BEIJING - Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has vowed that his country “will surely be reunified” during a televised New Year’s Eve address, just weeks ahead of key elections in Taiwan.

“All Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Mr Xi said, noting that 2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Mr Xi has vowed to “reunify” the two sides of the strait by 2049, the target date for achieving “the Chinese dream”. The PRC, which has never ruled Taiwan, views the democratic island nation as part of its territory and vows to annex it by force if necessary.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, responded to Mr Xi’s comments on Monday in what will be her final New Year’s Day address. She emphasised that Taiwan’s future would be democratically determined by its own people but also called for the resumption of cross-strait relations, expressing hope for “healthy and orderly exchanges” through “peace, equality, democracy and dialogue” as soon as possible.

“Facing global conflict between democracy and freedom and authoritarianism, Taiwan’s only choice in the future is to continue to uphold democracy and protect peace,” Ms Tsai said.

The comments come less than two weeks ahead of Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, set for Jan 13.

William Lai, the current frontrunner and vice president of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has said he is open to discussions with China. The PRC labels the DPP a “separatist force” that advocates for Taiwan’s independence, though the DPP’s charter states that Taiwan is already an independent, sovereign entity and does not need to declare “formal independence”.

China cut off talks with Taiwan in 2016 after Ms Tsai’s first election victory. It has also stepped up military pressure since then, sending naval vessels and military aircraft into Taipai’s territorial waters and airspace with increasing frequency.

The other two presidential election contenders, Hou Yu-ih of the China-friendly Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, say more communication with China is needed in order to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait.
Election interference

Experts have warned of mounting Chinese election interference via military aggression, economic coercion and information warfare as the ballot draws nearer. The government has warned that China has stepped up interference in recent months through religious organisations, while more than 400 Taiwan village chiefs have participated in China-sponsored tours of the mainland.

According to Taiwan’s election ministry, 157 people are currently under investigation for alleged election interference in 77 alleged cases. At least one man has been charged so far.

In his New Year’s Eve speech, Mr Xi also promised to advance economic reform policies. He admitted the country has financial troubles as it deals with an unprecedented economic slump, marked by a property crisis, high youth unemployment and local government debt.

China is “bound to encounter headwinds,” Mr Xi said. “Some enterprises had a tough time. Some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs,” he added but he vowed to advance modernisation and development and “deepen reform and opening up” in 2024.