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Stephen M. Young on Taiwan: What is Xi Jinping doing with Taiwan?

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As of this writing in mid-June, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping () appears to be starting over, pressuring and intimidating Taiwan both rhetorically and militarily. Chinese warplanes have flown over Taiwan in an openly threatening manner, rhetoric in state media has been shrill and threatening, and in general, the one-party dictatorship on the mainland has shown its fear and aversion to peace. democratic republic 90 miles east of the People’s Republic. This at a time when the economy on the mainland continues to be in a slump linked to global economic decline, although there is little concrete evidence that the Xi regime itself is in danger.

President Tsai () reacted with her usual calm, trying not to further exacerbate tensions between the two shores while continuing to manage the islands’ economic recovery after the recent global downturn. With three more years in his second term, there is little political pressure on the leader of the islands at the national level. Unlike the dictatorial Xi, Madame Tsai will resign when her term limit is reached, and a new democratically elected leader will undoubtedly replace her in 2024.

On the contrary, Xis’ rogue actions and rhetoric towards the island republic only further strengthen the position of the Tsai administration, even though the Covid cases remain a source of concern there. Although this is early in the game, I can easily predict that another DPP candidate will successfully emerge to replace Madame Tsais in the next presidential poll in 2024. The once powerful KMT appears fractured, with no obvious flag bearer at- beyond Ma Ying-jeou () to lead the party in the years to come. Eric Chu () impressed me when I was still working in Taiwan, but it is difficult to determine where his political fortunes lie within his party these days. Smaller parties like the People First Party could play a disproportionate role in future elections if the two main parties fail to secure a dominant majority in legislative and presidential elections.

On the surface, Xi appears to be in a comfortable position. He has eliminated term limits and appears to want to either reign indefinitely in the style of his role model, Mao Tse-tung (), or perhaps return to a role behind the curtains if he decides in time to allow one. of his underlings to assume the titular leader of the party and the government on the road. None of this is in keeping with the generally pro-democracy trend in East Asia that has swept away authoritarian regimes in places as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Most experts continue to doubt that China has the ability to successfully launch a maritime assault on the island through ninety miles of open water, although it can rain missiles on military installations. of the island, or even on population centers, if it so wishes. This reckless option would most likely drag the United States into the fray and, at a minimum, further exclude Beijing from the increasingly democratic circle of open societies that surrounds China itself.

Nothing I have written here suggests that I am completely optimistic about the relationship between the two shores. Emperor Xi continues to insist on reunification, forced if necessary, as his lasting legacy, however risky it may seem to the rest of the world. The Biden administration reiterated the Americas long-held position that, barring a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution to cross-strait disputes, the United States is ready to assist Taiwan in any way necessary to enable it to repel any military threat to the de facto independent existence of the islands.

This position has been endorsed by all major politicians in Washington, one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans agree. A very strong majority in Congress has shown in word and deed that it remains committed to Taiwan’s sovereignty and is ready to act both rhetorically and in practical terms to defend Taiwan’s place in the world.

I will end here with some speculation about where this is going. It seems entirely possible to me that Xis’ dangerous overtaking could result in his being sidelined by his own cohorts, who cannot rejoice in his desire to rule indefinitely and thus deprive one of them of the possibility. to aspire to the highest office in Beijing. His stated intention to rule indefinitely may not please those who put him in power nearly a decade ago, assuming that over time they too could make progress at some point. The relative slowdown in the Chinese economy, although the PRC’s statistics are to be swallowed with a grain of salt, cannot help Emperor Xis’ ambitions.

The worst-case scenario would be a sudden and aggressive decision by Xi to threaten or attack Taiwan, perhaps starting with the vulnerable offshore islands, as well as a missile attack on the island itself. Xi must count on a swift and energetic response from the United States, given our long-standing commitments to the island. Japan, Vietnam, ASEAN and other neighbors are also said to be likely to react strongly to any sudden moves from Beijing.

The prudent step for Beijing now would be to reduce tensions and seek common ground with its island neighbor. After all, their economies are more and more intertwined and no one would benefit from heightened tensions or worse in the volatile region across the strait. Hopefully wisdom wins and things calm down soon. Because the alternative is frightening for all parties involved.

Ambassador Stephen M. Young (retired) lived in Kaohsiung as a child over 50 years ago and served four times at AIT: as a young consular officer (1981-82), in as a language student (1989-90), as deputy director (1998-2001) and as director (2006-9). He often visits and writes regularly on Taiwan issues. Young also served as U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General in Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a Foreign Service Officer. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.

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