The Three Phases as an Indication of Shifting Priorities
In the seventy-one year history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Chinese society is said to have gone through three distinct phases that characterize the country’s development. Chairman Mao Zedong made it known, rather emphatically, that after the Communist Party of China (CPC) took power in 1949 the Chinese people had ‘stood up’. This era is largely characterized by the Party as washing away the old China, partitioned by various actors, both internal and external, and ravaged by war and exploitation, to make way for a new egalitarian social and economic order under the unified leadership of the CPC. Post-Mao, the rehabilitated paramount leader Deng Xiaoping presided over China’s transition into ‘getting rich’, a period defined by gradual yet wide-ranging economic reforms which gathered momentum over successive generations of leadership, giving fuller play to the country’s productive forces. The CPC regularly makes known the tremendous strides made by the Chinese people under its leadership, and yet the leadership also stresses China’s unfinished work. Under Xi Jinping, who simultaneously serves as head of the Party, state and Central Military Commission (CMC), China has placed emphasis on ‘growing strong’. Xi’s CPC has laid out clear domestic priorities for ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, which are packaged as part of the ‘Chinese Dream’ (Zhōngguó Mèng). Underlying the goal of becoming a ‘rich and strong socialist country’ by the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049 is a series of prerequisites or core issues on which Xi Jinping stands unflinchingly firm. One such objective is the reunification of China – absorbing Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), into the PRC under the sole leadership of the CPC.
While the question of how and when to bring Taiwan under the control of the mainland has long been a pressing unknown for CPC leadership and a source of speculation for outside observers, the advent of the ‘Chinese Dream’ has heaped on the political pressure through a self-imposed deadline. In addition, contemporary China has departed markedly from its internal focus, as Senior State Councilor and Politburo member Yang Jiechi has alluded to the discarding of the previous principles of ‘lying low’ and ‘hiding one’s true capabilities’ in favor of creating a form of “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” This shift in strategic focus carries profound, immediate consequences for Taiwan from the perspective of the CPC; it entails existential risks for Taiwan’s democratic political system. Here I examine the increasing political competition instigated by the change in strategic thinking on the part of Xi’s CPC and manifested in a military confrontation by a more capable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2020. The incremental casting aside of previously non-binding but mutually agreed rules and norms dictate a new status quo in cross-strait relations, with the CPC under Xi Jinping is resolved to bring the Taiwan issue to its ‘correct’ conclusion.
‘Constructive Ambiguity’ and Strategic Spacing
China today is absolutely uncompromising on its core interests, and not just rhetorically. Perhaps most important are those relating to the legitimacy of the Communist Party, such as the state’s ability to project authority effectively so as to maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the Taiwan issue, however, this was not always the case, as the PRC has claimed sovereignty over the island – a ‘province’ of the mainland’ – for decades, but placed the issue on the backburner in favor of specific guarantees which still nominally underpin the current status quo. China’s biding of time regarding Taiwan and other then-peripheral issues served as a means to an end during the country’s ‘second phase’ of development, and at a time when the PLA lacked the means to exert sustained military pressure on the island. From freeing up productive forces in agriculture and prioritizing the building of an export-led growth model, to forging stronger ties with energy exporters to secure inputs and raw materials and negotiating accession to the World Trade Organization, Party leadership long held fast to avoiding the agitation of actors inclined to guarantee Taiwan’s functional independence and some measure of political autonomy. This relatively non-confrontational approach to Taiwan – save for the periodical flareups of the Taiwan Strait Crises – prevailed at a time when the PRC lacked structural power advantages in the same global economy it was mounting a concerted campaign to integrate with.
The relationship between China and the United States over Taiwan has touched on both thinly-veiled hostility and begrudging cooperation since the end of the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the PRC. Here it is important to understand the backdrop of the current status quo and Beijing’s ostensible moves against it. Both the United States and the PRC reached a series of diplomatic and political agreements which culminated in the Carter Administration’s 1978 declaration that the U.S. would formally recognize the People’s Republic as the legitimate government of One China. Formalized on January 1, 1979, Carter’s China team ensured continuity of engagement begun under Richard Nixon’s administration and concurrently went about setting new parameters for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. While the U.S. abrogated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1980, the U.S. Congress in 1979 passed the Taiwan Relations Act, laying out provisions aimed at shielding the island from the worst excesses of mainland encroachment through maintaining cultural and economic ties, and most importantly supplying weapons of a ‘defensive nature’ to the island. Since the U.S. government switched its diplomatic recognition to the PRC more than three decades ago, it has remained essential, although not explicit, the guarantor of Taiwan’s security. In fact, both the U.S. and China from the beginning of their diplomatic thaw explicitly agreed to disagree on Taiwan’s status, with the US refusing to formally recognize PRC sovereignty over Taiwan but endorsing the principle that Taiwan is a part of ‘One China’ in the Shanghai Communiqué. This ‘constructive ambiguity’, a negotiating tactic employed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, helped lay the foundation for current Sino-American bilateral relations. This ambiguity cast a long shadow over China’s long-sought goal to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, providing strategic space for CPC leadership to strengthen and modernize PLA forces through reform. Deterring unfavorable actions by Taiwan’s political leadership while preparing for any contingencies in the strait ts was and remains a motivation of military reforms.
The pursuit of reunification is a central focus of Xi Jinping’s CPC. The Party refuses to formally renounce the use of force to achieve reunification, and Xi has said that reunification is “…the great trend of history.” Substantial efforts in the current era are being made to refine the offensive capabilities of the PLA. The leadership has long prioritized the upgrading of the military, and PLA modernization has gathered momentum in the Xi Jinping era. Reforms have centered on shifting away from a force centered on manpower toward building a leaner, more competent, and professional fighting force. The increasing share of resources and procurement of equipment allocated to other branches, such as the PLA Navy (PLAN), Air Force (PLAAF), and Rocket Force (PLARF) at the expense of the army is an important development. Modernization plans have focused regional power projection and strike capability, particularly on a range of areas relevant to a Taiwan contingency: from increasing the number and sophistication of short and medium-range mobile ballistic missiles to expanding special forces brigades specializing in amphibious warfare, increasing training and weapons procurements for air and naval elements as well as enhancing interoperability between the branches of the PLA. Changes to administration and organization give fuller play to operational reforms. The orientation of new procurements toward near term contingencies reflects a clear prioritizing of the Taiwan issue when paired with recent political developments. Reforms rolled out in 2015 restructured various military regions with different classifications into five Theater Commands. The Eastern Theater Command (ETC), headquartered in Nanjing, bears primary responsibility for Taiwan. As one of the most active commands in the PLA in terms of both training and as the tip of the sphere in more frequent confrontations with Taiwan, the ETC serves as a proving ground for integrating PLA force and command structure. ETC operations are also important for proving the army’s ability to operate within the theater system and on an equal basis with the Air Force, Navy, and Rocket Force, which were all subordinate branches pre-reform.
The maturing of the armed forces resulting from reforms instituted by Xi Jinping’s CMC may also give fuller play to the technological advancements made by the PLA pre-Xi. Amid increased political competition with Taiwan, Beijing has made good use of the strategic space afforded to it by the ‘constructive ambiguity’ framework. The decades-long effort to raise the general fighting capacity of the PLA and enhance hard power projection with an eye to Taiwan has provided Xi, who has consolidated power both in the CPC and CMC, with an expanded toolkit unavailable to previous leadership groups in dealing with Taiwan.
Warnings & Preparations: A New Status Quo in Cross-Straits Relations
Increased military assertiveness by the mainland toward Taiwan follows a rapid deterioration in the political relationship. In part, hardening attitudes in Taiwan toward mainland political encroachment and a push for closer economic integration swept Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into the presidency in 2016 and saw her easily re-elected in January 2020. President Tsai has been clear in her government’s rejection of the CPC’s proposed ‘One country, two systems’ framework, which provides a substantial degree of autonomy in certain respects and is applied to the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau. She has gone to great lengths to portray Taiwan as a functionally independent country while stopping well short of a de jure independence declaration. The challenge posed to the CPC lies in Taiwan’s newfound political assertiveness in the midst of Xi’s striving for ‘national rejuvenation.’ This aim, to be reached by the PRC centennial and embodied by the Chinese Dream, stipulates reunification as a prerequisite. Xi Jinping has tapped into PLA capabilities to demonstrate the significant imbalance of military power between the mainland and Taiwan, prepare for future contingencies through frequent exercises focused on familiarization and adaptability, as well as to convey a powerful message of resolve and ‘inevitability’ on the Taiwan issue.
On the military front, the PLA is gradually pushing the envelope in ways that undermine the old status quo in cross-strait relations, in which Beijing traditionally resorted to a carrot-and-stick approach: employing political and psychological tactics, as well as with targeted computer-network attacks (CNA) to pressure the island, while also pursuing economic integration aimed at enticing Taiwanese through demonstrating the tangible benefits of closer relations between the nations. These ‘tools’, some of which predate the Xi leadership, were employed in service of China’s asymmetric deterrence strategy. Asymmetric deterrence has served its purpose: largely preserving the status quo while providing the strategic space for the modernization and reform of the PLA; this now provides Beijing with credible, be they costly, use of force options. The maturing of the PLA’s capabilities has to an extent naturally changed the status quo in the strait. The ETC has overseen a higher tempo of joint exercises between branches to enhance interoperability in the Taiwan Strait. PLAAF aircraft and PLAN vessels have conducted training exercises, surveillance, and intelligence gathering operations increasingly close to Taiwan. PLA Rocket Force assets include an array of ballistic missiles with ranges suitable for striking targets in Taiwan as well as U.S. bases in the region likely to play an instrumental role in coming to Taiwan’s defense. In an unmistakable sign of Beijing’s undermining the status quo in cross-strait relations, in 2020 PLAAF aircraft have repeatedly crossed over to Taiwan’s side of the median line. The significance of such action lies in both the nature and duration of the violation: The crossing of the median line is one of the most provocative acts of aggression toward Taiwan in the Xi Jinping era. Previous PLAAF operations in the vicinity of Taiwan consisted of circumnavigational flights and crossing into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The median line was first conceived of in 1955 by then-General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and has served as an effective, though informal, military demarcation between the mainland and Taiwan which both sides have historically observed. This makes a 2019 median line violation by two PLAAF Shenyang J-11 fighters on 31 March 2019 important for measuring tensions in the strait. The J-11 fighters flew 43 nautical miles into Taiwan’s side of the median line, prompting a scramble by Taiwanese fighters to intercept them. The duration and extent of the violation send a clear message of intent: that unlike previous violations of the median line due to pilot error or bad weather, the 31 March incident was not an accident. However, this action is thought to have been part of Beijing’s strong and timely reaction to Taiwan’s purchase of 66 F-16V multirole fighters from the United States with the approval of the Trump Administration. In contrast, 2020 median line crossings are indicative of a changing security environment, and recent coverage of the issues by China’s internal (state-owned) media organs indicate this reality is part of a new normal. The Global Times, a state-owned media outlet that outside observers contend pushes the Party’s nationalistic perspective, published in November an article detailing a record-setting number of ‘routine’ sorties in the Taiwan Strait to ‘safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity’. The outlet claimed that, according to Taiwanese sources, the PLA dispatched various aircraft to conduct operations near the island in 25 out of 31 days in October, followed by 26 out of 30 days in November. Furthermore, as of October, PLAAF aircraft of all types have crossed the median line more frequently this year than in any other during the last three decades. Of more than 1,700 sorties in the Strait, 219 crossed into Taiwan’s ADIZ, and 49 the median line. The implications for Taiwan both militarily and politically are serious. They present grave challenges to which Tsai Ing-wen’s government has no palatable options to respond, assuming a political retreat is out of the question. Furthermore, Beijing’s actions today, should they be sustained for the foreseeable future, will impair Taiwan’s ability to respond to future contingencies.
While PLA maneuvers and operations in and around the Taiwan Strait are partly aimed at blunting the political momentum of ‘pro-independence’ elements on the island, there are more immediate outcomes at both a tactical and strategic level that favor Beijing. Observers of cross-strait relations note the practicality of Beijing’s military assertiveness. It is certainly true that PLAAF and PLAN operations both in and around the Taiwan Strait are in part geared towards training and familiarizing ETC elements with potential battle landscapes. For China, dominating the airspace over Taiwan and the Straits would be key to any future outbreak of military violence, and particularly in the event of a full invasion of the island. Clinching air superiority at an early stage would be essential for the army, marine, and other ground elements crossing the strait. The imbalance of military equipment and capabilities in favor of China, both in quantity and quality, exposes Taiwan’s pressure points. More frequent PLAAF sorties from ETC, coupled with additional air assets brought in by future PLAN carrier strike groups, are a major source of stress for Taiwan’s substantially smaller air force fleet. Furthermore, Taiwan’s regular intercepting of PLA warplanes encroaching on its airspace means that crucial resources and personnel are kept from training and routine maintenance of frontline equipment. Taiwan’s air force fleet have a limited lifecycle; fighter aircraft constantly kept at the ready, intercepting PLA forces with a full payload of fuel and weapons mean that the more active Taiwan’s airframes are in safeguarding its airspace and countering the mainland’s military maneuvers today, the sooner they will need to be retired or replaced, and the less prepared Taiwan’s air force maybe for tomorrow’s confrontation or conflict absent ironclad security commitments from the United States. Taiwan Defense Minister Yen De-fa disclosed that as of October, the air force had scrambled 2,972 times to intercept encroaching PLAAF aircraft, at a cost of $903 million. Probing the readiness and capabilities of Taiwan’s military is also an aim of the mainland. Based on the types of assets the PLA employs for its Taiwan operations – fighters, strategic bombers, surveillance, early warning, and command and control aircraft – each time the PLA provokes a military response from Taiwan, it can gain clearer insights into its strengths and weaknesses. Regular PLA missions of different types are gathering valuable information such as the time needed to scramble intercepting fighters based on the type and origin of an approaching aircraft. Navy vessels purposed for surveillance and data and intelligence gathering are also active in the strait, as Taiwan’s defense ministry informed the parliament that as of November, missions to interdict PLAN ships rose by 400 compared to the previous year. China may be able to monitor Taiwan’s radar and early warning systems and the flow of communications between important defense and government officials thanks to its wider intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (IRS) apparatus.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from observing Beijing’s growing assertiveness toward Taiwan, though certain assertions are either ill-informed or simply not suited to the present conditions of the security situation. It is not uncommon to read about PLA operations in the Strait nursing domestic political insecurities over social stability or the fallout from COVID-19 Such assertions are misleading at best. The issue of social stability has long commanded the attention of Xi Jinping’s CPC, with the Party Central Committee churning out directives and promoting policies aiming to stamp out any semblance of a cohesive civil society. Some of these efforts even predate Xi’s political ascent. As such, dismissals of Beijing’s military posturing towards Taiwan – partly a reaction to the island’s own domestic political pressures – as projection fails to account for the Party’s identifying internal stability as a major concern long before the political situation in cross-straits relations turned unfavorable. Domestic concerns aside, the linking of reunification to realizing the ‘Chinese Dream’ provides an impetus for the Party’s employing a more capable PLA to increase the operational stress placed on Taiwan’s military, and political pressure on a defiant DPP government.
The shifting dynamics – or the new status quo – in cross-strait relations in the Xi Jinping era are to be studied more closely. Constructive ambiguity no longer provides utility for the PRC, as evidenced by China’s successful integration into the global economy, its accumulation of structural power in the global political economy, and, until recently, its matured relations with the United States and other major powers. With reunification having re-emerged as a core issue for ‘national rejuvenation’ and realizing the Chinese Dream, and with Xi Jinping as ‘the core’ of the CPC potentially beyond the 20th National Congress in 2022, a return to the discarded status quo is improbable. A steadfast political leadership in Taiwan will complicate relations further. For the foreseeable future, protracted hostility and confrontation are in the cards, and a miscalculation could be devastating.
Written by Kellen McCullum
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Picture: CPC General-Secretary Xi Jinping, center, stands with the six other new members of the 19th CPC Central Committee’s Politburo Standing Committee, from left: Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Zhao Leji. Photo: AP via Financial Times