China’s 20th Party Congress Escalates Cross-Strait Tensions

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China’s 20th Party Congress Escalates Cross-Strait Tensions

A new amendment to the CCP constitution demonstrates a significant escalation in the party’s approach to Taiwan.

China’s 20th Party Congress Escalates Cross-Strait Tensions
Credit: Depositphotos

As China’s 20th Party Congress unfolded, a flood of concern exploded from international media outlets over Xi Jinping’s words of warning toward Taiwan: “The wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

These worries were fueled by speculation over China’s timeline for invading Taiwan. U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday commented that Beijing may initiate an attack on the island as soon as next year, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested at a recent discussion at Stanford University that China’s plans to annex Taiwan were accelerating beyond expectation.

Seasoned Taiwan experts have pointed out that Beijing’s rhetoric and the conjecture surrounding it should all be taken “with a grain of salt.” To those observing cross-strait relations over the years, the latest controversy around a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan is predictable and fits comfortably within an all-too-familiar narrative of escalating China-U.S. tensions.

Many Taiwanese are also keenly aware of China’s psychological warfare tactics toward the democracy, which seek to weaken public morale and trust in the government through intimidating military displays and misinformation campaigns. Recent warnings from the Chinese leadership are likely to be taken as simply another exercise in psychological warfare.

This raises the question: how seriously should we take Beijing’s words and actions toward Taiwan since the 20th Party Congress? While decades of inflammatory discourse toward Taiwan and the looming threat of invasion have become almost passé, changes following China’s leadership summit show there is cause for concern and greater vigilance toward Taiwan in the years ahead.

A Constitutional Change on Taiwan

Looking beyond the familiar CCP script on Taiwan’s unification, one of the proposed amendments to the party constitution following the Party Congress represents a significant escalation in cross-strait relations. The new amendment states the CCP’s commitment to “resolutely oppose and contain Taiwan independence” while strengthening the Chinese military to promote “unification of the motherland.”

The constitutional enshrinement of an opposition to Taiwanese independence is unprecedented. Previously the charter only stated the CCP will “work continuously to strengthen the unity of all the Chinese people, including compatriots… in Taiwan” to achieve unification.

Revisions to the CCP constitution, a staple of each Party Congress, indicate the direction of upcoming policies and laws as well as codify the relationship between state and party. The amendment against Taiwanese independence therefore demonstrates a significant escalation in cross-strait relations in two ways. First, the Chinese leadership is establishing a stronger legal basis from which it will likely pursue harsher, more punitive action toward any perceived expressions of Taiwanese independence or external support for Taiwanese independence. The military response to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in October is a likely indicator of what such actions may entail. Some have suggested there may be more “grey zone” activities. Second, the amendment signals Xi’s intention to cement fierce opposition to Taiwanese independence as part of the fundamental position of any successive regimes.

We need only look at the events that unfolded following constitutional revisions during the previous Party Congress in 2017 to confirm the direction of travel. When the amendment to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as a guiding principle in the CCP constitution was enacted, prominent research and education institutes in China began creating programs dedicated to studying and implementing Xi’s ideology.

The previous constitutional change in 2017 also enshrined Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in the party charter. That was followed by the Chinese government establishing Supervisory Commissions at the national and state levels, reconfiguring the legal mechanisms used to pursue corruption investigations.

Constitutional changes therefore go beyond the usual rhetorical flare displayed at high-profile CCP events — they are a roadmap of the direction of policy as well as the leadership’s intended legacy. The most recent amendment on Taiwan highlights Xi’s intention to make opposition to Taiwanese independence and perhaps even unification part of his legacy for future generations of party leaders. These sentiments were confirmed in a recent Global Times essay on the amendment.

New Appointments in the Leadership Reshuffle

There have been other concerning developments for cross-strait relations. The leadership reshuffle saw the removal of Premier Li Keqiang and Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Wang Yang – both widely viewed as moderates and potential proponents of reform.

In their places, Xi appointed loyalists Li Qiang and Wang Huning, alongside other long-term supporters. As expert Brian Hioe pointed out, this increases the likelihood of an echo chamber effect, which may lead to irrational decisions on Taiwan due to self-reinforcing, inaccurate views within the core leadership. Lack of diverse views among Russian elites appears to have been a factor in President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine, ultimately underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance as well as the international response.

One of the appointments most pertinent to cross-strait relations is Xi loyalist Wang Huning as head of the CPPCC, a government and legislative advisory body that oversees China’s United Front work. Among other things, the United Front seeks to influence the Taiwanese public to favor unification with China under the “One Country, Two Systems” model. United Front efforts toward Taiwan in recent years have been grossly undermined by the passing of the 2019 National Security Law in Hong Kong, followed by the CCP’s violent suppression of protestors. Most Taiwanese are no longer convinced that Taiwan’s separate political and legal systems would be honored under this model.

Wang Huning is widely referred to as the CCP’s ideological and propaganda tsar, credited with slogans such as Xi’s “China Dream” and Jiang Zemin’s “Thee Represents.” He is also seen as the father of China’s neo-authoritarianism, an ideology which emphasizes the centralizing state power and cultural protectionism against malign foreign influences. Wang’s appointment as CPPCC chairman could potentially see an ideological renovation in China’s United Front work toward Taiwan, and accordingly a shift in pro-unification propaganda as well as disinformation operations.

The promotion of General He Weidong to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) also raises concerns over the future of cross-strait relations. He is the former head of the Eastern Theater Command and likely responsible for designing and executing the People’s Liberation Army most recent displays in the Taiwan Strait, the likes of which have not been seen in years. His appointment in the CMC could signal an increased focus on military activity toward Taiwan.

Disrupting the Cross-Strait Status Quo

These results from the 20th Party Congress should be seen as part of a long-term CCP strategy to intensify pressure on Taiwan and disrupt the cross-strait status quo.

The PLA’s latest drills witnessed repeated violations of the Median Line in the Taiwan Strait, as well as a simulated blockade of the island. According to some experienced Taiwanese military personnel, these exercises would have taken many months of advance preparation and training. This indicates Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was simply a convenient pretext for Beijing to launch large-scale military activity it had been planning for some time.

In hindsight, the response to Pelosi’s trip appears to give new meaning to Xi’s mention of having “strengthened our strategic initiative for China’s complete reunification” in the 20th Party Congress report. Beijing is clearly looking for similar opportunities to escalate cross-strait tensions and violate the status quo in ways that move the party closer toward achieving the goal of unification.

The international community should remain highly vigilant of the situation unfolding in the Taiwan Strait. Supporters of Taiwan and democracy cannot afford to turn a blind eye to these escalations, nor should they stand by as the CCP seeks to make its invented narrative of Taiwan’s “inevitable” unification with China a reality.