Will the headwinds facing China force Xi to rethink his plans to take Taiwan?
19 Dec 2022|

The US Navy chief recently warned that China could attack Taiwan by 2024. Others argue that an invasion of Taiwan may occur by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. Some, including the Asia Society’s Christopher K. Johnson, feel that President Xi Jinping’s China remains wedded to peaceful reunification or at least a non-kinetic approach using coercion and grey-zone tactics to compel Taiwan to become part of the People’s Republic of China. For Johnson, Xi’s new Politburo Standing Committee is not a war cabinet but a leadership team chosen to navigate the very rough geopolitical and domestic storms ahead.

Since October’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan, Japan, the US, Canada, Australia and others have asking themselves what the future holds for Chinese foreign policy under a third term of Xi.

There are at least five observations we can take away from the congress. First, the CCP believes that the strategic competition between the US and China is one between systems that requires a hardening of the party’s political structure at the expense of the Chinese economy.

For a regime that came to power by overthrowing the previous republican system, the CCP has perennial anxiety about insidious foreign forces supporting counter-revolution and regime change, as elaborated in Rush Doshi’s The long game and Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s Haunted by chaos. Regime change and containment are front and centre in the CCP’s understanding of US and allied motivations to not accept a China under Xi as a peer.

Comments by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo advocating regime change and Taiwanese independence, President Joe Biden’s repeated statements that the US would defend Taiwan if China launched an unprovoked attack, and the growing chorus of countries that explicitly place peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in their foreign policies have only reinforced Beijing’s concerns.

For Xi, ideology needs to be strengthened at home to ‘safeguard the security of China’s state power, systems and ideology by building up security capabilities in key areas’. For the CCP, ‘political security is a fundamental task’.

Second, the work report Xi presented at the congress highlighted China’s continued commitment to its Russian partner, explicitly stating that ‘no state’s security should come at the expense of another state’. This is code for Beijing’s support for Moscow’s argument that its invasion of Ukraine was a response to NATO expansion that threatened Russia’s ‘core interests’, including its security.

It is consistent with what Michal Bogusz, Jakub Jakobowski and Witold Rodkiewicz of the Centre for Eastern Studies argue in their report The Beijing–Moscow axis. They assert that relations between Moscow and Beijing have never been as close and warm as they are today:

This rapprochement has been produced by three decades of consistent efforts by the political leaderships of Russia and China to strengthen mutual ties and deepen their cooperation in politics, military affairs, economy and ideology. The relationship that has emerged can be called an informal alliance. This alliance is based on the deep conviction shared by the Chinese and Russian ruling elites of the fundamental coincidence of their strategic interests and the ideological proximity between their authoritarian regimes.

Third, China will continue to pivot to the global south in a strategy to address the perceived vulnerability Beijing feels from the economic, technological and legal dominance the US and Western allies enjoy in the global economy. The Belt and Road Initiative is the first arrow in Xi’s quiver to develop and open markets along BRI corridors to selectively disentangle participating states from the US economic hegemony and move them towards economically dependent relationships with China.

China’s ‘dual circulation’ model for economic development is the second. Beijing’s strategy involves boosting domestic consumption while at the same time pivoting the Chinese economy to developing countries.

These economic initiatives are linked to what China calls the democratisation of the international system, an effort prominent Chinese academic Yan Xue Tong explains like this:

China will work hard to shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values. For example, the United States defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of electoral politics and personal expression, while China defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of social security and economic development. Washington should accept these differences of opinion instead of trying to impose its own views on others.

Fourth, the CCP under Xi is enhancing its anti-Western stance by criticising democratic countries’ hegemony. It has shown that it is willing to coordinate with other authoritarian states and states that can be influenced by Chinese money and development aid. A salient example was Beijing’s recruitment of developing countries and a motley crew of countries such as North Korea, Syria and Iran to vote down a motion to discuss a UN report into China’s serious human rights violations in Xinjiang. China similarly brought together BRI members to abstain from a resolution on Russia’s ‘aggression against Ukraine’.

Last, the CCP sees very rough geopolitical and domestic seas ahead. It is challenged by the selective diversification of supply chains, the US CHIPS and Science Act (which aims to strangle Chinese access to top-tier semiconductors and technicians, and choke off China’s access to the future of artificial intelligence), the effects of its self-harming Covid-19 policy, and the increasingly severe demographic pressures on the economy. The CCP leadership wants to reach its 2049 centenary goal of ‘building a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious’.

The strong pressures on the Chinese economy and Xi’s selection of loyalists to key positions suggest that the leadership won’t make a move to invade Taiwan anytime soon. Xi did stress, however, that China would not give up the right to use force to ‘reunify’ with Taiwan, though that’s entirely consistent with previous statements by Xi and Chinese leaders before him.

Taking Taiwan by force would entail significant economic costs, diplomatic isolation and, in all likelihood, a regional conflict. That would derail Xi’s 2049 centenary goal, possibly the most consequential legacy of his leadership.