What Does China Want under the Leadership of Xi? -The South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Part 1 of 2

China now is no more aggressive than China in the era of Mao or the post-Mao period. But China is now seen to be more  assertive because it has grown in economic and military capabilities. In the three US-led Western agenda setting issues of the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan China wants to keep the status quo as much as possible.

The South China Sea (SCS)

The nine dash line demarcating the SCS by China was not the creation of the PRC. This is the same kind of claim that the Republic of China authorities in Taiwan makes and has not so far given up. The biggest land mass in SCS called Taiping Dao in Chinese and Itu Aba Island in English has been under the control of Taiwan. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines also took possession of some entities in the SCS. Vietnam has been building up sand islands for years and China started doing that later but in larger scale.

There was the 2016 decision of the arbitral tribunal between the Philippines and China which stated that none of the islands in the Spratly Islands, where most disputes are and where the built up of sand islands may change the status que, are entitled to an EEZ and continental shelf. China refused to participate in the arbitration and has declared the decision of the tribunal to be null and void.

There has never been any issue in commercial freedom of navigation, the majority of which is from and to China anyway. China and Vietnam exchanged fire in SCS that incurred casualties on both sides twice in the entire history of the PRC, January 1974 and March 1988. So far nothing like this has happened since Xi came to power in 2013.

So what does China want? If the past is any way to judge, it is reasonable to expect that China might give concessions in return for permanent settlement with disputed parties in the SCS. For all the land disputes with its neighbours the PRC was willing to negotiate and has made compromises for permanent settlement, including that with Vietnam (Mobo Gao “The Tree May Prefer Calm but the Wind Will Not Subside”, The China Quarterly, March 2018, Volume 233, pp. 230-242). The only exception is with India because India refused a  negotiated settlement (Neville Maxwell, China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2014).

There are indeed signs of China’s intention  to make concessions in this direction. China has remained ambiguous on what the nine dash line means in terms of territorial claim. My interpretation is that China wants to leave room for negotiation. China has also claimed that it is willing to shelve the dispute and ready to explore the oil resources jointly with disputed parties.

 Hong Kong

There was no democracy in Hong Kong under the British colonial rule until some was introduced by the last Governor Chris Patten. By any measure there is more democracy in HK now. The central government in Beijing hand picks what is called the Chief Executive but he or she must be a local Hong Konger whereas all the governors of colonial HK were British and white. During the 2019 demonstration, violence by masked radicals went as far as destroying traffic lights, attacking police stations, police officers, vandalising MTR facilities, shops and banks, and occupation of the city’s airport and universities. Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, requires the city’s government to enact a national security law. However, no law of this kind has been passed by the city’s legislature while grassroots protests in 2019 were seen to be used for geopolitical purpose. It was under such circumstances that China in 2020 decided to craft a law to “prevent, stop and punish” threats to national security by outlawing acts and activities of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city’s affairs”. It is now feared that new national security law may be the beginning of the end of “one country two systems” formula.

So what does China want? From my reading China would want very much to keep HK as it is, at least until 2047 (50 years of status quo); but it will not tolerate any attempt in making HK the basis for a “colour revolution”. China will go as far as having a popular elected Chief Executive. But the economic downturn and social inequality remain acute issues.


Taiwan was under the Japanese colonial rule for half a century before it was returned to China after Japan’s unconditional surrender to the II World War allies including China, the US and Australia, in 1945. The subsequent civil war between the CCP and KMT resulted in two Chinese governments in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing and Republic of China (RC) that KMT under the leader of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. During the Cold War the Communist camp headed by the Soviet Union supported the PRC while the Capitalist West led by the USA supported the RC until 1971 when Henry Kissinger visited Beijing. Because of the USA relaxation of its hostility, the UN voted to accept PRC of Beijing as China by ousting RC of Taiwan. Any nation wanting to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC has to commit to the formula that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. While Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence the PRC still holds that the civil war has not ended and that Taiwan’s gradual evolution to democracy does not justify a claim to nationhood. During the era of Mao the PRC and RC continued the civil war status que by ritual gun fires between Xiamen and Kinmen (Quemoy). There was an intimidating missile test from China to the waters surrounding Taiwan in 1996. Since Xi came to power in 2013, there has not been more provocative action from the PRC.

So what does China now want? China would most of all like to see a peaceful unification, to which China has been waiting since 1949. However, the increasingly likelihood of the people in Taiwan wanting a new nationhood may wear China’s patience out. No Chinese government, under Xi or not, can afford to let Taiwan go its own way at this juncture of history mainly for two reasons: 1) separation of Taiwan is a reminder of One Hundred Years of Humiliation and 2) Taiwan is China’s gate way to the broad Ocean Pacific. Therefore, emotionally and geopolitically any declaration of independence or even a referendum for independence would mean war for the PRC. For the peace of the world it is best to keep the status quo.

Part 2 tomorrow will focus on President Xi’s domestic agenda

Mobo Gao is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide. His recent publications includes Gao Village Revisited: Life of the Rural People in Contemporary China and Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People’s Republic


Professor Gao teaches Chinese studies at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Adelaide. Gao's publications include several books, over a hundred book chapters and articles. Two of his books are case studies of Gao Village where he came from. Other books include the Battle of China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution and Remembering Socialist China 1949 – 1976 which are reassessments of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. His latest book Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People’s Republic examines how and why different categories of people have different views of China.

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12 Responses to What Does China Want under the Leadership of Xi? -The South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Part 1 of 2

  1. Avatar KA-SING CHUA says:

    From human perspective, no one is perfect. Not one government is perfect. Any leader in power is always tempted to become dictatorial and authoritarian given he or she an opportunity if there is no check and balance in place. It can happen to China and it can happen to US Trump too.
    That is why we have to perfect our United Nations so that it can represent world judiciary to provide maximum check and balance and rule of international laws to stop any war from happening again.
    I am a peace maker.

  2. Avatar KA-SING CHUA says:

    Thank you Professor Gao for an objective assessment of current China leadership under Xi. I was born in Malaysia but studied in Australia. I have settled in Australia just over 50 years. I am as Aussie as anyone can be but still treasure my Chinese culture and some tradition. The saddest part of the history of Chinese is so far, the change of Government was always through civil wars. They killed each other more than any other country. Yet the paramount value of peace is always being taught and aspired.
    The peace message flows from through your whole article wherever the disputes are i.e. SCS, HK and Taiwan. Externally modern China has always told other nations that she wants to solve whatever dispute it is, through peaceful negotiation, win-win diplomacy and shared prosperity. I cannot say for the West in particular the US and UK, gunboat diplomacy is still their forte judging at what they have done.

    Proper adherence to Constitutional representative system has seen all the “matured nations” stopped using civil war as a mean to seize power or changed governments. However they have not extend that privilege to the United Nations after the SECOND WW. It is really sad to see their hypocrisy has led to so many wars, human right violations, human casualties, sufferings and mortalities etc. They have no right really to use any excuse to criticize the current China’s internal policies especially human right records; suppression of freedom and authoritarian measures. If you wish to compare apple to apple, let us do it scientifically and in a socially responsible way. I challenge any loud mouth Western leader starting with USA Trump if he is Xi what can he do better to feed 1.4 billions Chinese peoples, give them jobs, education, health, welfare. rules of law, equality and democracy Chinese ways. China has the most trusted Government by her people in the world compared to US by a long mile. That is the fact and the poll was conducted by Canadian.

  3. Avatar Hal Colebatch says:

    The Chinese civil war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, with two Chinese governments, but the PRC refuses to accept this. Having demonstrated how to start a pandemic, Beijing then coerced the WHO to exclude from the global discussion the country which had been the world leader in limiting the impact of the virus – Taiwan.
    Beijing knows that ‘peaceful reunification’ will not happen, because Taiwanese can see that they are much freer, richer, healthier, more secure and more equal than mainlanders, and that after reunification, they would be no more able to protect what they now have than the people of Hong Kong. Beijing needs unification because the existence of Taiwan as a democratic China is a standing demonstration that the Chinese communist revolution has failed.

  4. Avatar George Wendell says:

    It was in fact Chiang Kai-shek that prompted an exodus to Taiwan with thousands of mainland Chinese Kuomintang supporters escaping communist China. Mao won the civil war, that is the history good or bad. I wonder what the indigenous Taiwanese community thought about that?

    “Around 6,000 years ago, Taiwan was settled by farmers, most likely from mainland China. They are believed to be the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese indigenous peoples”. [1].

    The the Qing dynasty annexed Taiwan from 1683–1895. Then it was Japan’s turn from 1895–1945. I wonder what the indigenous Taiwanese thought of that after Japan had treated them like third class citizens and massacred many of the indigenous mountain people with impunity.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan#Qing_rule_(1683%E2%80%931895)

    • Avatar Dennis Hutchison says:

      “I wonder what the indigenous Taiwanese thought of that after Japan had treated them like third class citizens and massacred many of the indigenous mountain people with impunity.”

      So, your saying that the Chinese treated the aboriginal inhabitants better than the Japanese, can you explain to me how that supports China’s claim on Taiwan?

    • Avatar Kien Choong says:

      Fortunately indigenous Taiwanese did not suffer the same fate as the indigenous Australians! (At least to my knowledge.)

  5. Avatar Dennis Hutchison says:

    For starters there is no historical support for China’s claims on the SCS.

    On Taiwan I wonder what the aboriginal habitants who occupied Formosa prior to the Dutch arriving in 1624 and who were not under Chinese rule would say about the Chinese claim. Their habitation goes back some 20 to 30,000 yrs.

    I’m stunned that the argument is that Taiwan only became a democracy in 1996, what does that have to do with it. Taiwan seems to have not ever really been part of China. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Taiwan

    The claim of Chinese benevolence is nothing short of farcical, you only need to look at CCP behaviour towards its own people to see that. It makes any US behaviour look minor in comparison, and at least the US people have the protection of their constitution and courts, not perfect, but certainly light years ahead compared to what the Chinese people have.

    Whitewash and bias seems to live quite well here as well, it’s bloody sad in my opinion. You generally get one extreme in the msn media and the polar opposite here.

    • Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

      Isn’t it a bit rich to say that the Chinese people are mistreated by their government – on their behalf by a foreigner? I have read a number of surveys indicating that Xi and his government has high aproval among its people. China has more than 50 ethnic groups who are treated no diffrent than the rest of its population; unless groups like the Falungung (mostly Han Chinese) and the and other religious groups like the Uyghurs threaten the stability of the nation. Does anyone think that it is possible to mistreat 1.3 billion people without dire consequences?

      As for the Taiwanese natives who are racially and ethnicaly Malays, they suffered discriminatrion in their own country like Aboriginal Australians (the situation may have changed. I do not know).

      There is a book published in 2016 called “China and the EU in Context” edited by an Austrlian scholar Kerry Brown which gives a good idea of the workings of the Chinese government, a profile of its leaders, its social problems, its economic challenges and directions and its dealings with the EU. The book is
      a bit dated but its is still quite relevant.

      Teow Loon Ti

    • Avatar Kien Choong says:

      I understand your claim that there is no historical support for the 9-dash claim is disputed by Chinese historians.

  6. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    It’s good to see calm factual analysis, thank you Professor Gao.

    Evan, I wish you would make your statement clear, say what offends. We live in Australia in a whirling mist of New Cold War nonsense in Australia, in which exaggeration and vilification and big weapons.

  7. Avatar George Wendell says:

    If only such a sane and objective analysis was afforded to Australians who read our increasingly right wing, pro-US media where the history of the region is whitewashed for the sake of a completely biased viewpoints. The US lapdog’s role continues for Australian politicians.

    “While Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence the PRC still holds that the CIVIL WAR has not ended and that Taiwan’s gradual evolution to democracy does not justify a claim to nationhood.”

    And Taiwan only shifted to a democracy in 1996.

    Ironically, we can say something very similar about the US at the moment where Union and Confederate mindsets still dominate what we see happening there today – the US Civil War continues in essence.

    Yet the US and Australia are very quick to dismiss China’s history as being relevant to the Chinese today, and say they should just get over it.

    James Bradley’s “The China Mirage” details very well the history of US financial and geopolitical support for Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese political evolution since the demise of the Qing.

    I also find 89 year old Wang Gungwu an absolute living treasure to listen to on the objective history of the region. There are many videos of his lectures on Youtube.

  8. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    It isn’t what China wants that is causing angst and alarm. It is how it is going about getting it.

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