Suppose Chinese leader Xi Jinping finds himself in a box of his own making and, to break out, decides to do the unexpected?
Connecting the dots of recent developments analyst Guermantes Lailari for one would not be stunned by a Chinese surprise that happens as early as this month. A former U.S. Air Force foreign area officer for the Middle East and Europe and currently a visiting scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, Lailari thinks Xi may order the People’s Liberation Army to seize one of the small islands ruled by Taipei that lie between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Beijing would then try to leverage that move to demand Washington retreat from its support of the self-governing island democracy, Lailari believes.
A Jewish Policy Center Fellow, Lailari told a JPC webinar on August 9 that consolidating Taiwan—110 miles off the Chinese coast, slightly larger than Maryland and with a population of 24 million—with the mainland, “is third on the list of core objectives” of Xi’s ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“What does Xi want ultimately?” Lailari asked. “Taiwan.”
Xi sees that China’s earlier “charm offensive” to unify with Taiwan, waged through propaganda and other means, including bribery, has failed. He now worries that the effort to do so by “non-peaceful means” also may be failing, Lailari said.
The Chinese leader understands that the Taiwanese “enjoy democracy” and fear what happened to Hong Kong—suppression of protests against Beijing’s tightening grip decades ahead of the time agreed to when Great Britain ceded control over its former colony. Increased U.S. training of the Taiwanese military and provision of weapons and other materiel reminds Xi of American and other Western nations’ help for Ukraine’s armed forces after Russia’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, help that has turned Moscow’s 2022 invasion into a bloody stalemate, Lailari said.
He also believes Xi is not certain that the People’s Liberation Army could conquer Taiwan quickly and at low cost. Despite its unprecedented military build-up in recent years, the PLA has not fought a major engagement since its 1979 war with Vietnam, in which it sustained numerous casualties.
Straws in the Wind
Among developments potentially accelerating Xi’s decision making, Lailari suspects, are the following:
*U.S. training of the Taiwanese military for the first time since 1979. “The longer the U.S. military is there … the worse it gets for Xi”:
*Uncertainty regarding the PLA has led to replacement of numerous senior officers “with hardcore communists”;
*Chinese domestic economic difficulties, intensified by U.S. restrictions and the retreat from China by many American firms and investors mean “Xi needs a success”—perhaps on the foreign affairs/military front;
*The Biden administration may think something’s up. “Out of nowhere the White House announces an August 18 meeting” with the Japanese prime minister and South Korean president, about the same time Taiwan’s vice president will be traveling through the United States on his way to the inauguration of Paraguay’s new president, over which Beijing “already has expressed its displeasure.” The Oval Office also has announced a presidential trip to Vietnam “to upgrade relations”; and,
*North Korea’s recent statement describing U.S. weapons supply to Taiwan as “terrible” and “we support whatever the PRC [People’s Republic of China] does.”
Put that together Lailari said, with China’s hoarding 18 months of food for its 1.4 billion people and a large gold reserve, as if to insulate itself from U.S.-led sanctions like those imposed on Russia after its Ukraine invasion and a surprise may be coming.
Instead of staging increasingly aggressive, large-scale military maneuvers near Taiwan, suppose Xi orders seizure of one of Taiwan’s small islands, either unpopulated or only with small military garrisons.
Xi may be seeking “a real-world test” to see if the PLA can handle a bigger assignment, like invading Taiwan, and to leverage a lower risk move to force the United States to stop training and arming the Taiwanese.
The United States, he said, is “in a better position to deal with China than China is to deal with the United States.” Washington has allies so over time, “we have a good trend.” Which “is why Xi Jinping has to do something” sooner.