Republished piece by
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series
“The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try the world is beyond winning”
The Xi speech
July 8th, 2021. As the Royal Navy’s new Carrier Strike Group passed through the Suez Canal and ‘Global Britain’ once again headed East of Suez the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued a stark warning to President Xi of China: Japan will regard any attack on the Republic of China (Taiwan) as an “existential threat”. This Analysis addresses three questions. Is a Chinese military attack on Taiwan imminent? What are the forces driving Chinese nationalism? What are the constraints on China?
In his speech of July 1st to mark one hundred years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and speaking from atop the totemic Tiananmen Gate, President Xi Jingping was uncompromising. He said that the “blood and flesh” of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens would repel at attempt by the West to “bully, oppress or enslave us” and that “bloodied heads” would be the result of any interference in Chinese affairs. He also said that the re-unification of Taiwan with the Mainland was “…an historic task to which the party is firmly committed and it is a common wish of the Chinese people to resolve the Taiwan issue and achieve the total reunification of the motherland”. Ominously, he went further, “We [China] will have a world class army so that we can safeguard state sovereignty, security and development interests with greater abilities and more reliable methods”.
Is a Chinese military attack on Taiwan imminent?
No, but the threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to Taiwan cannot be discounted. In spite of the impressive progress in modernising China’s 2.7 million strong active service force a joint air-maritime-amphibious assault on such a scale would be an immense risk for Beijing. First, Taiwan’s forces, the Chinese National Armed Forces (CNAF), have 290,000 active service personnel which is reinforced by 1.65 million reserves. Second, the CNAF are reinforced by 30,000 US personnel, including a sizeable contingent of Special Operating Forces or SOF.
Third, the shortest crossing between mainland China and Taiwan is 110km, or almost 70 miles. Hitler baulked at the prospect of risking three army groups crossing the English Channel in 1940 against a British force that had just been effectively defeated at Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe could not guarantee control of the air space and the Kriegsmarine had no chance of controlling the sea space against the Royal Navy, even though the distance was only 34km or 21 miles. Moreover, China could only ever use a fraction of its force for an assault on Taiwan across what would be a heavily contested space. To reduce the risk for such an operation China has illegally militarised a series of reefs and islands around the perimeter of the South China Sea to effectively lock the US and its allies out in the event of a Chinese attack. This is the reason quite a few Western powers regularly conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to deny Beijing any de facto, let alone de jure control over a vital strategic sea space.
Fourth, the Chinese have never before conducted such operations on anything like the scale required. Yes, they have conducted some impressive show-piece maritime amphibious exercises. However, China lacks both blue and brown water experience and there is a world of difference between exercises and operations. For China to undertake a D-Day plus operation without any prior experience would be an enormous military gamble in which defeat would have the most profound of political and strategic consequences. All military operations go wrong but large air-maritime-amphibious operations normally take place in a ‘sea of wrong’ because there are so many moving parts. In the midst of such chaos it is usually experienced operational commanders who make the difference.
Therefore, in spite of the bombast of Xi’s speech Beijing would much prefer to gradually influence Taiwan from within and create the conditions for an eventual, and relatively peaceful re-integration of Taiwan with the mainland. Much of the effort will involve subversion of the political class, reinforced by implacable opposition to any attempts by Taipei to achieve full independence, and the use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to exert strategic coercion.
What are the forces driving Chinese nationalism?
There is a tendency, particularly among Europeans, to consider the strategic options open to the likes of Putin and Xi through their own geopolitical myopia. There are two forces that reinforce the need for prudence and which could lead to a military confrontation between China and the US far sooner than many anticipate: Han Chinese nationalism and the paranoia of the CCP. It is the heady mix of Han Chinese nationalism and CCP paranoia, allied to the growing influence of the armed forces and their state enterprises that could in certain circumstances create the ‘perfect’ conditions for military adventurism, particularly if the Xi faced losing power at home.
Nationalism is a powerful driver of policy. The Han Chinese represent some 91% of China’s population. As the ideological fervour of the Mao years receded, and particularly since Xi took power in 2012, the main source of Beijing’s power has become suppressed Han Chinese nationalism. The result is what might be described as a ‘chip on the shoulder, this is our moment’ attitude to foreigners, particularly Westerners (Gweilo), the Japanese and the wider world. This is hardly surprising. From the so-called Unequal Treaties with the British in the wake of the Opium Wars of the 1840s to the Rape of Nanking in the 1930s, and the brutal Japanese occupation between 1941 and 1945, the Middle Kingdom with its ancient civilisation has been treated as little more than a chattel to be shared around between conquerors.
In spite of the appearance of total power of the CCP, which Xi’s speech tried to reinforce, the ‘Party’ remains eternally paranoid about the threat from enemies both within and without China. It is such paranoia why Beijing broke the ‘one country, two systems’ model and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration in which Beijing agreed to permit Hong Kong to maintain its distinct political institutions for fifty years following Britain’s 1997 withdrawal. What makes the CCP particularly worried is a fear that Hong Kong’s protesters might trigger a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. These were not simply a consequence of the pro-democracy movement. They were also caused by a combination of inflation, economic reform, political corruption and nepotism, all of which are apparent in China today. In the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the CCP established a form of post-Tiananmen contract as part of the social economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era. Put simply, the CCP created the conditions for growing prosperity so long as the newly-rich and the burgeoning middle class did not threaten the absolute control of the Party. The sine qua non of the policy became the need to maintain economic growth and rural development at almost any cost for fear that if China stalled so would the CCP.
What are the constraints on China?
The first constraint is President Xi’s own world-view. Xi is a ‘Princeling of the Party’, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and Paramount Leader. He also had a tough upbringing. In an interview he gave in 2000 he said, “People who have little contact with power, who are far from it, always see these things as mysterious and novel. But what I see is not just the superficial things: the power, the flowers, the glory, the applause. I see the bull-pens and how people can blow hot and cold. I understand politics on a deeper level.”
His reference to ‘bull-pens’ reflects his experience as a young man during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s when his father, a high ranking official, was denounced as a counter-revolutionary and thrown into prison. At the age of fifteen, after a life of relative ease Xi was also sent to work in the countryside where he learnt how to survive and also began to learn how to ‘play’ the often brutal internal politics of the CCP. Xi is also a Chinese patriot schooled in the immense history of the Middle Kingdom with all the associated frustrations that many Chinese feel about the lack of respect afforded China by the West and others over the centuries. He means what he says that China will repel any attempt to “bully, oppress or enslave us” and his need for absolute control over the Party, the country and much of the world around him makes Xi’s China a potentially dangerous power that can trust nothing or no-one. That lack of trust also extends to Putin’s Russia, a relationship which Xi is perfectly happy to instrumentalise if its helps his China secure its interests.
However, perhaps the greatest constraint on China is Xi himself and his demand for absolute conformity. China boomed when Deng Xiaoping managed for a time to strike a delicate balance between the centralised control of Beijing and the Party, on one side, and the entrepreneurial power of Hong Kong and Shanghai, on the other. The latter drove the export led boom but also led to a very Chinese form of pluralism which played its part in the 1989 revolt. The momentum from that boom is still apparent in China’s many amazing achievements over the past thirty years. However, Chinese entrepreneurship is slowly being strangled by the imposition of Xi’s renewed statist culture that over time could well erode China’s economic dynamism. In the wake of the pandemic the Asian democracies and the West, the main source of China’s economic power surge, are also increasingly wary of Xi’s Beijing. Rather than move to ease such concerns Xi has taken the opposite course of action and become increasingly belligerent and aggressive. This suggests that Xi is incapable of striking that balance between some personal liberty and economic activity that unleashed China’s long suppressed potential.
Does China pose a threat?
All of the above leads to a final question: does China pose a threat to the region and the world? It could. Xi’s power-base is the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and he ensures that they are at the core of his very concept of China the Mighty. The PLA is thus being equipped and modernised at a quite remarkable pace shifting the global balance of military power with huge implications for the Americans and NATO that most Europeans seem quite incapable of grasping. Much of the PLA’s leadership like Xi also have a world-view that encapsulates much that is modern China: a potent mix of Han Chinese nationalism, Party orthodoxy, and a world-view born of a sense of centuries of disrespect, injury and humiliation at the hands of powerful foreigners. It is also a perfect recipe for political miscalculation, particularly if the domestic situation of the CCP worsens.
This essentially zero sum world view in which Xi and the Party can only survive if they control all opponents and enemies both foreign and domestic driving Xi’s ambition for China to become the dominant world power by 2049, a century after the founding of Communist China. Indeed, Xi’s speech marking the centenary of the CCP was a road marker on the route to such power. Such an uber-competitive world view also means that for Xi China the true test of power will be the eclipse of the US and the kow-towing of Europe and by whatever means necessary. It is for that reason that Western powers are daily under industrial level of cyber-attack and espionage and why Beijing routinely flouts rules over intellectual property theft. All that matters is the search for critical comparative advantage at a time and place of Beijing’s choosing.
Is it possible to deal with China? Yes, if Beijing is accorded the respect its power and status deserve. However, each and every breach of a treaty and every abuse of enormous power must be responded to. China also invented what the West today calls statecraft and tradecraft and unlike such regimes in the past, and for all the forces acting on Xi, there is also a sophistication which creates the possibility for mutual interest to be engineered, but if one presumes war with China the Chinese will one day oblige. Before that happens all and every opportunity must be explored for relatively peaceful coexistence, even if intense strategic competition between China and the Global Democracies is inevitable.
In other words, when dealing with a China that is steadily moving from authoritarian to totalitarian the West and its leaders must be respectful and pragmatic, but also clear-eyed and look well beyond Chinese money. Belt and chains? And, always carry a very big stick!