As I was watching the astonishing Camp David meeting among the leaders of Korea, Japan, and the U.S., an old question popped into my head:
- Why does Xi Jinping continue his belligerence toward advanced democracies when that belligerence encourages them to band together more strongly against China?
Between China and the U.S., each side blames the other for the deterioration of the relationship.
- And it really is a 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' kind of question – with each country calling the other the chicken who laid the egg.
This no doubt means that I see Mr. Xi as the chicken and his belligerence as an irrational egg because I am an American.
- But taking the Chinese point of view, the whole picture changes – and 'Mr. Xi' is replaced with ‘the American President.’
If it weren’t for Taiwan, who’s right or wrong wouldn’t make a lot of difference.
- Otherwise, just a lot of words, words, words.
But China’s actions toward Taiwan have shot past mean words to outright military threats.
- (And the Chinese blame the U.S. for this, claiming the U.S. is not living up to its agreements, is encouraging Taiwan independence, and is interfering in China’s internal affairs – just as the U.S. blames China for abandoning ‘peaceful reunification.’)
Because the stakes over Taiwan are so high, it’s worth asking:
- What if one leader or the other were to act outside what we consider the ‘rational actor model’? (More on that model later from a great essay in Foreign Affairs, ‘The Unpredictable Dictators: Why It’s So Hard to Forecast Authoritarian Aggression.’)?
For our discussion today, though, let’s just ask about one side: What if that leader is Mr. Xi?
- What if - based on flawed views of China's military capability, bad intelligence, or a misreading of Taiwan and U.S. intentions – or just an impulse – Mr. Xi orders the blockade or invasion of Taiwan?
All our careful analyses of PLA capabilities, the parsing of Mr. Xi’s and Mr. Biden’s statements, the predictions as to the year of the invasion, everything – all out the window.
- This is one you won’t see coming – but one you have to have prepared for.
1 | Pigs fly
Last week the leaders of Korea and Japan, hosted by Joe Biden at Camp David, participated in the first ‘Trilateral Summit.’
- From that meeting came ‘The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States.’
If someone had shown me the Joint Statement even a year ago, I would have repeated one of my mother’s favorite phrases for expressing incredulity: ‘When pigs fly.’
- This is an extraordinary document, well-worth reading.
Unlike other doomed attempts at some sort of Korea-Japan détente, this one seems to have a chance of sticking.
- For good reason. Xi Jinping’s belligerence toward each nation and toward much of Asia in general has scared the bejesus out of countries that heretofore were pretty lukewarm in joining the U.S. against China.
Add to this event:
- The trilateral security partnership - AUKUS – among Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
- The Quad – U.S., Japan, Australia, and a reluctant India – could strengthen into a security agreement.
- Let’s not forget Southeast nations’ displeasure over China’s bullying (see the South China Sea) – even the Philippines, which had been flirting with China, has now announced plans to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement (EDCA) with the U.S.
- I’ll stop here.
Mr. Xi is fond of saying:
- ‘The East is rising, the West is declining.’
The East is rising all right – rising in opposition to China.
2 | Then there’s Europe.
Europe’s move toward the U.S. stance toward China over the last few years has amazed me almost as much as the Korea-Japan rapprochement.
- While individual European countries have taken a range of positions toward China, both the EU and NATO have been fairly direct, using ever tougher language.
In a speech that is one of the best short analyses of China’s aims, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said:
- ‘President Xi essentially wants China to become the world's most powerful nation.’
‘There are three broad conclusions we can draw on how China is changing’:
- ‘We can expect to see a greater focus on security – whether military, tech or economic.’
- ‘The imperative for security and control now trumps the logic of free markets and open trade.’
- ‘The Chinese Communist Party's clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its centre.’
In the same vein, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in ‘A Stronger NATO for a More Dangerous World’ in Foreign Affairs:
- ‘The Chinese government’s increasingly coercive behavior abroad and repressive policies at home challenge NATO’s security, values, and interests.’
- ‘Beijing is threatening its neighbors and bullying other countries.’
- ‘It is trying to take control of critical supply chains and infrastructure in NATO states.’
- ‘We must be clear-eyed about these challenges and not trade security interests for economic gains.’
NATO has also followed the U.S. in stitching itself, albeit more loosely, together with advanced democracies in Asia. More from Mr. Stoltenberg’s essay:
- ‘As autocratic regimes draw closer to one another, those of us who believe in freedom and democracy must stand together.’
‘NATO is a regional alliance of Europe and North America, but the challenges we face are global.’
- ‘That is why I have invited the leaders of the European Union and of our Indo-Pacific partners—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—to join us in Vilnius [for the 2023 NATO summit .]’
- This is the second year in a row to invite them.
3 | Is this guy crazy?
So here’s the paradox.
- In a speech a few months ago, Mr. Xi asserted, ‘Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.’
- But, you might argue, if Mr. Xi hadn’t been so belligerent, all these countries wouldn’t feel the need to contain, encircle, and suppress China.
- And because Mr. Xi is ever more belligerent, he’s getting more of the same treatment.
Whether China is the chicken or the egg responsible for these responses, you would think that, regardless, Mr. Xi would dial back the scary rhetoric and actions in the hope of easing the encirclement.
By Mr. Xi’s remaining in this, forgive the term, vicious cycle, you might ask:
- Is this guy crazy?
No, I would argue, not crazy.
- Just working off a different worldview and different priorities - and these may not be leading to, from a U.S. point of view anyway, optimal policies and outcomes.
4 | What kind of world does Xi Jinping want?
Analyses trying to make sense of Mr. Xi’s foreign policy, which seems counterproductive to many, abound.
- But the best concise statement of Mr. Xi’s aims comes from Harvard’s Tony Saich in ‘What kind of world does Xi Jinping want?’:
‘So, what kind of a world does Xi want to see? Two major principles drive his view.’
- ‘First, security and sovereignty issues must all be aligned to ensure the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.’
- ‘Second, he insists that China be seen as at least an equal player in the world, making it a key participant in defining the rules of the road.’
5 | ‘Security and sovereignty’
Dr. Saich’s noting Mr. Xi’s need to align ‘security and sovereignty’ may suggest an answer to the paradox.
- Sure, Mr. Xi’s belligerence weakens China’s ‘security’ because it encourages the advanced democracies – which heretofore supported ‘the peaceful rise of China’ – to join the U.S. in, well, encircling China.
But what is weakened in ‘security’ is perhaps made up for in Mr. Xi’s mind in defending China’s ‘sovereignty.’
- China has shown it will push back on any perceived foreign intrusion into its internal affairs, whether that’s in Hong Kong or Xinjiang or anywhere.
- In doing so, Mr. Xi no doubt also feels that, as Dr. Saich suggests, China’s position as an ‘equal play in the world’ is enhanced.
As China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, explains in a 2021 interview, ‘Our diplomatic style has changed now, and you have to adapt to our new style’ [“我们现在外交风格变了，你们要适应我们的新风格”]:
- ‘There is a very strong anti-China force in Western society.’
‘They don't want China to speak out, but they want to unilaterally attack and discredit China and think China will not respond.’
- ‘Once China responds and strikes back, they are not happy.
‘Westerners accuse us of not conforming to diplomatic etiquette.’
- ‘But the standard we evaluate our work is not how foreigners see us, whether foreigners are happy or not.’
‘Our standard is how fellow citizens see us:’
- ‘Whether our people are satisfied or dissatisfied, whether they are happy with our actions or not.’
By making the people satisfied and happy, Mr. Xi helps, as Dr. Saich says, ‘to ensure the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.’
- But is a marginal step for ensuring Party rule – which already appears pretty darn strong – by antagonizing the advanced democracies so that they band together against China this way worth it?
I would suggest that this course of action – even though it makes sense to Mr. Xi - could be outside the ‘rational actor model.’
6 | ‘Rational Actor Model’
Not long ago, I briefed a government pension fund and was asked if my view on China’s possible invasion of Taiwan had changed. I answered that the overall view hadn’t changed:
- Mr. Xi would, I believe, continue to pressure Taiwan to unify until he became convinced that this wouldn’t work – then, if China had the capability, he would blockade or invade Taiwan.
- How long that would be is anyone’s guess (and plenty of people are guessing).
But I added a new part.
- During Mr. Xi’s second term, I had come to see him as an ‘incompetent dictator’ in so many ways that I didn’t feel certain that he might not just make a bad or dumb decision and invade Taiwan – a real wild card.
Then, as if on cue, Foreign Affairs published ‘The Unpredictable Dictators: Why It’s So Hard to Forecast Authoritarian Aggression,’ which said:
- ‘Policymakers and analysts typically use a “rational actor model” to make predictions.’
- ‘In keeping with its name, the model holds that policymakers will act rationally.’
Models, including the ‘rational actor model,’ ‘are especially bad at predicting the actions of autocrats.’
- ‘Unlike in democracies, where the political process includes checks and balances that can stop bad decisions, authoritarian regimes have very limited, if any, checks on their leaders.’
- ‘Often, dictators ensconce themselves in an echo chamber that shields them from even hearing dissenting views.’
7 | ‘Be ready for a Chinese attack on Taiwan—even if it defies common sense.’
From our ‘rational actor model’ point of view, it defies common sense that Mr. Xi would keep being so belligerent that the advanced democracies are lining up against China – and not get anything we think of as commiserate in return.
- So is Mr. Xi necessarily a ‘rational actor’ about Taiwan?
An argument can be made: No.
- Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Xi has, without needing to, made reunification on his watch central - he's committed to it.
- But, by trashing Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ – the same one on offer to Taiwan - he has left Taiwan with no attractive path to unification.
- Worse, the white paper on China-Taiwan relations after unification isn’t a deal the Taiwanese (or anyone) would ever agree to.
So, Mr. Xi may have simply painted himself into a corner here – with the only out a war or at least a blockage (that may lead to war).
- Like I said, an ‘incompetent dictator.’
Still, when analysts opine on the question if or when Mr. Xi will invade, they measure military capabilities; parse Mr. Xi’s speeches; and declare the year he most likely will invade – all very rational.
- But they don’t opine about the possibility that Mr. Xi will convince himself that the time is now and order an invasion for no better reasons than he had to alienate the advanced democracies or to narrow the paths to unification with Taiwan.
In their Foreign Affairs essay, authors Keren Yarhi-Milo and Laura Resnick Samotin write:
- ‘It is unlikely that China has the military capabilities needed to take the island, which would require carrying out the largest amphibious operation in history.’
- ‘As a result, most analysts tend to believe an invasion is unlikely anytime soon.’
‘But this line of thinking assumes that Chinese leader Xi Jinping knows it would be impossible to seize and hold Taiwan without paying an enormously high price.’
- ‘In other words, it assumes that Xi is a rational actor when, in reality, he may not be.'
‘Instead, surrounded by supplicants, Xi could persuade himself that a war for Taiwan would be fast.’
- ‘He could believe, as Putin did with Ukrainians, that Chinese troops would be welcomed by many Taiwanese people.’
- ‘He could decide that neither the United States nor its allies would come to the island’s defense.’
‘These assumptions are plainly wrong.’
- ‘But Xi would not be the first leader to make decisions that are disastrously incorrect.'
‘Washington, then, needs to be ready for a Chinese attack on Taiwan—even if it defies common sense.’
- And so do we.