Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has created a dilemma that could soon cause him to be hoisted with his own petard, bringing his leadership of China to an end.
His threatening rhetoric over the unification of Taiwan with China, in which he has said, “we are willing to draw blood if necessary,” has placed Xi in a corner.
Xi is portrayed as a strong world leader, yet he has created a scenario for himself that most likely would have an unfavorable outcome. With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled to convene this month, Xi cannot afford to have any missteps in his leadership or show weakness on any front, domestically or with foreign policy.
If he chooses unification at any cost as he has stated, the Chinese economy would surely be significantly damaged from retaliation by Western democracies, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has learned with his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
If Xi’s attempt at unification is not successful, he would have illustrated weakness in foreign policy on the world stage.
The Chinese economy is facing many internal challenges. There are daily anti-government demonstrations, negative effects due to COVID-19 lockdowns, cancellations of more than 50 percent of airline flights, rising inflation, a serious real-estate bubble, more than US$188 billion in Belt and Road Initiative foreign loans facing default and a decreased GDP more severe than anticipated.
Any more tension on China’s domestic front would create doubt in regard to his handling of domestic issues. If domestic issues worsen, especially economic ones, political elites could strongly question his ability to lead, and at the CCP congress they could work to prevent Xi from gaining an unprecedented third term as president and party leader.
Xi’s foreign policy dilemma also has extreme risks for himself, China and world stability. If he uses force to unify Taiwan with China, he would most definitely invoke US action, honoring the pledge stated very clearly in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, with added clarification by former US president Ronald Reagan in his personal memorandum to the National Security Council directive of 1986.
That pledge made by the US is to aid Taiwan by any means necessary for self-defense. The TRA has had strong bipartisan support in every congress since it was introduced and still does.
In addition, other Western democracies would respond in a similar fashion, thus severely damaging China’s economy further.
If Xi fails to unify Taiwan with China after his combative rhetoric, he could appear weak on foreign policy prior to the CCP congress.
During a phone call with US President Joe Biden, Xi stated: “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”
His Taiwan stance has been viewed as a red line which has been publicly challenged by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Western leaders who ignored his warnings with their recent visits to Taiwan.
These events give another reason for the party elite to question Xi’s abilities on domestic and foreign policies, and they could act to prevent a third term.
Xi’s fate is precarious. This should be strong motivation for both Xi and the CCP to change course on the threat of unification with Taiwan.
Xi and the CCP should at a minimum accept and work to preserve the “status quo” established more than 40 years ago and allow Taiwan to remain independent.
A more relaxed tone by Xi and the CCP would be welcomed in the region and the rest of the world, and help ease tensions that have been escalated by Xi’s actions. If not, he would have to face the consequences, and possibly risk losing power.
Ted Yoho was a US representative for Florida’s third congressional district and chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs for the Asia-Pacific.
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