For the last several weeks, tensions have roiled the Taiwan Straits. China has sent ever larger numbers of combat aircraft across the center line of the straits and into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, compelling their Taiwanese counterparts to respond.
The intricate ballet of dispatching multiple types of aircraft from different airbases, coordinating their flight profiles, fuel states and altitudes, isn’t some ad hoc activity. These are extensively planned operations.
One goal of these provocations is to intimidate the people of Taiwan and their government. Like Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations, Xi Jinping is warning Taiwan, “We can bury you!”
But Xi has another motive. The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Party Congress in 2022. At that time, Xi, who has already managed to amend the Chinese constitution to allow him to remain as president indefinitely, will need to get the CCP to also allow him to remain general-secretary of the party.
While few doubt that he will succeed in staying general-secretary, the reality of politics, especially in authoritarian systems, is that he will have to engage in horse trading and negotiations to do so. For all his autocratic tendencies, Xi doesn’t have the stature and legitimacy, in the modern party context, possessed by earlier revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Equally important, Xi is going to enter the 20th Party Congress burdened by a growing number of crises. Even as demand for electricity spirals, coal mines have been shut down due to floods and other natural disasters. The central government has also closed some mines to signal Chinese sensitivity to climate-change concerns. The result: power outages and brownouts in various parts of China. With winter approaching, many Chinese may find themselves shivering.
They may also experience meat rationing. Over the last several years, disease has riddled Chinese swine herds, sending pork prices soaring. While there has been reportedly some progress in combating the African swine-fever epidemic, it’s not clear how much meat prices have responded.
Further stressing the system is the collapse of Chinese real-estate developer Evergrande. The company had borrowed a whopping $300 billion, and it is unclear who might be repaid, as Evergrande misses deadlines on its bonds. The problem isn’t just who is owed money. Evergrande’s projects involve millions of apartments, bought by millions of Chinese, either to live in or as investments. The collapse of the company will leave many of these people high and dry — and resentful.
Evergrande’s debt, meanwhile, is owed to some 170 Chinese banks and 120 other financial firms. The ripple effects of its failure are likely to affect Chinese commercial lending; even the state-run banking system can ill afford losses in the hundreds of billions. Meanwhile, several other Chinese developers have also missed bond payments, raising doubts about the nation’s debt-addled real-estate market.
With all of these crises converging in a near perfect storm, Xi, who has concentrated more power in himself than any other Chinese leader since Deng if not Mao, finds himself in the eye of the hurricane.
Unlike Deng and his immediate successors, Xi has no one to share the blame with. And while he is almost certain to retain power as both Communist Party general-secretary and national president, he nonetheless needs to burnish his image if he is going to justify staying in power.
Thus, Taiwan will remain an issue.
Xi will likely stoke nationalist fervor, both by sounding the alarm about “splittists” on Taiwan and blaming foreign powers, especially the United States and Japan, for trying to tear China apart. He can invoke the need to defend territorial integrity to justify military saber-rattling, while also enhancing the military’s image as guardians of the nation as well as party. Mobilizing a “rally around the flag” public sentiment will help mute critics and reinforce his own standing.
This pattern, along with increased military confrontation with other neighbors such as India and Japan, is unlikely to abate before the 20th Party Congress late next year. All of which suggests that tensions in the Taiwan Straits, and indeed across the Asian littoral, will remain high for months to come.
Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.