Monday, July 15, 2024

Xi Using Military Threats Against Taiwan To Soothe Hyper Nationalists in China

Washington, DC – China responded to US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit by conducting military exercises in the East China Sea. It will not attack Taiwan. But it appears to be a symbolic gesture by Beijing to vent its anger and to be seen as determined about the annexation of Taiwan. No matter how strong and the upgraded Chinese military is at this point, some factors dissuade Beijing from making any military adventures in the Taiwanese Strait. Some of these are the lingering Ukraine-Russia war and growing economic challenges.  

Many international observers are discussing if Pelosi’s visit meant an end to the US policy of strategic ambiguity. It is clear that the visit assured Taiwan of a proactive role the US will play in case Beijing tries to use force against the island nation. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” said Pelosi, clearly indicating that the US will not abandon Taiwan. This was the first official visit to Taiwan by a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in 25 years after Newt Gingrich, who visited in 1997.

After Russia invaded Ukraine and no country intervened, people in Taiwan felt unsure about the support of the US in case China invaded. In a survey conducted by Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, only 35 percent believed the US would come to Taiwan’s rescue. In such a backdrop, Pelosi’s visit brings much-needed assurance to the Taiwanese people and boosts their morale. 

Speaker Pelosi has been a vocal critic of China’s human rights abuses. In 1991, she had unrolled a banner at Tiananmen Square, which read “To those who died for democracy in China.” 

The abrupt retreat from Afghanistan tainted the US image as a reliable partner. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states, “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities” and “shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.” But it is not binding. 

While China has advanced military capabilities, it is aware of the casualties and collateral damages, especially if the US and probably the western block support Taiwan. “An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain PRC’s (Chinese) armed forces and invite international intervention,” reads the 2021 Pentagon report on China.

Beijing has seen that despite Ukraine fighting on its own, Russia has not been able to make any significant victory in the ongoing war. If Beijing were to invade Taiwan, it would have to prepare for an amphibious assault. According to experts, China would need to mobilize 1.2 million soldiers in Taiwan through ships to counter the 450,000 military personnel in Taiwan. This will exert heavy pressure on the Chinese navy and aggravate military attrition. 

On political and economic grounds, Beijing will find it very difficult to go to war. Chinese President Xi Jinping is facing massive criticism at home for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, mortgage boycotts, and loss of livelihood. People are protesting on the ground and venting their anger on social media as the distress grows. “People in China are clearly unhappy with the state of the economy. And many see the problems as driven by [the government’s] misguided policies,” said Steve Tsang, director of the London-based SOAS China Institute. On the economic front, China is not doing well since the manufacturing sector—the central pillar of China’s economy – and property sector are struggling, thus putting a strain on the country’s economy. 

“Everybody now knows that Xi Jinping is interested in being anointed for an unprecedented third term. And Xi’s main pretext is that he’s a strong leader who will accomplish the so called national rejuvenation of China, which actually includes the recovery of Taiwan,” said Vincent Wei-Cheng Wang, Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in response to a question from Global Strat View. Wang said that Xi is facing very challenging domestic environment, with China’s economic growth slowing down, and the the so-called zero COVID policy has caused a lot of resentment. China’s economic growth slowed sharply to just 0.4 percent in the second quarter of 2022 and is not expected to meet the full-year growth of 5.5 percent. “And, of course,  Xi Jinping is not without some internal challenges within the CCP. Xi becoming the leader for a third term at the 20th Congress is not yet a foregone conclusion. You know, there could still be some uncertainties,” noted Wang. This is why Xi is trying to project himself as a very strong leader who can stand up to the superpower of the United States, said Wang.

So it appears Xi may keep using military threats through naval exercises and airspace violations to soothe the hyper nationalists at home. He is using Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to escalate tensions but would stop short of an attack on Taiwan.  

“The Chinese also know very well that handling the relationship with the United States is absolutely crucial,” said Wang. “They want to appear tough and to be equal to the United States, but cannot afford a premature military showdown with the US military because, number one, the Chinese military is not ready. Number two, if there should be a military confrontation with the US military, there’s no certainty that China can win at this moment.”

Author profile
Pia Sherman

Pia Sherman is a freelance writer. Views expressed are solely of the author.

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