The People’s Republic of China’s perverse fascination with Taiwan is on display yet again this week in the form of new military provocations.
As I have written previously in this column, I see Beijing’s obsession emerging from the fact that Taiwan (like pre-1997 Hong Kong) embodies all of the greatness that can be achieved when a Sinitic society is not burdened by the failed rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Massively embarrassed by so much winning on Taiwan’s part, Beijing is determined to export its failed system and thereby drag every nation that it claims down to the same level of political hopelessness that it has forced on China for decades. See, for example, recent developments in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s typical mode of communication with regards to Taiwanese matters bears echoes of a sad spurned suitor sending unread Facebook messages from his basement apartment: “I don’t care what anyone says, baby, we are meant to be together!”
In recent weeks, however, China’s already creepy actions have escalated to truly psychotic stalker levels. Over 40 Chinese warplanes have crossed into Taiwanese airspace: a major escalation abandoning a longstanding de facto agreement between the two militaries. Wang Wenbin of the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, undoubtedly voicing official policy, has furthermore denied the existence of any median line separating the two nations' airspace, claiming that there could never be a median line because “Taiwan is part of China.”
If this had happened a few years ago, I would have confidently said that Beijing’s actions were nothing but scare tactics that will soon fade away. One point upon which every member of the senior leadership in China can agree, of course, is the necessity of keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power, and keeping the Party in power means avoiding conflict. The main concern for officials at the top of the system is neither “unification” nor “rejuvenation,” but rather maintaining their wealth, privileges, and power: a goal which is not served by provoking a war with the developed democratic countries to which these officials send their children and mistresses.
This is why despite all of the chest-thumping rhetoric about national unification and all that, the sole offensive operation in which the People’s Liberation Army has been engaged over the past forty years has been in China’s capital, mobilizing against its own people, thereby conveniently avoiding the embarrassment of a confrontation with anyone who could actually fight back, as seen in Vietnam in 1979.
Constant talk about changing the status quo with Taiwan has thus in the past provided an ideological cover for the perpetual maintenance of the status quo. The people of Taiwan are free to live their lives as they please, while the people of China are free to pretend that Taiwan is part of China.
The times, however, seem to be changing. Crossing the median line and claiming that it does not exist are no longer just the type of posturing we expect from Beijing: they are genuine examples of changing the status quo, something China has not dared to do for decades. Such provocations need to be read not only in comparison with past behavior, which presents cause for concern, but also within the context of the increasingly unhinged political environment in China, which presents cause for even deeper concern.
As I have said before, I am an avowed pessimist with regards to PRC politics. Yet even in my pessimism I still find myself regularly shocked by recent political developments there: the abandonment of term limits allowing Xi Jinping to become Chairman for life, the illegal decision to force a National Security Law written and legislated in Beijing onto Hong Kong, the development of a concentration camp system holding millions in Xinjiang, the seeming expansion of this system into Tibet, the sentencing of Ilham Tohti to life in prison, and the sentencing of Ren Zhiqiang to eighteen years in prison this week.
It feels dehumanizing to place all of these tragedies in a single sentence: each merits far greater reflection than the space provided in this column would allow. The point, however, is to highlight that even the most pessimistic thinker five years ago could not have even begun to predict Beijing’s course today: worst-case scenarios are perpetually too hopeful.
So, China is changing the status quo in its relations with Taiwan, and the world consistently underestimates the disasters of Chinese policy even in their most pessimistic predictions. It might sound smart to discount China’s escalating rhetoric and say that we need to avoid alarmism, but lack of alarm is in fact a far greater risk than alarmism when dealing with the Xi regime today: anyone who disagrees can consider the present realities in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong.
It is thus well past time to bring a more pessimistic mode of analysis to bear on China’s changing behavior toward Taiwan: we not only need to prepare for the worst, as one says, but indeed for possibilities beyond our worst imaginings. Beijing’s escalating provocations require a public statement from the major powers in the region voicing their support for Taiwan: a clear statement from the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and beyond clarifying that an international coalition would recognize and provide all necessary support to Taiwan in the event of continued military provocations from China. An invasion of Taiwan, it must be made clear, would mean the end of CCP rule.
As China claims that the median line does not exist, it is well past time for the international community to draw a clear line around Taiwan that China must not cross. If the community of democracies today cannot even stand up for a successful democracy under threat from a failed dictatorship, then what can it stand up for?
(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University)
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