Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused a serious legitimacy crisis to almost all approaches and institutions of Post-World War II international politics. As the world continues watching with horror the events unfolding in Ukraine, threats of an emulation of similar styles of aggression loom large in Taiwan. A democratically controlled nation which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims is part of its territory, Taiwan is regarded as one of the world’s most volatile hotspots. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is not recognised as a sovereign nation. Immediately after Russia attacked Ukraine, Taiwan raised alert levels expecting a similar stunt from China. Beijing dispatched fighter aircraft and conducted war exercises in Taiwan aimed to erode support for the self-governing island’s de facto independence. To answer the question of whether Beijing will orchestrate a similar style of conflict in Taiwan, it becomes pertinent to consider the PRC’s domestic conditions first.
At the National People’s Congress staged last month (March), Premier Li Keqiang announced a 5.5 percent growth for 2022, which is the lowest annual target since 1991! Li warned of a grave and uncertain outlook given the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic, a slowing economy and the war in Ukraine. In February, the surveyed unemployment rate in urban areas was 5.5 percent, up from 5.3 percent in January. Even though population growth has slowed, recognising that the pandemic and natural disasters have threatened China’s food systems, President Xi Jinping talked about the need to stabilise food production and expand output of crops at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on March 6. Xi is keen to maintain stability within the Communist Party of China (CPC) and within the country at large before this fall’s 20th Party Congress when he assumes a once unthinkable third term as party secretary.
The stealth Omicron variant of Covid-19 has unleashed fresh havoc across China as cities go under stringent lockdowns as part of China’s zero Covid strategy. Last month, China’s major finance and tech hub Shenzhen (pop. 17.5 million) went under lockdown. This was preceded by a lockdown in Changchun (pop. 9 million). All of these have serious social and economic implications.
In 2020 when China’s society and economy was reeling under the impact of the pandemic, on Weibo (aka China’s twitter), “princelings” or the children of high-level veteran CPC cadres called for an emergency enlarged meeting of the CPC’s Politburo to discuss Xi’s replacement. Xi would not want a repeat so close to the 20th Party Congress. A decision for war would prove expensive for China which already has low targeted growth rates! While China has stepped up its incursions in Taiwanese airspace, the provocations do not signal a near term invasion. These operations are intended to stoke domestic nationalism and often correlate with important symbolic anniversaries or to display China’s disagreements with Taiwan. An example of this was when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dispatched 80 fighters and bombers into Taiwan’s airspace last October to mark the PRC’s founding. Chinese fighters also entered Taiwanese airspace soon after President Tsai Ing-wen voiced her support for Ukraine and as other Taiwanese politicians drew an equivalence between Russia’s dispute with Ukraine and the PRC’s with Taiwan.
Unlike Russia, China will need to cross over a hundred miles of the Formosa Strait to invade Taiwan, which will prove to be a complex undertaking. Weeks, if not months, will be required to position forces along China’s coast. All of this will need resources, which the Chinese government could instead allocate for ensuring food security or for addressing unemployment. With suitable landing sites in Taiwan being limited, a military adventure will need extensive planning. What’s worse is that the PLA has not experienced full-scale combat in 40 years!
The severity of sanctions on Moscow is another aspect that Beijing is keeping a close watch on. The Chinese economy has benefited using the forces of globalisation and foreign trade. With an extremely slowed down economy, Xi would prefer avoiding any measure that would further slow down its economy, leading to questions on his style of governance. In the recent past, many senior CPC cadres, officials, academics, students, intellectuals and others have risked punishment to criticise Xi Jinping on social media. Intellectuals and professors such as Xu Zhongrun, Xu Zhiyong, Zhang Xuezhong and Yu Linqi have demanded on WeChat that Xi Jinping step down. So close to the 20th Party Congress, Xi would surely want to avoid more such voices. Taiwan has smartly stepped up its defence in preparation for the worst, but an immediate emulation of Ukraine in Taiwan by the PRC is not on the cards at least till the time Xi assumes his third term in office this fall!
Also Read: Ending Russia-Ukraine war: A solution