Mon, Jul 16, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young on Taiwan: What Xi wants — but can’t have

Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has won a second term as party secretary, and has effectively declared himself leader for life in the People’s Republic of China, it is worth trying to assess what his goals are as undisputed strongman of the world’s most populous nation. While I intend to focus primarily on foreign policy goals in this piece, I will also attempt to provide a sketch of the kind of China Mr. Xi wants to leave as his legacy back home. The timeline I have in mind is the next 10 to 15 years, though depending on his health, Mr. Xi could survive into the 2040s.

I doubt I would get many objections by stating that Mr. Xi wants to see China rise to become the pre-eminent power in all of East Asia during his reign in power. This explains his overt hostility to Japan, the last Asian power to aspire to that position. This despite the fact that post-World War II Japan has been a paragon of virtue in its foreign policy, compared to the disastrous years of militarism that ended with its utter defeat in 1945. With a limited military and a clear focus on economic goals, Japan has sought to make amends for its past, and has been credited by most of its neighbors for doing a decent job.

Mr. Xi is in no rush to see a reunited Korean Peninsula, unless it is under his own political sway. He fears the nightmare of an American-dominated Korean Peninsula with conventional and nuclear weapons on his Manchurian border, even though that has never been Washington’s goal, at least since the armistice of 1953 ending fighting there.

Xi of course wants Taiwan to return into the bosom of the motherland, unlikely as that may be under current circumstances. Those include a) the deep and abiding skepticism of the democratic people of Taiwan over any sort of reunification with their authoritarian neighbor; b) the gap in social and economic standing within the two societies; and c) the strong ties across the Pacific to the US that the island has fostered over the past 70 years.

The only way Taiwan would return to Beijing hegemony now would be through a military conflict that would at a minimum badly damage or destroy the place, and would in all likelihood fail, given America’s longstanding commitment to defend the island against PRC aggression. The passage of American warships through the Taiwan Strait earlier this month highlights the US stance on attempts to threaten or intimidate our Taiwan friends. This is where mainland rhetoric meets East Asian reality.

Further south, Mr. Xi has been lavishing the ASEAN states with his economic largess, primarily in vibrant trade relations. More recently there has been talk of major infrastructure projects and bigger investment. Xi’s most overt success to date has been the Philippines, where the quixotic President Rodrigo Duterte has apparently fallen under Xi’s spell, despite the longstanding democratic traditions there and the traditionally close ties to Washington.

Hanoi is the polar opposite of Manila. There is over 2,000 years of historic animosity between Vietnam and China, a reality that thoroughly trumps similar political systems. America failed to understand this 50 years ago. But Washington’s relations with Vietnam today are cordial, with a shared anxiety over China’s rise and its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. The rest of ASEAN is attempting to play both sides, welcoming China’s trade and investment while anxious for the counterbalancing military power of the United States to offset Beijing’s newly aggressive power projection into their region.

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