China's Strategic Incoherence on Taiwan Shows Ominous Mindset | Opinion

Back-to-back visits to Taiwan by American congressional leaders this month has enraged Beijing.

This week, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) led a five-member bipartisan delegation to Taipei for a two-day trip. The Communist Party's Global Times published a dire threat to the members of the delegation.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) led a high-profile trip to the Taiwan capital. Hu Xijin, formerly Global Times' editor and now China's "most famous propagandist," threatened a shoot-down of the speaker's plane.

The harsh tone of Chinese propaganda issued in connection with both delegations is in line with China's white paper on Taiwan, released last Wednesday. There is a new ominous attitude in the Chinese capital.

Beijing's policy toward the self-governing island has dramatically hardened and become strategically incoherent. The adoption of self-defeating policies suggests serious internal problems in senior Communist Party circles.

For decades, Beijing sought to entice the people of Taiwan into accepting its rule—"reunification," in Communist Party lingo.

Actually, "unification" would be far more precise because the People's Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan—formally, the Republic of China. In fact, no Chinese regime has ever held indisputable sovereignty over the island.

The current Chinese regime, as can be gleaned from the white paper, stakes its case to Taiwan on a mangled reading of the historical record. Gerrit van der Wees, who teaches the island's history at George Mason University, tells Newsweek that "the arguments presented in the paper amount to half-truths and distortions about Taiwan's history and legal status."

But bad history is by no means the only problem with the white paper. The document, titled "The Taiwan Question and China's Reunification in the New Era," does not contain Beijing's conciliatory promises found in its 1993 and 2000 white papers on the topic. For instance, the new paper does not include Beijing's long-standing pledge not to send administrators and troops to Taiwan after "reunification."

Beijing is obviously moving to intimidate the people of Taiwan.

Will that work? As the Taipei Times stated in an editorial on Wednesday, "If Beijing's aim was to conduct psychological warfare against Taiwan, it has been a demonstrable failure."

Chinese leaders have to know by now that intimidation tactics are counterproductive. Beijing's harsh crackdown on Hong Kong in 2019, for instance, produced a sharp shift toward the "green"—often mislabeled as the "pro-independence"—camp in Taiwan.

That shift was visibly demonstrated by the remarkable revival of the political fortunes of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which leads Taiwan's green movement. Tsai was having difficulty getting her party's nomination to run for a second term as president, but Beijing's brutal takeover of Hong Kong changed Taiwanese attitudes toward China. The Chinese assault on Hong Kong not only helped Tsai win the nomination, but also resulted in her landslide re-election victory in January 2020. Beijing had to notice that its actions in Hong Kong helped elevate the candidate it abhorred in Taipei.

Moreover, the white paper's vigorous promotion of the "One Country, Two Systems" formula for Taiwan, which Beijing first applied to Hong Kong, is tone-deaf. Mentioning this formula, which pledges self-rule, reinforces the notion in Taiwanese minds that China will never keep its promises of autonomy; after all, Beijing blatantly violated those same pledges to Hong Kong.

A U.S. government plane carrying Speaker of
A U.S. government plane carrying Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) takes off from Taipei Songshan Airport on August 03, 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan. Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

In all probability, Chinese leaders understand that the white paper's harsh approach will provoke even more Taiwanese opposition to Chinese rule. So Beijing's officials either no longer care about what Taiwan's people think, or they are only interested in appeasing the internal Chinese audience. Either case is ominous.

Especially ominous is Beijing's heightened military activity. At this moment, Chinese forces, already south of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, are preparing to take more Indian territory in the Himalayas. In June, Beijing renewed attempts to block a resupply of a Philippine outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea. And in the East China Sea late last month, four Chinese coast guard ships entered Japan's sovereign water around the disputed but Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands.

"The Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more, and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley pointed out last month, referring to Asia. On May 26, for instance, a Chinese fighter fired flares at, and released chaff in front of, an Australian P-8 in international airspace over the South China Sea. Those are actions that could have brought the reconnaissance plane down.

This month, China landed five missiles in Japan's exclusive economic zone—the band of water between 12 and 200 nautical miles from the shoreline—as it ratcheted up tensions after Speaker Pelosi's trip to Taipei. China's military exercises then, says van der Wees, were "unjustified, irresponsible, and outright dangerous."

China, going on a bender, is now taking on many countries to both its south and east.

Perhaps moving against one neighbor makes sense, but now the Chinese state is pressuring many neighboring states at the same time. Beijing cannot possibly succeed, because it is creating a large and powerful coalition against itself.

Because China is doing something that makes no strategic sense, there must be something terribly wrong inside the Chinese political system at the moment.

What's going wrong? Inside China now, there is a contacting economy and a debt crisis. Property developers are defaulting on obligations, homeowners are conducting a "mortgage boycott," banks are not honoring customer deposits, and asset values are plunging. Perhaps the economic distress is why Beijing has become much more provocative recently. The regime needs to distract the Chinese people from obvious policy failures at home.

China's belligerent acts in the region are also occurring while the Communist Party prepares for its 20th National Congress, to be held presumably in October or November of this year. Every National Congress, now held once every five years, is crucial. But this year's congress is even more so. Chinese ruler Xi Jinping is aiming for an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Communist Party. In other words, this is where Xi can show the world—or not show the world—that he is dictator for life. His increasingly hostile posture toward Taiwan must be related to his desire for lifetime power.

One thing we know, however. With the Chinese economy contracting, Beijing will not be able to afford the most rapid military build-up since the Second World War. Chinese leaders must see a closing window of opportunity. Their motto for the generals and admirals: Use it or lose it.

Taiwan, of course, knows where Beijing wants to use its military.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.