BY THE end of this month, say Chinese officials, work will be completed on a big upgrade of facilities at a monument to one of the scariest moments in the recent history of relations between China and the United States: an upsurge of tensions in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1990s that saw the two nuclear powers inching towards the brink of war.
The structure is a concrete tower on an island in the strait, just off the Chinese coast. Atop it more than 100 generals watched a mock invasion of Taiwan by China’s army on a beach below. “Unite the motherland, invigorate China”, says a slogan in gold characters down the side of the building. The meaning of these words at a place where tanks and troops once stormed ashore with warplanes streaking overhead is: we want Taiwan back, by force if necessary.
The building work involves an expansion of the tower’s car park, improvements to the road up to it and other changes to make the place on Pingtan Island in Fujian province more tourist-friendly. The timing may be fortuitous. On December 11th America’s president-elect, Donald Trump, in an interview with Fox News, questioned what China regards as a sacred underpinning of its relationship with America: the principle that there is but “one China” (which, decoded, means that the government of Taiwan is illegitimate). China, bristling with rage, may well seek to remind its citizens, as well as America, of what happened when that principle was last challenged by the United States with a decision in 1995 by its then president, Bill Clinton, to allow his Taiwanese counterpart, Lee Teng-hui, to pay a private visit to America. Handy, then, that Pingtan will be able to handle extra busloads of visitors to that hilltop where China’s brass surveyed the pretend assault.
Relations between China and America are far less precarious than they were during those tense months, when China fired dummy missiles near Taiwan and America sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups close to the island to warn China not to attack it. China, though enraged by Mr Trump’s remarks (and a congratulatory call he took from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on December 2nd), is unlikely to take retaliatory action unless Mr Trump continues to challenge the notion of one China after his inauguration on January 20th.
The chip is down
Taiwan has been in the doghouse anyway since Ms Tsai took office in May. China has cut off channels of communication with the island to show its displeasure with her own refusal to embrace the one-China idea. But Ms Tsai may have reservations herself about the way Mr Trump phrased his one-China scepticism. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he said. Mr Trump listed ways in which America was being “badly hurt” by China, such as by the fall in the value of its currency and its island-building in the South China Sea. He accused China of “not helping us at all with North Korea”.
Many Taiwanese worry that this could mean their island will be treated by Mr Trump as a bargaining-chip. Memories are still fresh in Taiwan of secretive dealings between America and China during the cold war, which resulted in America severing diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. Ms Tsai’s government has avoided direct comment on Mr Trump’s remarks. Apparently to avoid raising tensions with China, she has also avoided public crowing over her phone call with Mr Trump.
Mr Trump’s remarks would have riled the Chinese leadership at any time. But they are particularly unwelcome at this juncture for China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He is absorbed by preparations for crucial meetings due to be held late in 2017 at which sweeping reshuffles of the Politburo and other Communist Party bodies will be announced. Those trying to block his appointments would be quick to seize on any sign that he is being soft on America over such a sensitive matter as Taiwan. Should Mr Trump persist in challenging the one-China idea, the risk of escalation will be even greater than usual in the build-up to the conclaves—all the more so, perhaps, given Mr Xi’s insistence that differences between China and Taiwan “cannot be passed on from generation to generation”. Hawkish colleagues may say that it is time to settle the issue by force.
Street protests in China against America or Taiwan would also make it more difficult for Mr Xi to compromise: he would fear becoming a target himself of Chinese nationalists’ wrath. But the risk of this may be low. Since Mr Xi took over in 2012 there have been no major outbreaks of nationalist unrest, partly thanks to his tightening of social and political controls (including locking up ever more dissidents).
Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University says people are unlikely to demonstrate over Taiwan “because they understand the new rules, the new emphasis on political discipline in the last few years.” He says a lot of people in China still admire Mr Trump for his wealth and his unexpected political success. They think that “he wants to make a deal with China.”
In Taiwan, some take comfort in the difficulty Mr Trump would face in changing the terms of America’s relations with Taiwan, such as by announcing a permanent end to arms sales. These are guaranteed by the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed by Congress in 1979 to reassure Taiwan that America still had an interest in the island’s defence, despite the severance of official ties. Many Republicans sympathise with Taiwan and would be reluctant to support any change to that law (itself a challenge to the one-China idea with which China has—very grudgingly—learned to live).
They might also take solace in what appears to be a change in the Chinese government’s tone since the war games 20 years ago. In April Global Times, a newspaper in Beijing, published a poll showing that 85% of respondents supported unifying China with Taiwan by force, and that 58% agreed the best time would be within the next five years. It was reportedly chastised by China’s internet regulator for “hyping sensitive events” by running such a survey.