As I write this in mid-June, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) seems to be at it again, pressuring and bullying Taiwan both rhetorically and militarily. Chinese war planes have been circling Taiwan in an overtly menacing manner, the rhetoric in state-run media has been shrill and threatening, and in general the one party dictatorship on the mainland has been showing its fear and loathing of the democratic republic 90 miles east of the “People’s” Republic. This at a time when the economy on the mainland continues to be in a slump connected to the global economic decline, though there is little concrete evidence that the Xi regime itself is in any danger.
President Tsai (蔡英文) has reacted with her usual calm, trying not to further exacerbate cross-strait tensions while continuing to manage the island’s economic recovery from the recent global downturn. With three more years left in her second term of office, there is little political pressure on the island’s leader domestically. Unlike the dictatorial Xi, Madame Tsai will step down when her term limits have been reached, and a new, democratically elected leader, will no doubt replace her in 2024.
If anything, Xi’s thuggish actions and rhetoric toward the island republic are only further bolstering the standing of the Tsai Administration, even as Covid cases remain a cause for concern there. Though it is early in the game, I can easily foresee another DPP candidate emerging successfully as Madame Tsai’s replacement in the next presidential balloting in 2024. The once mighty KMT seems fractured, with no obvious standard bearer beyond Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to lead the party forward in the coming years. Eric Chu (朱立倫) had impressed me when I was still working in Taiwan, but it is difficult to ascertain where his political fortunes lie within his party these days. Smaller parties like the People First Party could play an outsized role in future elections if the two major parties cannot muster a dominant majority in legislative and presidential balloting.
On the surface, Xi would appear to be in a comfortable position. He has eliminated term limits, and seems to either want to rule indefinitely in the style of his role model, Mao Tse-tung (毛澤東), or perhaps step back to a behind-the-curtains role if he in time decides to allow one of his minions to assume the titular head of party and government down the road. None of this is in keeping with the generally pro-democracy trend in East Asia that has swept authoritarian regimes aside in places as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.
Most experts continue to doubt that China has the capability to successfully mount a maritime assault on the island across ninety miles of open water, though it could rain missiles on the island’s military facilities, or even population centers, if it so desired. That reckless option would most likely bring the United States into the fray, and at a minimum would further ostracize Beijing from the increasingly democratic circle of open societies that surrounds China itself.
Nothing I have written here suggests I am completely sanguine about cross-strait relations. Emperor Xi continues to insist on a reunification, forced if necessary, as his abiding legacy, risky as that may seem to the rest of the world. The Biden Administration has reiterated America’s longstanding position that — barring a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution to cross-strait differences — the US stands ready to assist Taiwan in any and all means necessary to allow it to rebuff any military threat to the island’s de facto independent existence.
That stance has been endorsed by all leading politicians in Washington, one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye. A very robust majority in the Congress has shown in words and actions that it remains committed to Taiwan’s sovereignty and is prepared to act both rhetorically and in practical terms to defend Taiwan’s place in the world.
I will end here with a bit of speculation about where all this is heading. It seems to me entirely possible that Xi’s dangerous overreach could result in his being sidelined by his own cohorts, who cannot be pleased by his desire to reign indefinitely and thus deny any of them the opportunity to aspire to the top position in Beijing. His declared intention to reign indefinitely cannot sit well with those who put him into power nearly a decade ago, assuming in time they too could move up at some point. The relative slowing of the Chinese economy — though PRC statistics are to be swallowed with a grain of salt — cannot be helping Emperor Xi’s ambitions.
The worst-case scenario would be a sudden aggressive move by Mr. Xi to threaten or attack Taiwan, perhaps starting with the vulnerable offshore islands, as well as a missile attack on the island proper. Mr. Xi must reckon on a swift and forceful response from the US, given our longstanding commitments to the island. Japan, Vietnam, ASEAN and other neighbors would also be likely to respond sharply to any sudden moves by Beijing.
The prudent step for Beijing now would be to lower tensions, and seek some common ground with its island neighbor. After all, their economies are increasingly entwined, and no one would benefit from heightened tensions or worse in the volatile cross-strait region. Let’s hope that wisdom prevails and things quiet down soon. For the alternative is frightening for all involved parties.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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