A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent. If we listen to the words of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, that is.
Xi’s much-anticipated Party Congress work report, delivered last month at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, offered sinologists the most authoritative assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, to include Taiwan. Like forensic evidence, each word of the speech should be dissected, scrutinized, and analyzed for clues — and possible changes — to China’s approach to Taiwan.
Such a fine-toothed comb approach is warranted. The Party Congress work report is vetted and approved by Xi himself, cognizant that his words will be examined closely by a domestic and global audience on edge for signs of policy shifts.
That is why what Xi said — and didn’t say — on Taiwan was noteworthy. In this latest document, Xi signaled more continuity than change over China’s overall approach to Taiwan. Most importantly, he did not signal a heightened sense of urgency to “solve” the Taiwan issue using military means. This should reassure a jittery global audience increasingly skeptical of Xi’s designs over Taiwan.
That hasn’t stopped a chorus of predictions these days from senior U.S. government officials about an invasion “timeline.” It started with the now-infamous “Davidson window,” in which the former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Philip Davidson, suggested during testimony to Congress in March 2021 that the threat of military action against Taiwan may manifest “in the next six years.” Similar predictions followed from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, CIA Director Bill Burns and Deputy Director David Cohen, and Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl. The latest voice from inside the U.S. government expressing concern about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan came from Secretary of State Blinken, who said last month that China wants to seize Taiwan on a “much faster timeline.”
Certainly, assessments from senior government officials should be taken seriously. These officials undoubtedly have access to intelligence and feel compelled to raise public concerns over Xi’s thinking regarding Taiwan. But absent access to classified materials, and the ability to read Xi’s mind, the voice we should be paying closest attention to is that of Xi himself. And the bottom line is if Xi wanted to change course or tone on Taiwan, he could have done so in his speech. But he didn’t. That should be cause for relief in the near term.
But the long-term military threat from China’s government will not disappear anytime soon. That is why the United States must continue to meaningfully support Taiwan’s defense capabilities, to include asymmetric capabilities that will materially affect outcomes on the battlefield, coupled with economic and diplomatic initiatives that ensure Taiwan’s participation in international fora, while at the same time assuring Beijing that the United States does not seek to move fundamentally away from its “One China” policy premised on “strategic ambiguity.” No easy task, to be sure.
Parsing The Taiwan Section of the Speech
Every work report features a section dedicated to Taiwan and cross-strait relations. This section merits the most scrutiny and should be compared to the Taiwan sections of prior work reports for changes in language and tone.
A review of this year’s section yields several core themes: most importantly, it highlighted Xi’s preference for “peaceful unification” (和平统一) on the basis of the “one country, two systems” model, and warned “secessionist forces” that Beijing would not renounce the use of force to safeguard China’s interests. This formula, which is repeated in the 19th work report, reaffirmed longstanding policy towards Taiwan.
The first sentence, for example, repeats almost verbatim what was written previously:
Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the Motherland is the unswerving historical task of the Party, the common aspiration of all Chinese sons and daughters, and an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
The latest report then devotes the bulk of the section to China’s need to pursue “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan.
Some highlights include:
The policies of peaceful reunification and One Country, Two Systems are the best way to realize reunification across the Taiwan Strait; this best serves the interests of Chinese people on both sides of the Strait and the entire Chinese nation.
We adhere to the one-China principle and the “1992 Consensus.” On this basis, we will advance extensive and in-depth consultations on cross-Strait relations and national reunification with people from all political parties and groups in Taiwan, and jointly promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and the peace of the motherland.
We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.
This [warning] is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots.
Most noteworthy in these passages is the continuity of emphasis to solve the Taiwan issue using “peaceful” means — meaning not using military force to compel or otherwise persuade Taipei to unify with Mainland China. Had Xi intended to signal a shift from this goal, he would have done so with tougher language, warnings, or the removal of the term “peaceful” from the above phrases.
To be sure, Xi reiterated that China would not renounce the use of force — a warning repeated by every General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since Mao Zedong. Thus, this phrase was not a surprise to China watchers who follow Party Congress work reports closely.
A Warning to “External Forces”
Despite Xi’s assurances to pursue “peaceful unification,” other issues are clearly bothering him. Namely, U.S. policy towards Taiwan.
This year’s work report included the judgement that “interference by external forces” (外部势力干涉) in Taiwan affairs continue to pose “serious provocations” (严重挑衅) for the Chinese government. Xi used this phrase three different times in the report. In contrast, he did not use this term once in the 19th Party Congress work report.
Xi elevates the gravity of said “outside forces” by mentioning the issue early in the report — in the fifth paragraph, in fact — a clear signal that he believes that the United States and its allies and partners are exacerbating the Taiwan problem more than in the past. For Xi and other government strategists, the U.S. factor of aiding and supporting “independence forces” in Taiwan has increased, not decreased, greatly complicating any effort to coerce Taiwan back to the negotiating table. At the top of the list of actions that China regards as “outside interference” undoubtedly include U.S. arms sales and congressional delegation visits to Taiwan.
Xi follows the assessment about external forces with equal parts triumphalism and deterrence, by saying:
We resolutely carried out major struggles against separatism and interference, demonstrating our strong determination and determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose “Taiwan independence”.
In other words, independence forces were thwarted once again by Xi and the People’s Liberation Army. Even here, though, Xi could have been more aggressive in his delivery. At the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021, for example, Xi dropped this phrase to would-be foreign provocateurs and oppressors:
The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us. Anyone who dares try to do so will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people!
In the context of current cross-strait relations, how long Xi can forestall Taiwanese and foreign “forces,” and how much patience Xi has for the perceived independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party government in Taipei, remain key questions going forward.
History and Initiative are on China’s Side
Two phrases made appearances in this year’s Party Congress work report that were particularly noteworthy. First, Xi made two references of the need to grasp “strategic initiative/dominance” (主动权/主导权) over Taiwan.
The need to “seize the initiative” has a long history in China’s Communist Party political and military orthodoxy, made famous, of course, by Mao Zedong. But it’s inclusion in the report — and not in the last work report — merits further examination.
Two examples from the report include:
Adhere to the party’s overall strategy for resolving the Taiwan issue in the new era, firmly grasp the dominance and initiative in cross-strait relations, and unswervingly advance the great cause of national reunification.
Resolutely oppose “Taiwan independence” separatist acts, resolutely oppose interference by external forces, and firmly grasp the dominance and initiative of cross-strait relations.
It is noteworthy that this phrase is invoked entirely in the context of reunification with Taiwan. Likely, Xi conceives of this “grasping initiative” strategy in whole-of-government terms, to include military counter-measures in response actions by “external forces,” such as the missile tests near Taiwan after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August, but also long-term political and economic measures to tempt Taiwan into political talks with Beijing in the future.
Finally, Xi concludes the Taiwan section of the speech with a metaphor:
The historical wheels of national reunification and national rejuvenation are rolling forward and will certainly be achieved.
This is a new twist to an oft-repeated phrase in Party work reports that historical trends are pushing the two sides closer together. While some may interpret a coercive undertone of “inevitability” in unifying Taiwan with China, it is nonetheless a softer pitch for cross-strait reproachment than previous formulations.
Pessimists will dismiss Xi’s speech as nothing more than Communist propaganda whose jargon is meant to conceal more than reveal and provide diplomatic cover to bide time for when China has the military capability to “solve” the Taiwan question by force. To be fair, Xi’s words should be continually compared against facts on the ground. And the facts, no doubt, suggest a much more coercive and muscular military posture around Taiwan.
But it would be a mistake to not take seriously the words of Xi in a major speech crafted for both domestic and international audiences. For Xi and China, the 20th Party Congress work report represents the most authoritative assessment of China’s policy towards Taiwan. It also sets the tone for Taiwan policy in the next several years during Xi’s third term as General Secretary.
And nowhere in the 20th work report does Xi suggest a more belligerent, impatient, or coercive policy towards Taiwan. Nor does it suggest that Xi has a set a timeline for reunification. What it does suggest is that Xi cares more about signaling policy continuity highlighted by “peaceful unification” with Taiwan in the near term.
But the United States and other like-minded countries should not interpret this as a sign that time is on their side. For peace to prevail — and for the risks of military conflict with Taiwan to continue to outweigh the benefits for Xi — countries must continue to send unambiguous signals to Xi and his government that any military aggression to compel unification of Taiwan will be met with a forceful military, economic, and diplomatic response.
Lyle J. Morris is a senior fellow for foreign policy and national security at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.
Image: Wikimedia Commons