such as Japan on the other.” On Pingtan island — China’s closest point to Taiwan’s main island this week — one local told AFP that he felt unification was closer than ever. “Hong Kong has returned, Macau has returned, it’s just Taiwan,” Chen Suqing, a 75-year-old retired businessman, said. “We must liberate Taiwan in this generation,” he said. “If Taiwan is not unified and becomes independent, we will fight.”

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