The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its 20th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People from October 16 to 22, and the new leadership line-up has been unveiled.
As expected, Xi Jinping (習近平) has secured a third term as both the CCP’s general secretary and as chairman of China’s highest military organ, the Central Military Commission (CMC, 中央軍事委員會). What was less expected was the fact that so many of Xi’s protégés were promoted into the highest party organ, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC, 中央政治局常委會), leaving potential competitors from other factions all but eliminated. There should now be no doubt that Xi’s Politburo supporters will also be appointed to the senior positions in state organizations at the coming 14th National People’s Congress (NPC, 全國人民代表大會), scheduled for early March 2023.
With the dust mostly settled from the senior party personnel appointments, the focus must now shift to a consideration of CCP policy in different dimensions. Among them is Xi’s Taiwan policy: what is the weight of Taiwan policy vis-à-vis other competing policy concerns? What actions will Xi take to accomplish his long-held goal of “reunification”? And, following from this, has Xi altered the timelines for potentially launching military operations against Taiwan? These are all important questions to be addressed in this analysis.
Analysts need to watch what was said by Xi on Taiwan policy. Generally speaking, Xi’s tone on Taiwan policy in the work report from the 20th Party Congress was not unusually hawkish, though there is a threatening and firm message. In the work report, Xi does not mention specific policy approaches or provide a timeline for specific actions. Instead, he focuses on principles. These include: “Peaceful Re-unification and One Country Two Systems” (和平統一, 一國兩制); upholding the “One-China Principle and the 1992 Consensus” (一個中國原則和“九二共識”); and firmly opposing “Taiwan independence” (台獨) and promoting “reunification” (促統).
To be clear, those principles and statements are consistent with what have been included in work reports from previous party congresses. Nevertheless, there are several more aggressive statements worthy of considered attention. In particular, Xi stated that China needs to maintain its “dominance and initiative” (主導權和主動權) over Taiwan policy. Xi does not elaborate on this point, but it suggests an active posture in pressing for People’s Republic of China (PRC) goals. Furthermore, Xi did not renounce the use of force, and argued for keeping all necessary measures open to protect against “interference by outside forces” (外部勢力干涉) and “separatists” (分裂分子) seeking Taiwan independence.
By committing not to renounce the use of force, there is no doubt that Xi intends to send a threatening message and signal his determination. For the past two decades, China has largely avoided such openly threatening statements toward Taiwan, with the hope that growing exchanges in all dimensions between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait could increase Taiwanese affinity for China—and ultimately, lead to peaceful reunification. It is very obvious that this strategy has fallen apart—in fact, the opposite has been true—and this may partially explain the increasingly threatening tone.
Notably, this is probably the first time that a work report has explicitly mentioned “interference by outside forces.” There is no doubt that the United States is the target of this phrase, because in the past several years, interaction between the United States and Taiwan has steadily grown and there is growing support in the United States for helping defend Taiwan. China is worried that the United States’ “One-China Policy” (一個中國政策) will be hollowed out.
Xi also added more words on Taiwan policy to the CCP Constitution (中國共産黨章程). The wording is: “precisely and resolutely in a comprehensive manner carry out the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, adamantly oppose and contain ‘independence.’” By contrast, the 2017 version had only said “[…] Continuously strengthen the solidarity of the whole people […] including Taiwan compatriots […] to complete reunification with the mother land.”
It is fair to say that adding more words to the Party’s constitution demonstrates Xi’s growing seriousness on the Taiwan issue, though it is hard to assess the potential policy impact. Additionally, the new language is largely consistent with policy statements made over the past several decades, so adding them is probably intended to remind party cadres of the holy mission of the “reunification” issue.
In general, the content of the work report and the addition of new language in the constitution demonstrate two dialectical features. On one hand, Xi is attempting to evince a moderate appearance by advocating for “peaceful reunification” and the “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) framework. (This, despite the fact that these principles have lost their attractiveness to Taiwanese due to Xi’s heavy-handed approach to the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, and the unprecedented state control over society as imposed in China over the past decade.)
On the other hand, Xi is sending a threatening message to Taiwanese and the United States by not renouncing the use of force. This indicates that in order to facilitate “reunification,” China is likely to actively work to create an environment conducive to doing so—which could potentially include the use of military force.
The “New Normal” of Military Activity in the Taiwan Strait
In the wake of the PRC’s August military drills around Taiwan, the threat of a so-called “new normal” has become a widely discussed problem in the Taiwan Strait, with profound implications for the regional order. The phrase “new normal” refers to the fact that the Chinese military has incrementally increased pressure against Taiwan by dispatching military aircraft and ships in the areas close to Taiwan, a behavior that has become routine. This approach has multiple goals: it is intended to send a warning signal to Taiwan independence supporters and to drive a wedge in Taiwan society, while simultaneously testing the Taiwan military’s overall readiness and seeking to exhaust its forces. Furthermore, there is very little that the United States can do to assist Taiwan in repelling Chinese military encroachments and reversing this “new normal,” thereby indirectly discrediting the United States.
A typical case is Chinese jet fighters’ frequent incursions across the “median line” in the Taiwan Strait. The median line was unilaterally imposed by the United States in the 1950s; although Beijing never explicitly endorsed the arrangement, it had previously been observed by both sides of the Taiwan Strait as a de facto demarcation line in order to maintain stability and peace. Nevertheless, as China has built more oceangoing warships and coast guard vessels with increased capabilities, the temptation of overruling the median line has been increasing. Beginning in 2013, China’s bombers started to fly from east of Taiwan toward the west Pacific; and beginning in 2019, China’s fighters started to fly across the median line with growing frequency (see also here and here).
China’s incursions increased significantly immediately after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China launched large-scale military exercises in six designated zones close to Taiwan’s sovereign waters. Notably, these zones effectively encircled the island. During the military exercises, the Chinese military launched ballistic missiles over Taiwan and mobilized fighters and warships, some of which entered into Taiwan’s sovereign territory.
Beginning in 2022, Beijing has advanced the argument that the waters between the southeast coast of China and Taiwan are Chinese territorial waters. Citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has contended that it has sovereignty, sovereign rights, and management rights in the whole of the Taiwan Strait. (It should be noted that Beijing has deliberately blurred the line between management rights and sovereignty.) China’s interpretation implies its ambition of “internalizing” the Taiwan Strait, though Beijing has never publicly used the term.
Internalizing the Taiwan Strait could help Beijing accomplish its desired dominance over Taiwan. By invoking the “One-China Principle” and the aforementioned interpretation of the Taiwan Strait, China has increasingly argued that its military assets can cross the Taiwan Strait at any time without breaching relevant international laws governing borders.
Internalization could mean the full control of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and the ability to claim sole sovereignty over the Taiwan Strait. It may also imply a desire to enforce Chinese maritime claims over the whole Taiwan Strait, thus denying foreign warships—especially those of the US Navy—any right to conduct future freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS). Under this circumstance, dominance could be achieved while China could take whatever action it deems fit in the Taiwan Strait, at any time.
Needless to say, Beijing’s attempts to redefine the terms in the Taiwan Strait will invite reactions from Taiwan—and likely the United States, as well. There is a growing discussion in Taiwan over pushing back against China’s salami-slicing approach, so that the “new normal” created by China cannot be sustained. This discussion has included changing the rules of engagement for the Taiwanese military. However, there is no doubt that any push-back increases the risk of conflict breaking out between the Taiwanese and Chinese militaries.
For its part, the United States is unlikely to sit idle. On one hand, China’s salami-slicing tactics in the Taiwan Strait may be regarded as a threat to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific per the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). According to the TRA, the United States is bound to resist “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes,” and to regard these as “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Should the United States fail to respond to China’s actions, it could risk undermining its credibility in the region.
On the other hand, the United States also needs to take a stance on China’s dubious legal claims over the Taiwan Strait. Executing FONOPs in the Taiwan Strait will continue to anger Beijing, and cause further friction and conflict between the United States and China. However, as in the South China Sea, the United States is likely to continue to execute FONOPs in the Taiwan Strait so as to refute China’s claim of exclusive sovereignty—and to maintain the “rules-based order,” a cause that the United States has advocated for under the Biden Administration.
The Taiwan Strait is entering another period of great uncertainty. Xi has adopted a salami-slicing approach in the past several years to create a “new normal,” and both Taiwan and the United States have been forced to take steps to push back. How Xi will take advantage of this “new normal” in the future remains unknown. Nevertheless, in the context of push and push-back, it seems inevitable that the “new normal” will take on an increasingly militarized form—despite the fact that the “new normal” may imply no rush for Xi to launch a full-blown invasion in the near future.
The main point: In the wake of the 20th Party Congress, it seems clear that the CCP under Xi Jinping intends to take a harder line on Taiwan issues in the coming years. In response, Taiwan and the United States will likely be forced to rethink their approaches to the Taiwan Strait.