That Taiwan is one of the key takeaways from the 20thParty Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is evidenced by the increasing rhetoric from Beijing. After Xi mentioned in his opening remarks to the Party Congress that China would peacefully reunify Taiwan but would not give up the option of using force, a senior official in China’s Taiwan Affairs Office stated (27 October 2022) that,“We’re closer than ever in history – and we’re more confident and capable than ever – of realising national rejuvenation.” Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office, said “We’re also closer than ever in history – as well as more confident and capable – to realising the complete reunification of the motherland.” Therefore, more than ever before, China is preparing for an “invasion” of Taiwan, by all possible means, in the near future.
In the aftermath of the Party Congress, even the US has accused China of trying to speed up the seizure of Taiwan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview to Bloomberg (23 October 2022) accused China of undermining the decades-long status quo that had kept both nations from going to war over Taiwan. He said,“What’s changed is this – a decision by the government in Beijing that that status quo was no longer acceptable, that they wanted to speed up the process by which they would pursue reunification.” In US government circles a determination has been made that China has taken “…. decisions about how they would do that, including exerting more pressure on Taiwan, coercion – making life difficult in a variety of ways on Taiwan in the hopes that that would speed reunification.”
Taiwan is therefore, clearly on Xi’s mind apart from other things. Shen Ming-Shih, Director of National Security Research at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a Taiwanese think tank, said the personnel changes appear to show that Xi is “losing patience” over Taiwan and is pushing a “tough Taiwan strategy that does not care about the deterioration of cross-strait relations.” Notably, 15 of the two dozen members of the Politburo have some links to the island, either through managing cross-straits business ties or as part of the Army that may one day be charged with bringing it back into the fold should it ever formally declare independence.
Cai Qi, one of the more surprising additions to the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee, visited Taiwan in 2012 when he was working under Xi as a local official in Zhejiang and called for China to engage and shift political allegiances in the independence-leaning south of the island. The other PBSC member with a Taiwan focus is He Weidong, leader of the Eastern Theatre Command. The 65-year-old general’s rise from not even being among the 370-odd members of the Central Committee to a seat on the Politburo, represents Xi’s more menacing side towards Taiwan. The decision to retain Zhang Youxia, 72, as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, is probably driven by Xi’s desire for combat experience at the top of the PLA.
The symbolic field trip Xi led, of his newly appointed top lieutenants to the historical revolutionary base of Yan’an, the cradle of Mao Zedong’s CPC takeover of China was undertaken to reaffirm loyalty to Xi and reinforced the need for sacrifice. The party, Xi told assembled leaders, must carry forward the Yan’an spirit, which he described as primarily one of “pioneering self-reliance and arduous struggle.” Alluding to the wartime ethos of struggle against the Japanese and subsequently, a Civil War with Sun Yat-sen, Xi said this spirit was necessary today in full measure to fight internal and external threats. Again, one gets the feeling that Xi is preparing China for an invasion of Taiwan.
Xi has huge ambitions to bring China back to the centre of the world stage. For that purpose, he has elevated national security to the highest level and called for the country to be “united in struggle” to overcome hardships. Interestingly, most of the 13 individuals promoted to join the 24-member Politburo not only have strong personal ties to Xi Jinping but have technical expertise or experience relevant to his policy priorities of advanced technologies, national security, and military power. Ma Xingrui, Zhang Guoqing, Li Ganjie, Liu Guo Zhong and Yuan Jiajun have all worked in the state-run military-industrial complex responsible for China rapidly gaining on the US in space flight and for the PLA’s expanding arsenal of conventional and nuclear missiles.
The promotions reflect Xi’s focus on scientific and technological expertise as a critical input for China to innovate itself out of Western chokeholds on core technologies. Li Ganjie, party secretary of Shandong Province, is also a nuclear safety expert. Ma Xingrui, party secretary of China’s western Xinjiang region, and Yuan Jiajun, party secretary of China’s eastern Zhejiang Province, are both experts in aerospace. Zhang Guoqing, party secretary of China’s north-eastern Liaoning Province, used to be the general manager of China Ordnance Industries Group Corp., Ltd.
Another significant elevation is that of Chen Wenqing, China’s spy master, to a Politburo member. This is the first time since the Ministry of State Security was created in the 1980s that a MPS head has been elevated to the Politburo. The promotion indicates that Xi Jinping will now use the system to control not only social forces, but also to play a role in the surveillance of the political elite and in foreign relations. Xi’s over-arching emphasis on national security reflects a dilemma of centralisation of power creating conditions for tightening of internal controls and pursuance of aggressive nationalism and aggression overseas. Both are dangerous trends and possibly reflect the insecurities that cloud Xi Jinping in his attempt to consolidate his power.
This is precisely why the US recognises China as the greatest security challenge for the United States despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Pentagon’s Annual Defence Strategy (24 October 2022) says conflict with China “is neither inevitable nor desirable”, it describes an effort to prevent Beijing’s “dominance of key regions”, a clear reference to its aggressive military build-up in the South China Sea and increased pressure on Taiwan.
The admission by US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin that China “is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order, and increasingly the power to do so”, should serve as a warning to the international community.