While Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term at the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), set to begin on Oct. 16, his objective likely is to remain in power beyond the next five years and establish a long-lasting legacy.
Prior to 2012, the two main factions that dominated the CCP were the Tuanpai, often characterized as more populist and led by Premier Li Keqiang and former President Hu Jintao, and the Shanghai Clique, seen as more elitist and led by former President Jiang Zemin. As a princeling with a populist rhetoric, Xi appeared to be a suitable compromise between both factions, but the past 10 years have led to the emergence of a new faction. His anti-corruption campaign allowed him to purge political rivals and replace them with staunch loyalists and his chauvinism and belligerent foreign policy has helped strengthen his popularity.
However, China’s economic slowdown, which has been exacerbated by Xi’s draconian zero-COVID policy, has fueled discontent and highlighted internal divisions within the CCP. In an open letter, three party elders have warned against the return of the personality cult and denounced the party committees as having too much power. While Xi has weakened both factions, he also has inadvertently strengthened their alliance. Jiang’s faction is backing Li to become the next General Secretary of the party, and it’s likely that one of his protégés will replace him as premier. Whether this materializes remains to be seen, but it does indicate an internal power struggle that will intensify under Xi’s third term.
Amidst these political challenges, we should expect Beijing to become more aggressive regarding Taiwan and its attitude toward the West. Focusing on achieving reunification with Taiwan would allow Xi to exploit nationalism and frame it as a fight against U.S. interference in China’s domestic affairs. It would distract the population from economic hardship and it would be an opportunity to brand any political figure opposing him as treasonous or weak. China’s latest saber-rattling over Taiwan is not just an overreaction to the visits of U.S. delegations to the island but the start of Beijing’s strategy of coercion, which is unlikely to end anytime soon.
China is unlikely to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion of the island — although it should not be ruled out. Invading the island would be difficult and lead to high casualties, which would provoke a stronger response from the international community. Beijing wishes instead to negotiate an agreement with Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” framework (similar to Hong Kong and Macau).
Given Taiwan’s fierce opposition to reunification, which has become more apparent under President Tsai Ing-wen, China has resorted to more coercive tactics such as increased cyber attacks, sanctions, military exercises and routine violations of Taiwan’s airspace. The next step would be to enforce a quarantine of the island to undermine their sovereignty and slowly strangle their economy until an agreement is reached.
Under a quarantine, certain shipments of goods still could be allowed to transit, but this could evolve into a complete blockade, which would have severe implications on the world economy. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors. They account for over 50 percent of the market and produce 90 percent of the most advanced chips. Taiwan’s pivotal role in global supply chains is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, it diminishes the likelihood of a full-scale invasion, because China also depends on Taiwan’s semiconductors; on the other hand, it will lead many countries and powerful international companies to pressure Taiwan into negotiating with China.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened the international order and confirmed China’s suspicion that no country is likely to intervene militarily in Taiwan’s defense, including the United States.
China is a nuclear power, whereas Taiwan isn’t considered as an independent country by most of the international community. Furthermore, we can no longer rely on the threat of sanctions to deter China. Our economic war with Russia has resulted in rising energy and food prices, with many Western countries on the brink of recession. The world economy is far more dependent on China than on Russia, and China also owns over $980 billion in U.S. debt. Most countries would refuse to impose harsh sanctions, and likely would limit themselves to condemning China’s actions and perhaps sanctioning Chinese officials.
To protect Taiwan’s sovereignty, it is imperative to not fall into Xi’s trap. Symbolic gestures, such as delegations visiting the island, are needless provocations that could endanger Taiwan and anger neighboring countries for being sidelined. The U.S. should not be seen as acting alone on this issue, which is why it is necessary to work with neighboring countries on de-escalating tensions.