With Chinese military drills lobbing missiles into the nearby sea and Chinese officials firing angry rhetorical fusillades, the potential for a full-scale China-Taiwan conflict has seemingly never been higher.
Following US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted more than 100 sea and air crossings of the Taiwan Strait’s median line while the self-governing island’s official websites were bombarded by cyber-attacks – both seen as possible pre-emptive measures before a military attack.
“China has used the drills in its military playbook to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned on August 9. “It is conducting large-scale military exercises and missile launches, as well as cyber-attacks, disinformation and economic coercion in an attempt to weaken public morale in Taiwan.”
As pundits continue to debate the merits, demerits and motivations of Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei, Chinese President Xi Jinping has remained tight-lipped since warning his counterpart Joe Biden in a video call that “those who play with fire will eventually get burned” over Taiwan.
Despite that steely silence, it is hard to imagine Xi is not leading China’s escalatory policy on Taiwan since Pelosi’s visit.
He has said constantly that “national reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland is central to his mission for “national rejuvenation” – a goal to restore China’s great power status by 2049. It also plays a leading role in his “Xi Jinping Thought” ideology, which is now effectively gospel in Beijing.
During his decade in power, Xi has made himself the standard-bearer of the historic cause of returning what Beijing views as a renegade province into the national fold. According to a speech Xi gave in 2019, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means” to achieve “reunification.”
“This is part of a growing body of evidence that Xi intends to achieve Taiwan’s absorption while he is in power,” said David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research, a nonprofit research institute.
“As ‘paramount leader’ commanding the loyalty of the Party and military and the strongest leader since at least since Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping is indeed in full control of Beijing’s Taiwan policy,” Gitter added.
Yet if Xi has made Taiwan’s “reunification” more important to Beijing’s historical mission and rejuvenation than his predecessors, that still doesn’t mean he is in complete control of the situation and post-Pelosi response, analysts and observers stress.
“He also must be sure not to appear weak and ineffectual in the face of what the CCP regime deems to have been a rash and symbolic challenge to its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan,” Gitter added.
Given the nationalistic forces unleashed by the CCP since Xi took over as Communist Party chief in 2012, there is always the possibility that Beijing could find itself following, not leading, public sentiment. Although “reunification” is central to Xi’s plans, political stability is the priority in his bid to remain in the top spot for a historic third term.
“The Chinese leadership works to remain ahead of domestic public opinion on Taiwan,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former director for China on the National Security Council.
“They want to demonstrate to a domestic audience their toughness and unrelenting determination to achieve unification. To date, they largely have succeeded on that measure,” Haas added.
“While there have been waves of protests against Japan, the United States and a host of other issues, there have not been organized protests against China’s approach to Taiwan in recent decades. China’s leaders likely are determined to keep it that way.”
Public surveys in China, as ever, are taken with a pinch of salt. In 2016, an online survey by two Chinese institutes found that 85% of Chinese respondents supported armed “reunification.” Another poll of nine major Chinese cities in 2019 found support to be at 53%.
Within the CCP, there is also a danger that Taiwan policy slips out of Xi’s hands. On Beijing’s strong reaction to Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last week, Xi is “both leading and being led,” suggests Yujen Kuo, a professor of China studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.
The key issue was not Pelosi herself but the timing of her visit, which is “very embarrassing and difficult to Xi,” Kuo added, noting various political and economic pressures Xi and the Party now face.
Beijing’s “zero-Covid” policies have frustrated swathes of the Chinese public while damaging the economy. The International Monetary Fund expects China’s growth to slow this year to just 3.3%, which some analysts see as optimistic as concern mounts about a wider property crisis that would have major implications for the global economy.
That’s a considerable problem for a Party that bases its legitimacy on maintaining rapid, well-distributed economic growth.
It’s been lost on few that Pelosi’s visit came just ahead of the CPC’s quinquennial congress. Usually, party grandees would meet this month in the resort town of Beidaihe to informally discuss personnel changes ahead of the National Congress, expected to take place in November.
How much discussion there will be this year is unclear. Some analysts reckon there will be very little, especially over Xi’s position as party chief, as he is expected to remain in the post for a near-unprecedented third term. He will also most likely be reappointed state president at next year’s annual session of China’s parliament.
“Xi’s opponents within the party, like Premier Li Keqiang and the ‘Shanghai gang’, have been using the domestic problem to attack and challenge Xi,” said Kuo, referring to an alleged cabal of senior officials who are believed to oppose Xi’s continued rule.
The anti-Xi faction is now using Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan “to stir nationalist sentiment among the general public and force Xi to strongly react, and later they will accuse Xi for messing up relations with the US, Taiwan, and the Europeans,” Kuo said.
Pelosi’s visit came just days after US President Biden and Xi spoke by phone and made tentative plans for their first in-person meeting since Biden took office, a plan some commentators saw as a positive step towards improving relations despite Xi’s play with fire get burned message on Taiwan.
“Even before Xi, the dysfunction of the 82-million-member Communist Party is that they are primarily municipal and state level functionaries without foreign affairs experience, and they manage foreign issues through committees that are easily stovepiped and isolated from broader policy processes or information,” said Julian Spencer-Churchill, associate professor of international relations at Concordia University.
As such, different factions and groups need to be kept happy, he said. The military is “largely sympathetic” to Xi’s stance on Taiwan, especially as this results in greater budgets, prestige and policy influence for the PLA.
“He has systematically removed mid-level opponents, and most of his Politburo standing committee colleagues are ‘logrolling’ with him,” said Spencer-Churchill. This means “they defer to his influence on foreign policy and Taiwan in exchange for support in various domestic domains”.
How much Xi actually plays a role in day-to-day decision-making over Beijing’s Taiwan policy is still a matter of debate, though. For instance, he most probably isn’t vetting every state-run newspaper commentary nor every official speech on the issue, analysts say.
Given his voluminous speeches and writings on the need for “reunification” of Taiwan, junior party officials are unlikely to misunderstand how they should be working towards Xi’s goals.
But Xi’s accumulation of power within the CCP, especially compared to the consensual way his more recent predecessors ruled, creates its own problems.
Xi is not at any real risk of being dethroned, said Gitter. In June, he increased his influence by appointing Wang Xiaohong, an ally from Fujian province from the 1990s, as public security minister.
This came after last year’s purge of three former public security vice-ministers. Some reckon Wang is the closest Xi has to a confidante and his appointment secures Xi’s power over the crucial power center.
As the Financial Times put it this week: “Xi’s grip on two of the party’s three power centers — the military ‘gun’ and propaganda ‘pen’ — has been firm for many years.”
Some commentators reckon that while Xi doesn’t want the instability of a conflict to spoil preparation for November’s Party congress, he might be less constrained once, as widely expected, he is given an unprecedented third term.
Sari Arho Havrén, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki specializing in China’s foreign relations, echoes others when he says that Xi’s decision-making on Taiwan is being impacted by “peaking-power syndrome”, the tendency for rising states to become more aggressive amid a sense of impending decline.
“So many external and internal simultaneous forces are at play that narrow China’s window to act on Taiwan,” she said.
Meanwhile, various wargame exercises conducted by US and Taiwanese analysts have ended with mixed results of what would happen if Beijing does attack Taiwan.
Some have speculated that Chinese forces would be bogged down by the mountainous terrain en route to Taipei. Another, published last year by Chung Chieh and Andrew N D Yang, two Taiwanese analysts, argued that the PLA logistics would likely be constrained.
It’s unclear what China’s internal wargaming shows. Yet, as was the case for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the decision of whether or not to attack the self-governing may ultimately come down to Xi himself.
Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno