Incursions by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Taiwan’s airspace and waters have become so frequent this year that they tend to be considered commonplace.
That they should not be taken lightly was highlighted by the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs each making the unusual decision to hold a late-evening news conference on Thursday to criticize Beijing for holding naval-air exercises close to Taiwan this week.
The PLA’s actions should not be viewed as aggressive measures solely targeting — as the international media like to remind their readers — the “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), regardless of how much the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), bemoan how much more peaceful cross-strait relations were when they were in power.
Its activity is a cause for concern, as the Taiwan Strait and this nation’s airspace are key corridors for international shipping and air travel, and there is always the risk that a mishap, misstep or macho posturing could escalate matters.
The PLA’s drills and missile tests have less to do with Taiwan’s government and its wave of diplomatic successes than with the posturing and paranoia of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Just as much of the groundswell behind an uptick in US actions toward Beijing and declarations by several senior US officials against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have more to do with US domestic politics in an election year, much of China’s growing belligerence has to do with Xi running for re-election, albeit indirectly.
In March 2018, China’s National People’s Congress approved changes to the People’s Republic of China’s constitution that abolished term limits for the president, laying the groundwork for Xi to stay in office after the end of his second term in 2023.
Ever since then, he has been expected to seek a third term at the CCP’s 20th National Congress in 2022, the ultimate consolidation of power that he has been working toward since becoming CCP secretary-general in November 2012.
However, to do so, he must maintain his cultivated image of personal invincibility, national strength and a resurgent China, but the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, economic losses due to US-China trade tensions, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing international pushback on everything from his Belt and Road Initiative, the concentration camps in Xinjiang and the PLA’s South China Sea buildup are exposing cracks in his reign.
The willingness of Chinese academics, not to mention long-time CCP stalwarts such as Cai Xia (蔡霞), to openly criticize Xi show that his hopes of a smooth segue into a third term might not come to pass, regardless of a ramping up of nationalist jingoism in the Global Times and in Chinese posts on social media.
Far from achieving the “China Dream” that he first espoused in 2013, Xi finds himself facing a myriad of battles, including tensions with Australia, conflicts along the Chinese-Indian border — which have turned New Delhi from a “frenemy” into a harsh critic — demands for an impartial investigation into the origins of COVID-19, growing alliances between international lawmakers, and calls by more than 300 human rights groups and civic groups for the UN to create an international watchdog to address Chinese human rights violations.
Perhaps Cai said it best when she accused Xi of “killing a party and a country,” and turning China into an enemy of the world.
Taiwanese have a right to be worried, but they should take comfort in the strength of their democracy, and in the number of nations that have woken up to the threat that Xi’s reign poses to the region and the world.
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