China’s Xi and Taiwan

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Late last month, a somber Xi Jinping walked across the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing flanked by his hand-picked, seven-member standing committee of top leadership, and was proclaimed China’s uncontested leader for the next five years — and likely more. Xi’s rise to power in the Chinese Communist Party has been methodical, deliberate and all-encompassing.

When Xi came to power in 2012, most viewed him as a pragmatist. There was hope that he would bring reforms to China and a more inviting interaction with other nations of the world, and particularly, the West. But that was not to be.

Instead, Xi moved forcefully in the other direction. Under his instructions, authorities expanded state surveillance, imposed mass detention in Xinjiang, cracked down on Chinese civil society and imposed national security restrictions in Hong Kong to stop anti-Beijing protests.

After serving a decade as general secretary and head of the Central Military Commission, the party’s two most important positions, Xi refused to transfer control, as his predecessors had done. Rather, he made clear his intent to continue in power and ignored the plan of previous party leaders who hoped to regularize peaceful leadership transitions and protect against a return to one-man rule.

And now, as the 69-year-old leader enters his third term in office, intent on staying in power under his terms and his rules, with absolute loyalty from his top leaders and government personnel. Going forward, Xi is expected to further consolidate power with a focus on national security, the upgrade of the Chinese technology sector, efforts to establish a state-dominated and self-reliant Chinese economy, and a further push to establish China at the top of world order. He will be doing so notwithstanding existing challenges in relations with the United States and a slowdown in the Chinese economy.

And then there’s Taiwan. Taiwan has been governed autonomously of mainland China since 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of “one China” and has vowed to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, using force, if necessary. Indeed, Xi amended the party constitution to say that China “will resolutely oppose and contain Taiwan independence.” And that makes the 23 million residents of Taiwan very nervous.

In 1979, the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. At the same time, it severed formal ties with Taiwan, known as the Republic of China, whose leaders had ruled the mainland until they were ousted by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949. After 1979, the United States continued an active unofficial relationship with the island, including the supply of military defense equipment, notwithstanding China’s objections. But it isn’t at all clear what the U.S. will do in the event China attacks Taiwan and seeks to take control. President Joe Biden’s comments on the issue have vacillated between commitments to intervene and statements that reflect “strategic ambiguity.”

For now, Taiwan prepares to defend itself, as it watches Western reaction in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Taiwan knows if China attacks, Western allies may or may not join in active defense. Xi knows of that uncertainty, as well. And with his mounting power and commitment to expanding his rule, a move against Taiwan is entirely possible.

This is a problem that isn’t going away.

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