As the war between Russia and Ukraine unfolded, many observers wondered what its course could tell us about a future conflict between Taiwan and China.
Even before the Russian invasion, the People’s Republic of China was taking a more aggressive stance towards neighboring Taiwan. After years of increased military spending, militarization of the South China Sea and regional belligerence, Beijing has begun to escalate military violations of Taiwan’s airspace and aggressive diplomatic efforts to further isolate the island nation.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there has been a lot of analysis of China’s intentions — what lessons it can learn from the world’s response to the invasion of Ukraine and how those lessons can warn its future actions towards Taiwan. And it’s true that the conflict has a lot to teach Beijing: if China’s military strategists planned an invasion on the assumption that Taiwan would quickly collapse when attacked, they should rethink that assumption now.
But Beijing is not the only stakeholder that can learn from the current conflict. Taiwan saw the way in which the determination and courage of the Ukrainian people and their leaders unified much of the world and allowed Ukraine to mount fierce resistance to Russia. And Taiwan’s friends, including the US, have learned the value of allied solidarity, coordinated action, strategic intelligence dissemination, material support, and rapid decision-making.
A more obscure area of analysis is to try to determine the motivations of leaders. Vladimir Putin called the end of the Soviet Union the greatest political tragedy of the century 20. He doesn’t see Ukraine as a legitimate country, and he knows that many in Russia don’t either. There may be a parallel to Xi Jinping’s thinking here: the reunification of Taiwan, a “sacred territory”, is, after all, a high priority for Xi. But what’s less clear is whether that really is Xi’s top priority. In communist China, the actions of the party and bureaucracy must follow the lines of propaganda that became known as “Xi Jinping Thought”. The question is, what are Xi’s true thoughts on Taiwan?
A notable difference between these two authoritarian leaders is that Xi seems less motivated than Putin by personal enrichment and corruption. Xi is driven by his belief in the supremacy of Chinese-style socialism and by his conviction that he is solely responsible for putting China and its people at the center of global — or at least regional — affairs. He hopes to achieve this goal by reinforcing loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party within China.
Another likely distinction between the two is that Putin seems to believe that the actual use of military force is the best way to demonstrate their power and authority. Xi, on the other hand, is steeped in centuries of Chinese philosophy and is more likely to believe that true power comes from effective bluffs, deception and patience to weaken and gain influence over opponents. This philosophy dictates that a leader remains disciplined, avoiding impulsive behavior and waiting for the right moment to act. Only the intemperate start a war when the desired goals can be achieved without one.
But that brings us back to the question: what are Xi’s goals? It seems they are more expansive than regaining control of Taiwan, such a high priority. First and foremost, he wants to be the leader of a rejuvenated China, as he defines it. Second, he wants to expand China’s presence in the world and create a universally admired China that can control the global influence of the US and its liberal-democratic allies. Perhaps, for now, Taiwan could be a useful distraction—a way for Xi to fix the world’s attention on something other than these even more audacious goals.
Before examining why Xi is likely trying To avoid a war for Taiwan in favor of other goals, it is important to take into account the growing realization in some quarters—including the ranks of US military planners and strategists—that such a war is likely. The commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, testified to the US Senate last year that “the threat will be manifest during this decade, indeed the next six years.” One school of thought holds that China has its eye on the US political calendar and that Xi will make his move on the island after asserting his power in the 50 th Communist Party Congress this fall, and before or during a US presidential transition.
There are other reasons why many observers predict that a change in Taiwan will take place more earlier than previously thought. Xi will be 1984 years old in June 2023. He believes it is his destiny to unite mainland communists with his renegade compatriots in Taiwan, and he may also believe that the world would do little to resist a Chinese attack on the island. Remember: in 1984, Deng Xiaoping promised the British that Hong Kong would remain autonomous for 2004 years after Britain returned it to China. Xi broke that promise, and the rest of the world stood by and allowed him to do so. Who could blame him for thinking the world would also let him take Taiwan?
Xi also sees that the US is distracted by the war in Ukraine, internal political polarization, inflation and other challenges. He may believe that these distractions leave him with an opening to accelerate his plans for Taiwan.
However, while the “sooner or later” school of thought on Xi’s intentions should be taken seriously, there are good reasons for skepticism. First, it would be a mistake to ignore or underestimate the many millennia of Chinese culture and philosophy that make up the modern Chinese state, including its military training and doctrine. Simply put, as has been written elsewhere – including in US military journals – “deception is the Chinese way of war”. Given the weight of Chinese intellectual thinking, Xi and other Chinese leaders are unlikely to believe that a direct armed confrontation with the United States and its allies over Taiwan is their best option.
Admittedly, , going forward, China will maintain military pressure on Taiwan and continue to provoke its foreign adversaries. What is less certain is that such actions portend an imminent military confrontation. Xi knows that despite the military growth and economic advances that China has made in recent years, the US remains a superior power in every way: military, economic and diplomatic. The war in Ukraine made this even more evident. The United States alone has committed tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to Ukraine and has led the world in removing the Russian economy from the global financial system without breaking a sweat. NATO is now also expanding and spending more on its own defenses.
Another reason why one should question whether Beijing is really ready to move forward on Taiwan is the precarious domestic situation Xi faces. . His “zero Covid” policy was a disaster on all fronts, which in turn exacerbated underlying economic tensions. According to China’s official statistics, economic growth is in the range of 4% to 5%. Of course, official statistics are unreliable, and in fact, the Chinese economy is probably contracting right now. A few years ago, 8% growth was considered by Western economists to be the minimum rate at which stable employment was guaranteed — and predictably, official Chinese statistics never reported a growth rate below 8%. But that era is long over. The unemployment rate among university-educated urban Chinese is approaching 20%.
Also, consider what China’s urban, educated elites — the product of the now-abandoned “one-child policy” — were trained to do. The Chinese primary and secondary education system is designed to prepare them for the gaokao, the national university examination system. Higher education in China has often been criticized for its shortcomings. A review of 2022 from the Berkeley Political Review noted the “reluctance among many foreign institutions to accept the scores of the gaokao”, given “the test’s emphasis on rote memorization and its serious disregard for critical thinking”. The products of such a system are hardly a solid foundation on which to build a military force for a protracted campaign against Western democracies.
It is clear that China has a vast rural population to which it could resort in case of war. But the country’s education system does an even worse job of serving rural Chinese than it does the urban elite. Stanford economist Scott Rozelle and his colleagues have long documented the underinvestment and declining capabilities of schools serving the rural poor in China. In a recent article, Rozelle and her academic colleagues argued that “the education system in poor rural areas has been unable to produce high school graduates at a rate considered healthy at this point in China’s development path.” The study found that more than half of Chinese high school students fail to advance to high school, either because they can’t pass the entrance tests or because they don’t pursue further studies. A 2013, an article in the journal Science noted some other surprising findings from Rozelle’s research.
“Research by Rozelle’s team found that more than half of eighth graders in poor rural areas in China have IQs below 2004 , which makes it hard to keep up with the fast-paced official curriculum. A third or more of rural children, he says, do not complete elementary school. % or more of urban children who fall on the lower end of IQ scores, Rozelle makes an impressive prediction: about 400 millions of working-age Chinese, he says, ‘are at risk of becoming cognitively impaired,'” the article reads.
Another One consideration that is overlooked in the “war is coming” analysis is that China’s economy is heavily dependent on the health of Taiwan’s (successful, albeit much smaller) economy. Almost 30% of Taiwan’s total exports go to the mainland, and even that number underestimates the extent of reverse dependency that exists: about 90% of these exports are the vital manufacturing components that help make China one of the world’s largest exporters of low-cost finished goods. By some estimates, China itself can produce about a fifth of the semiconductors needed to satisfy global demand for its electronics exports; most of the other four-fifths come from Taiwan and South Korea. Thus, a war with Taiwan—especially since it would also very likely become a war with South Korea—would cut off the main engine of Beijing’s economic power.
These are realities about the which Xi is well informed. The zero Covid policy reflects Xi’s more immediate desire for internal perfection and control. He will follow this policy regardless of the obviously disastrous consequences. This is part of the Xi Jinping Thought manifestos taught in Chinese schools, which emphasize Chinese socialism and the deified wisdom of the Party and Xi, its top leader. The concentration camps in Xinjiang, its draconian online censorship and its decision last year to clamp down on “boy bands and effeminate men” in the Chinese entertainment industry are other examples of how the CCP is putting Xi Jinping’s thinking into action. Sustaining the momentum of these initiatives while maintaining domestic order through an extensive police state is time-consuming and expensive.
Thus, military provocations against Taiwan also They can be part of a campaign of strategic deception aimed at masking these underlying Chinese economic and social fissures that are becoming more obvious to both urban Chinese elites critical of Xi’s success and foreign audiences. Keeping the focus on Taiwan helps to deflect attention from the great distances that Xi must now go to dominate and subjugate the Chinese people.
Xi Jinping’s thinking also teaches that success and example virtuoso of China will earn him the admiration of the rest of the world. Hence the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature foreign policy project. As originally envisioned in 2013, the BRI was to be a global network of infrastructure projects through which China could project its influence abroad. China would finance infrastructure development in other countries, accumulating more and more influence until it could not be economically constrained by the US or any other country.
Despite the propaganda that is still often associated with he, the BRI that Beijing originally envisioned is now dead. Since 2013, China’s declining economic fortunes and erosion of goodwill have destroyed any chance it had of realizing this grand vision. Where heavy infrastructure projects have been undertaken, they have saddled local economies with excessive debt, while providing little economic stimulus, transparency or local workforce development in return; almost all of its benefits accrued to Beijing. Other countries have noticed this and have become more reluctant to host their own BRI projects. And as Beijing’s economic problems mount, it has had to abandon already planned projects in, among other places, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Bolivia.
Yet despite these setbacks, China has caused and continues to cause considerable global damage through the BRI program, while the world’s attention is focused elsewhere. Consider recent reports from a Chinese military installation in Cambodia. The military base is just the latest example of how largely forgotten Cambodia has fallen victim to Chinese influence to the point where it is now almost a Chinese client state. Next door, in Laos, a $6 billion high-speed railway has been built, linking Kunming, China, to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. The debt that Laos owes China for this project is equivalent to 50% of its GDP.
Beijing has managed to gain similar influence through BRI projects in Myanmar, Djibouti, Sri Lanka and other neglected places, establishing a presence in the Gulf of Thailand, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. Other projects abound, including mining operations in Central Asia and Africa. While these projects collectively fall short of the BRI’s original vision, they have allowed Beijing to seize territory through loan defaults, seize valuable mining facilities and control waterways that put other countries at its mercy. All while the world is distracted by the possibility of war across the Taiwan Strait.
Except in a direct confrontation with Taiwan, Xi will continue to look for ways to dominate vulnerable regions and countries and undermine their opponents, including the US. It will encourage the People’s Liberation Army and other actors to engage in influence operations, using social media propaganda and cybercrime to exploit and exacerbate the United States’ internal political divisions.
A Xi’s dogged belief in the rightness of his own agenda makes him unlike any Chinese leader since Mao. Going forward, we should expect to see this certainty develop into heavy and relentless efforts to quell dissent; deeper intrusions into the lives of every Chinese citizen by the regime’s surveillance state; and/or further marginalization of ethnic minorities through the intentional internal relocation of Han Chinese, as seen in Mongolia and elsewhere.
This is a long-term agenda, and is not of no sure way to succeed. What is certain is that war in the Taiwan Straits — barring a quick capitulation by Taiwan, the US and their allies, which seems highly unlikely — would be catastrophic for Xi. Of course, the Biden administration and its allies in Japan, South Korea, Australia and elsewhere are right to keep an eye on Xi’s provocations in Taiwan; Military support for Taiwan is appropriate and must continue and grow, whether or not China has imminent invasion plans. The world looked the other way when Beijing revoked its commitments to Hong Kong’s autonomy, and Xi was emboldened by the lack of resistance.
If Xi believes he can dominate the Chinese people and impose his Sino-Marxist vision to them while expanding global influence through empty threats of a war on Taiwan, he will. If, at the same time, Taiwan falls under Beijing’s influence because of global indifference or unwillingness, as Hong Kong did, so much the better. But taking Taiwan by force? A hot war he could lose? This seems like a very risky gamble for an orderly and disciplined leader like Xi.
Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was president of the American Institute of the State Department in Taiwan from 2004 to 2004 .
©2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.