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New Chinese leadership won't change Taiwan policy

Despite Biden administration claims, Beijing is a long way off from using military force as a means for reunification.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese President Xi Jinping is speeding up his plans to take Taiwan. U.S. Navy head Admiral Michael Gilday agrees, arguing China could invade as soon as 2023. President Joe Biden will raise the Taiwan issue when he meets Xi for the first time during his presidency at the G20 summit in Indonesia. Biden will likely seek to determine Xi’s intentions toward the island over the next few years. But when looking at the new foreign policy and military makeup of the Chinese Communist Party’s new leadership team, talk of an accelerated takeover of Taiwan is more bluster than reality. In fact, Xi’s new team reflects Taiwan policy continuity.

First, Xi’s thoughts on Taiwan are critical to understanding China’s Taiwan policy. Xi made no significant policy changes during his grand speech at the beginning of the Party Congress. Instead, he reiterated Beijing’s current Taiwan policy in which China ultimately seeks peaceful reunification, but does not renounce the use of force.

This is consistent with China’s Anti-Secession Law and the recently released Taiwan policy white paper. While peaceful reunification under the “one country, two systems” framework is highly unlikely, peaceful reunification is still possible — even if it is coerced.

Second, the CCP’s constitutional amendment “opposing and containing Taiwan independence” is consistent with Beijing’s policy. When China talks containing Taiwan independence, it means thwarting the influence of any political party or group on Taiwan and those that actively or officially support Taiwan independence. This includes Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party under Tsai Ing-wen.

Since Tsai and the DPP came to power in 2016, Beijing has refused talks with her administration and further isolated Taiwan on the international stage. Relations with the Kuomintang — Taiwan’s traditional ruling party and supporter of Chinese reunification — and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je — a likely presidential candidate in the 2024 elections who does not appear to support Taiwan independence — have remained positive. If the DPP holds onto Taiwan’s presidency in 2024, China’s isolation campaign against the island will continue. But if Tsai’s DPP successor loses, Beijing may make overtures to the island to demonstrate the benefits of non-DPP/secessionist rule.

Third, Wang Huning’s promotion to the fourth ranking CCP member and likely chairmanship of China’s de facto upper house won’t significantly change China’s Taiwan policy. Should he follow his predecessor Wang Yang, he will be the lead on Taiwan policy after Xi.

Wang Huning is largely responsible for Xi’s “China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” — which includes reunification with Taiwan. He may intensify Chinese influence operations on Taiwan and further shape ideological justification for reunification, but he is unlikely to press for Xi to approve an invasion. Wang may even be creative and develop ideological reasons for holding out on reunification — up to a certain point.

Waiting until China is ready for reunification would better ensure the CCP’s survival. Wang believes a strong CCP and a strong state are necessary to protect China’s national security, territorial integrity, and development interests. Wang would likely advise Xi to wait to force reunification after China has positioned itself to minimize military and economic risks and maximized military success.

Fourth, Xi’s appointments to the broader CCP hierarchy look more like policy continuity than invasion preparation. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will replace Yang Jiechi as the Party’s top foreign policy hand and Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang will likely replace Wang Yi as foreign minister. Both are known quantities to the United States and the West and are expected to continue China’s more vocal and assertive foreign policy, but unlikely to develop policies pressing for forced reunification over the next five years. Rather, the two foreign policy leaders will likely work with non-Western countries to build support and international legitimacy, or at least acquiescence, for reunification with Taiwan — peaceful or coerced.

Xi keeping Zhang Youxia as one of China’s top generals and adding Generals He Weidong, Li Shangfu, and Liu Zhenli to the highest military leadership positions show Xi is focused on military modernization. With Li’s appointment, Xi is also demonstrating his commitment to advancing China’s military technology.

Full modernization isn’t expected until 2027 — the end of Xi’s third term. The new military leadership is designed to help it get there. Therefore, Xi is unlikely to unleash China’s armed forces on Taiwan at least before then, but certainly not before more peaceful options are pursued. However, more intense military drills and incursions in Taiwanese airspace and waters should be expected. These are essential for China to craft an effective reunification strategy.

General Secretary Xi’s new leadership team signals Taiwan policy continuity — not a radical change toward invasion preparation. Xi himself doesn’t seem to support imminent, forced reunification. Nor do his advisers appear intent on pushing it. Instead, if Beijing must force reunification, it will wait until China is ready to win.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 18, 2022. The White House/Handout via REUTERS.
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