In the last decade, during the era of perceived Chinese rising assertiveness in the South and East China Sea region, some have posited that a double-pronged long-term goal is driving Chinese behavior. The first is to scope out more strategic space in China’s region, creating a zone where Beijing is freed of America’s influence and has real autonomy. The second aim, connected to the first, is to subtly and carefully test the strength of U.S. resolve, and that of its allies.
When Chinese leaders look out from Beijing eastwards, they see a great wall of U.S. treaty allies stretching from Japan to South Korea, the Philippines, and right down to Australia and New Zealand. Of course this is also a monument to U.S. obligations in the region, and in some ways a sign of how restricted America’s freedom is. All of these treaties might well be the cause of dragging the United States into confrontations and supporting military commitments it does not want.
China at least is free of onerous diplomatic dependencies – apart from the irritating link with North Korea. So in that sense it can push, provoke, and irritate throughout the contested maritime region. As Australian analyst Hugh White has said, through this process China partly maps out where the real red lines for other states lie. Would the United States really get involved heavily in clashes that China might have with Vietnam? How far would it go to protect South Korea? What is the real depth of its alliance with Japan? Today these questions might be hypothetical. But inch by inch, China is getting a little bit closer to finding out where America’s bottom line commitments might be.
Xi Jinping’s leadership has created a Janus-faced country. On domestic politics, times are getting tough. Demands for party loyalty, draconian restraints over rights lawyers, and real pressure placed on party members and state enterprises seem to increase by the day. Outside of China, however, it is a world of Chinese smiles – win-win outcomes, the daily promise of big investments, Chinese aid money, and rhetoric about a peace-loving power.
But between these two there is a grey area – the space between the inside and outside of China, covered by Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the East and South China Seas. Here, the outside world still feels it has a legitimate role and voice, but China feels it can demand now that these areas be considered completely domestic places and the wider world should butt out. Here is the zone of danger.
Take the case of Hong Kong. The 2014 Chinese government White Paper made the central government’s attitude clear enough. Beijing was ultimately in charge, it had rights over how to interpret the Basic Law, and the idea that the city could develop a political model utterly at odds with the rest of the People’s Republic was insufferable. Since then, Beijing has shown not a shred of evidence it intends to compromise. Why does it need to, after all? In the end, there has been nothing except moral support and soothing but empty words from the outside world. The harsh fact is that Hong Kong’s people are on their own. They are increasingly bound by the rules and customs of Chinese domestic conditions, and viewed as part of a domestic space.
Xi’s ambitions for his time in power and for the country he leads, however, might lead to even grander visions of what he might be able to achieve. Suddenly, Taiwan becomes tantalizingly in reach. What better way to celebrate the centennial goals? Reunification, for the first time since 1949 – the final step in China’s pathway out of the century of humiliation. If Xi were able to achieve this, he would truly be able to go down in history as a great modern leader of the country, and sit beside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as their worthy successor.
Fanciful? Perhaps. But it must pass through the minds of most of the elite leaders in Beijing that possibly, just possibly, there is a route to reunification. Xi’s meeting with Ma Ying-jeou last November would have been unimaginable even a couple of years before — but it happened. With Tsai Ing-wen coming into office in May, things are going to get more complicated. But now that Taiwan is so dependent economically on the People’s Republic, Beijing can gradually turn up the pressure. Even this week, tourist numbers have been falling. Xi knows that Tsai is caught in the same dilemma he is – economic performance. The difference is that Xi can turn to the political receipts of nationalism to bolster his leadership. Taiwan has only the single track of improving economic performance – and that needs to happen soon.
Politicians are often gamblers. Xi has sometimes shown an impetuous side. A surprise move on Taiwan is very unlikely – but not beyond the bounds of impossibility. Would the United States and its allies, with their own economic worries and need for good links with China, really commit to full military response were China to make a move? Might they not be tempted to simply use slow track diplomatic means, and reach for compromise – so that China can then produce its one country, two systems proposal and show it can reach them halfway – albeit halfway on a territory China itself has chosen? Even the small possibility of this response would be a very enticing outcome to go for in Beijing. It would be worth the risk.
In the end, Washington and its allies have to be utterly unambiguous in their messaging on Taiwan. It is a stable, developing democracy, a place where 60 percent of the electorate have just chosen a leader, and where more than 70 percent now regard themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Tolerating any move on Taiwan would mean a final capitulation of any real faith in democracy and popular choice. It would be the ultimate appeasement. For those reasons, the United States and the rest of the world’s 88 democracies (as defined by Freedom House) need to make clear, quietly, but firmly and resolutely, and without a shade of ambiguity, that aggressive interference with Taiwan against the will of the Taiwanese people is the ultimate red line. And that were China to attempt to cross it, there would be absolute resolve in their response.