No. Ukraine Won't Change Xi's Plans - or Timetable - for Taiwan

No. Ukraine Won't Change Xi's Plans - or Timetable - for Taiwan
No. Ukraine Won't Change Xi's Plans - or Timetable - for Taiwan


Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder | CHINADebate

The Ukraine invasion has generated a slew of reports in the media and journals – some arguing the invasion will embolden Mr. Xi to invade Taiwan, and others saying that Russia's setbacks and the western response will deter him.

  • These conflicting views have created renewed anxiety among institutional investors, business leaders, and policymakers.

That anxiety has filled my inbox with the questions:

  • ‘Will the Ukraine invasion prompt Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan?’
  • And, if so, how soon?

My answer to these queries:

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t affect Xi Jinping’s decisions about or timetable for Taiwan reunification.

Mr. Xi will not waiver in his determination to subdue Taiwan - peacefully or not.

  • Seeing Russia's setbacks and the world's reaction won't change that.

And he will deal with the Taiwan issue in his own time.

  • Ukraine won't speed up or delay Mr. Xi's timetable. (But it may cause him to work harder to strengthen China's military and insulate its economy from external pressure.)

As Kevin Rudd in ‘China’s Lessons from Russia’s War’ (the best short analysis I've read) says:

  • ‘For Xi, reunification is not in doubt.'

'Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland is central to Xi’s promise to complete Mao Zedong’s revolution.'

  • 'That makes reunification essential both to the CPC’s political legitimacy and to Xi’s own deification within the CPC pantheon.'

‘Chinese President Xi Jinping is not the type of leader to let himself be pushed from his preferred course by anything or anyone – including Russian President Vladimir Putin.’

  • ‘China will neither accelerate nor postpone its preferred timetable because of anything it sees happening on the battlefields of Donbas.’

My take is that Mr. Xi will stay on his 'preferred course.'

  • On that course, invading Taiwan is his last option.

1 | Invading Taiwan is Mr. Xi's last option

As for Mr. Xi's 'preferred course' for Taiwan reunification, here's some of what I wrote in ‘Why China Won’t Invade Taiwan – Yet’ in May 2021.

  • And the invasion of Ukraine hasn't changed these views.

‘Will China invade Taiwan in the next few years?’

‘My short answer:’

  • ‘No.’

‘The reason is Xi Jinping himself.’

  • ‘Instead of going in guns blazing, Xi Jinping’s preferred methods of taking territory are bullying and ‘salami-slicing.’

‘In his quest for control of Hong Kong and the South China Sea, Mr. Xi didn't start shooting but instead, as Sun Tzu counsels in the Art of War, he ‘subdued his enemies without fighting.’

  • ‘That’s what he’s trying to do in Taiwan: Break the will of the Taiwanese people and government, so that they join the Mainland without a shot being fired.’

‘So far that’s been a campaign of economic, political, and diplomatic pressure; increasingly more frequent and larger military overflights; and a rapid military buildup that is threatening enough in itself - but Mr. Xi still has lots of other options short of an invasion.’

  • ‘My take is that he will keep ramping pressure on Taiwan rather than take the risk of an attack with the possibility of meeting America and its allies on the battlefield.’

‘My longer answer to the question: Will China invade Taiwan?’

  • ‘No, unless China is provoked or miscalculates.’
  • ‘Or – and this is the big one - unless Xi Jinping determines his efforts to achieve unification by coercion, however long that takes, have failed, and invasion is the only option left to him.’

So will the invasion of Ukraine provoke Mr. Xi to push invasion from the bottom of the list of options to the top?

  • Or will it cause him to miscalculate?

No way.

2 | ‘…superficial, misleading, and just plain wrong.’

In his excellent ‘China’s Lessons from Russia’s War,’ Kevin Rudd – president of the Asia Society, two-time Australian Prime Minister, and an experienced China watcher – argues:

‘Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, two views quickly emerged in the West about what lesson China would take from the war.’

  • ‘The first suggested that NATO’s failure to deter Russia – or to defend Ukraine directly – would inspire China to advance the timetable for a planned invasion of Taiwan, or even to capitalize on the chaos brought about by the war to attack the island immediately.’
  • ‘But after Russia’s military ran into significant and unexpected challenges early on, an alternate line of analysis emerged suggesting that China has now been significantly deterred from ever attempting to take Taiwan.’

‘Both of these views are superficial, misleading, and just plain wrong.’

  • I would add that they also obscure Xi Jinping’s motivations for and challenges in seeking Taiwan’s reunification – and his steadfast determination to carefully and methodically achieve his ends on his own schedule.

3 | ‘Only the reunification of Taiwan is a fitting accomplishment for Xi’s legacy.’

In trying to understand what Mr. Xi does and plans to do - not just about Taiwan but about just every issue - I have often suggested two maxims:

  1. Take Mr. Xi at his word – he means it, and
  2. Never underestimate his ambition – Mr. Xi appears to aim to go down as as great, if not greater, leader than Mao or Deng - or perhaps than any Chinese emperor. In other words, the greatest leader in Chinese history.

Regarding the first maxim as it relates to Taiwan, Mr. Xi said in his speech on July 1, 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party:

  • ‘Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China. It is also a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation.’

This of course is in line with every Chinese leader since Mao.

  • But Mr. Xi has tied ‘resolving the question’ specifically with signature ‘China dream’ of ‘national rejuvenation.’

As Stanford’s Oriana Skylar Mastro writes in ‘The Taiwan Temptation

Why Beijing Might Resort to Force’:

  • Xi may not have sent out a save-the-date card, he has clearly indicated that he feels differently about the status quo than his predecessors did.’
  • ‘He has publicly called for progress toward unification, staking his legitimacy on movement in that direction.’
  • ‘In 2017, for instance, he announced that “complete national reunification is an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” thus tying Taiwan’s future to his primary political platform.’
  • ‘Two years later, he stated explicitly that unification is a requirement for achieving the so-called Chinese dream.’

Take Mr. Xi at his word.

Regarding the second - Mr. Xi's ambition, ‘Xi has given every indication that his grand vision, the China Dream, and his own place in history require China-sized accomplishments on par with the country’s great emperors:'

  • ‘The first emperor’s unification of China, the Great Wall, Kangxi’s economic dominance, Qianlong’s conquering of China’s periphery, and Jiang Zemin’s reclaiming of Hong Kong,’ writes Drew Thompson of the National University of Singapore wrote in ‘China Is Still Wary of Invading Taiwan.’
  • [Add to these Xi’s prime competitors: ‘With Mao, China stood up; with Deng, China became rich.’ The saying ends: ‘With Xi, China became powerful.’ Bringing Taiwan back into the fold would be the ultimate proof of this. Failure? Well….]

‘The Belt and Road Initiative’s messy legacy of debt-driven diplomacy and half-finished projects does not do his imperial legacy justice.’

  • ‘Only the reunification of Taiwan is a fitting accomplishment for Xi’s legacy.’

Or as Mr. Rudd says: ‘Taiwan’s separation from the motherland has always symbolized the era of Chinese weakness at the hands of Japanese imperialism.’ [China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 following its defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. (The Second Sino-Japanese War was from 1937 to 1945 – another sore point.)]

  • ‘For the Communist Party of China, the existence of a Taiwanese administration outside of the control of the government in Beijing is a raw, festering wound.’

‘Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland is central to Xi’s promise to complete Mao Zedong’s revolution.’

  • ‘That makes reunification essential both to the CPC’s political legitimacy and to Xi’s own deification within the CPC pantheon.’

‘For Xi, reunification is not in doubt, however.’

  • As he put it in a message to his Taiwanese “compatriots” in 2019, Taiwan’s return to the mainland’s tender embrace is “a necessary requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” ’
  • And for Xi’s legacy.

Never underestimate Mr. Xi’s ambition.

4 | If not now, when?

According to Henry Kissinger, ‘during President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, a point was reached in discussions where Chairman Mao Zedong said:’

  • ‘ “We can wait, maybe even a hundred years” on the reunification with Taiwan.” ’
  • Mr. Xi is clearly on a different schedule.

Mr. Rudd contends that ‘Xi has given this “necessary requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” a definite timetable:’

  • ‘It must be realized before 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the date Xi has set, in accordance with his “China Dream,” for completing the “great rejuvenation.” ’
  • ‘But since Xi fully intends to be enshrined in Chinese history as Mao’s spiritual successor during his own political lifetime, the more likely timeline for reunification is between now and 2035, before he moves to a comfortable retirement with his legacy secured.’

Stanford University’s Oriana Skylar Mastro argues in ‘Invasions Are Not Contagious: Russia’s War in Ukraine Doesn’t Presage a Chinese Assault on Taiwan’:

  • ‘Chinese leaders are without a doubt considering an attack on Taiwan, but now is not the right time. China’s military is still honing the capabilities it would need to take and hold the island.’
  • ‘And Xi is unlikely to take a dangerous gamble on Taiwan before the next Party Congress in late 2022, when he is widely expected to secure a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.’
  • ‘Xi is also working hard to lessen China’s technological dependence on the West, thus minimizing the impact on any further decoupling after a possible war.
  • For all these reasons, an assault on Taiwan before 2025 is unlikely.’

Mr. Thompson (again from ‘China Is Still Wary of Invading Taiwan’) takes a longer view:

  • ‘Should Xi openly continue as China’s paramount leader following the 20th Party Congress in 2022, he’ll have five more years to achieve his China Dream.’
  • ‘Of course, if conditions are not right during the 20th sitting of the Central Committee, at the age of 74 he could convince them that to achieve the China Dream he must remain in power at the 21st Party Congress—starting in 2027.’
  • ‘Perhaps Xi will also negotiate for a promotion and reintroduce Mao’s title of “chairman”—or perhaps he’ll wait to have the military victory that justifies it.’ Ouch.

Based on these arguments, Mr. Xi aims for Taiwan unification – peacefully or not - no earlier than 2025 and no later than 2035.

  • Does Ukraine change Mr. Xi's timetable?

5 | Does Ukraine change Mr. Xi’s timetable?

After the invasion of Ukraine, The Washington Post reports,

  • ‘Taiwanese officials have been working hard to discourage a catchphrase that has emerged over the last week, “Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan.” ’
  • ‘In Taiwan, where residents have for years been numb to Beijing’s threats and intimidation — including daily incursions into their air defense identification zone, military exercises simulating attacks on the island and cyberattacks — there is a growing realization that the status quo may no longer hold.’

Tomorrow hasn’t come for Taiwan – yet.

  • The reason appears to be that Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has had little impact on Mr. Xi’s timetable for - or any decisions about – Taiwan reunification.

As Mr. Rudd points out:

  • ‘Chinese President Xi Jinping is not the type of leader to let himself be pushed from his preferred course by anything or anyone – including Russian President Vladimir Putin.’

‘He and the rest of the Chinese leadership will certainly be drawing military and financial lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine.’

  • But ‘China will neither accelerate nor postpone its preferred timetable because of anything it sees happening on the battlefields of Donbas.’

Taking the long view in ‘Taiwan Is Not Ukraine: Stop Linking Their Fates Together,’ Hoover Institution’s Kharis Templeman makes this distinction:

6 | The lesson: Keep on keepin’ on. Just faster.

Google any variation of ‘China Ukraine lessons,' and you find a cornucopia of opinions – all speculative and often contradictory.

My take is that Mr. Xi will stay the course he has been on since he took power.

  • The Russian invasion will not change that, except perhaps to cause him to speed up efforts to strengthen China's military and insulate its economy from foreign pressure.
  • And also to make tweaks to his invasion plans (for example, to use 'shock & awe' and blitzkrieg tactics, if he didn't already intend to).

Mr. Rudd, to my eye, again takes the prize for accuracy:

‘Under Xi, China has already been pursuing economic self-sufficiency, financial and technological resilience, and a military modernization geared toward challenging, and someday displacing, US strategic primacy.’

  • ‘But beyond prompting China to double down on these existing policies, the war in Ukraine is unlikely to change the regime’s outlook significantly.’

Miliary. ‘Seeing Russian setbacks in Ukraine will not change the fundamental strategic objective of making the takeover of Taiwan militarily possible.’

  • ‘Xi had already expedited the PLA’s original timetable for its reform and modernization program well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.’

‘Russia’s military and economic challenges in Ukraine will not affect Xi’s goal.’

  • ‘Rather, they are likely to compel him to double down on ensuring that the Chinese military is fully prepared to take Taiwan by force should he give the order.’
  • ‘Nor will Xi’s determination to regain Taiwan change because of anything he sees happening in Asia, for that matter.’

‘China’s military modernization and efforts to instill greater discipline within the People’s Liberation Army began almost as soon as Xi took office in 2013.’

  • ‘That year, he launched a campaign to root out corruption in the military, and this was followed by far-reaching reforms in 2015 to ensure that the PLA could “fight and win” modern, “informationized” wars.’
  • ‘China’s most recent five-year plan, adopted in early 2021, moved up the completion date from 2035 to 2027.’
  • ‘If all goes smoothly (from Xi’s perspective), the modernization will be finished not long before the de facto timeline for reunification with Taiwan begins in the early 2030s.’

Economy. ‘The last lesson that China’s government will take from Russia’s experience is that it is essential to hardwire the Chinese economy against the kinds of financial and economic sanctions that the US and the European Union are now using to isolate and enfeeble Russia.’

  • ‘To avoid suffering the same fate, Xi’s government will accelerate longstanding efforts to strengthen the renminbi’s international position, open China’s capital account, and increase the currency’s share of global foreign-exchange reserves.’
  • ‘That will make it more difficult for the US and its allies to seize Chinese assets than it was for them to freeze Russia’s central-bank reserves.’

‘Xi will also be motivated to redouble his effort to make China a “self-reliant” economy, by selectively decoupling supply chains from the West, supporting domestic technological self-sufficiency, and ensuring food and energy security.’

7 | The danger of Mr. Xi's confidence

More from Mr. Rudd: ‘Xi and the PLA will watch Russia’s military difficulties in Ukraine with keen interest, but in accordance with a strategic approach that is generally conservative about military risk-taking.’

‘Unlike Putin, China already understands implicitly Sun Tzu’s timeless warning that,

  • ‘ “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” ’

‘So, the Chinese will watch what happens in Ukraine with an eye toward avoiding Putin’s mistakes, and with a deep confidence that China can and will do better.’

  • ‘Of course, the danger for Xi is that such confidence could ultimately prove as delusional as Putin’s belief that he would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days.’

‘In the meantime, America and Taiwan face the challenge of building up effective levels of deterrence, so that when Xi’s preferred timetable reaches its moment of decision, the PLA will have no choice but to advise him that the military risks are still too great to launch an invasion.’

  • ‘In Washington, DC, and in allied capitals around Asia, the goal over this next dangerous decade will be to raise those risks to the degree that Xi continues to think twice.’

8 | A ‘Great Man.’

But will he think twice? Mr. Rudd writes:

  • ‘For Xi, a Marxist-Leninist dialectician, the events in Ukraine won’t fundamentally alter the great “trend of the times,” which he has defined as “the East rising, the West declining.” ’

‘Xi personally believes that he is a “great man,” able to channel the tides of history and fulfill China’s destiny – including through the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.’

  • Of course, Taiwan and America are riding different tides of history.
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