The Taiwan Strait crisis has strengthened Xi Jinping’s position

With the 20th Party Congress expected to commence in the next two months, Zaobao associate editor Han Yong Hong says that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s position has been strengthened following the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan. China has shown its trade and military prowess in the Taiwan Strait with its recent countermeasures, and all eyes will be on whether a timeline for armed reunification will be set during the congress.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting commemorating the 110th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 9 October 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting commemorating the 110th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 9 October 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)

After more than two weeks away from the public eye, members of the Politburo Standing Committee re-emerged this week, signalling that the uniquely Chinese Beidaihe summer retreat has ended. 

After crossing this milestone, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders will focus on the most important political agenda of the year — ensuring the smooth convening of the 20th Party Congress, completing key appointments, and reviewing and finalising the 20th Party Congress report. 

It is widely believed that the 20th Party Congress will be held in October because CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to travel to Indonesia in November to attend the G20 summit and possibly meet with US President Joe Biden. That being the case, we are now just two months away from the big event.

Packed schedule for public appearances  

After Beidaihe, Xi on 16 August made an appearance in northeastern China, where he visited the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial in Jinzhou city, Liaoning province. Based on the CCP’s military history, after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) undertook the brutal siege of Changchun, the Liaoshen campaign was the first of “three great battles” between the CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT) during the Chinese Civil War. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial in Jinzhou city, Liaoning province, China, on 16 August 2022. (Xinhua)
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial in Jinzhou city, Liaoning province, China, on 16 August 2022. (Xinhua)

Since taking office, Xi has visited various revolutionary museums and memorials across China, including the memorial hall commemorating the Huaihai campaign (another of the “three great battles”) shortly after the 19th Party Congress concluded in 2017. However, amid heightened cross-strait tensions, his visit to Liaoshen Campaign Memorial took on a larger significance and attracted much attention. 

A day prior to reports of Xi’s visit, there were also various state media reports of Politburo Standing Committee member and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Shenzhen on 16 August, during which he hosted a video forum with leading officials of the six major economic provinces including Guangdong and Jiangsu. He described the provinces, which contribute 45% of the country’s total economic output, as “pillars” of the country’s economic development, and urged them to take a key role in stabilising economic growth. 

Following the public appearances of Xi and Li, Politburo Standing Committee members Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang and Han Zheng also participated in foreign affairs activities or chaired meetings and symposiums. Politburo member and Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan had also made an appearance on 13 August directing anti-epidemic efforts in Sanya.  

This photo taken on 8 July 2022 shows people passing a checkpoint with a flag of the Chinese Communist Party at a shopping mall in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. (Jade Gao/AFP)
This photo taken on 8 July 2022 shows people passing a checkpoint with a flag of the Chinese Communist Party at a shopping mall in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. (Jade Gao/AFP)

Prior to these engagements, the last group appearance of CCP leaders was on 31 July at a reception to celebrate the 95th founding anniversary of the PLA, which falls on 1 August.

CCP leaders had an unusually packed schedule in the last week of July, with engagements including a forum for non-party members hosted by the CCP Central Committee on 25 July in Zhongnanhai; a study session for officials at the provincial/ministerial level on the essence of Xi’s speech to welcome the 20th Party Congress and set the tone for its report, held between 26 and 27 July; a Politburo meeting on 28 July, which was also the day when Xi and Biden spoke on the phone; followed by the reception to celebrate the PLA’s founding anniversary on 31 July. Clearly, the densely packed schedule was arranged in preparation for the CCP leaders’ two-week retreat.

Based on the outcomes, Beijing had calculated the gains and losses with precision...

Ready responses to Pelosi’s visit

But in a turn of events, during this period, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a historic visit to Taiwan. The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command conducted military exercises near Taiwan thereafter, as if in a prelude to armed reunification, while the CCP released its third white paper on the Taiwan issue, asserting that the use of force “would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances”.

This volley of responses took place during the Beidaihe retreat period when none of the top officials of the CCP made any public appearances. It was almost like reading from a script that had long been prepared to be delivered at any time.

An Air Force aircraft under the Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) takes off for military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, from an undisclosed location in this 4 August 2022 handout released on 5 August 2022. (Eastern Theater Command/Handout via Reuters)
An Air Force aircraft under the Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) takes off for military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, from an undisclosed location in this 4 August 2022 handout released on 5 August 2022. (Eastern Theater Command/Handout via Reuters)

Based on the outcomes, Beijing had calculated the gains and losses with precision, such as avoiding direct confrontation with the US but hitting Taiwan hard with military, economy, political deterrence and sanctions, and changing the status quo of the security situation in the Taiwan Strait in one fell swoop.  

... the crisis created by her visit has not only failed to expose the CCP’s vulnerability in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, but also strengthened the power of the top leaders and made the re-election of the general secretary more of a certainty. 

The fact that this happened during the CCP’s major political year highlights that the CCP has almost achieved the stability it has actively sought. Over the course of a decade, the centralisation and consolidation of power at the top is almost complete. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also wrote in a recent article that Xi will certainly be re-elected after the 20th Party Congress.

Furthermore, contrary to the rhetoric US commentators have used to discourage Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the crisis created by her visit has not only failed to expose the CCP’s vulnerability in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, but also strengthened the power of the top leaders and made the re-election of the general secretary more of a certainty.

Pedestrians walk past a giant screen broadcasting a news report on Chinese People's Liberation Army's (PLA) military exercises around Taiwan, in Beijing, China, 4 August 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Pedestrians walk past a giant screen broadcasting a news report on Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s military exercises around Taiwan, in Beijing, China, 4 August 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The stability of the situation is even more apparent when we compare it with the time of the 18th Party Congress, which was dogged by rumours of a high-ranking official attempting to defect to a US Consulate, and a Politburo member being suddenly removed. 

The assessment of the Taiwan Strait situation and proposed countermeasures in the 20th Party Congress report will attract much attention, especially in terms of whether a timeline for armed reunification will be set.

Assessing the Taiwan Strait situation

In that case, what are the tasks to be completed and uncertainties leading up to the 20th Party Congress? One, the remaining personnel appointments; and two, the urgent challenge of stabilising the economy. Xi’s visit to Liaoning and his support for revitalising northeast China, as well as Li’s visit to Shenzhen, are aimed at ensuring that the serious problems faced by the economy, housing sector and youth employment will not unintentionally become political issues.

During the above-mentioned study session, Xi stressed the importance of scientifically planning the objectives, tasks and policies for the development of the CCP and the state for the next five years and beyond. Five years ago at the 19th Party Congress, China set the goal of basically realising socialist modernisation in the first stage from 2020 to 2035. Assuming that this goal does not change, the 20th Party Congress will focus on planning the tasks for the next five years with this in mind.

The assessment of the Taiwan Strait situation and proposed countermeasures in the 20th Party Congress report will attract much attention, especially in terms of whether a timeline for armed reunification will be set. Based on the current situation, while hope for peaceful reunification is fading away, if Beijing is able to maintain a strong regime and an overwhelming military superiority, it can still choose to “end war with war” — that is, by implementing military exercises similar to “locking down” the island to restrain the cross-strait situation from further moving towards “Taiwan independence”. If this is so, Northeast Asia can still enjoy peace for a few more years.

Taiwan society and the political mainstream also have a part to play in this issue. In fact, while some Americans may be unaware of the danger of the Taiwan Strait crisis and the severity of Beijing’s "red lines", the political mainstream in Taiwan, as the first party, should be fully sober about the situation. Although it is believed that they will pull the brakes if something catastrophic happens, the worry is that it could be too late.

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