Patrick Mendis and Joey Wang. Patrick Mendis is a foreign policy analyst and the author of Peaceful War. Joey Wang is a defense analyst. Both are alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Originally published in Summer 2019.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) places a great emphasis on the significance of anniversaries and political events. The May Fourth Movement against imperialism—organized by students in 1919—called for democracy, which led to the founding of the CPC two years later. The Movement’s 70th anniversary was an inspiration for another group of Peking University students to once again lead a pro-democracy protest. This protest was brutally suppressed and is now known in the annals of history as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
More importantly for the CPC, however, is its national identity rooted in the defeat of the Nationalist (or Kuomintang, KMT) forces which established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), led by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949. The KMT Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek—and the two million supporters who fled to Taiwan—claimed that he was the “President of all China” through the American-backed Republic of China (ROC) in Taipei.
On January 1, 1979, however, when the United States diplomatically recognized the PRC, from Taipei, as the only lawful Chinese government, Beijing responded by declaring the ending of regular “artillery bombardment of Taiwan-controlled offshore islands close to the mainland and opened communications” with the ROC. Then President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, refused Beijing’s olive-branch offer with the “three-noes policy”—no contact, no compromise, and no negotiation with China—even though there is still no formal peace treaty between the two governments.
The situation has now somewhat changed. Successive governments have seen greater movements of people, ever-increasing commercial interactions, and growing cross-Strait investment in both directions. Commemorating the 40thanniversary message to “Compatriots in Taiwan” on January 1, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a five-point proposal for a “peaceful unification” with China, but also made no promise to renounce the use of force.
During US Navy Admiral John Richardson’s four-day visit to China in mid-January, Chinese General Li Zuocheng informed him that “if someone tries to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will do whatever it takes to safeguard national reunification, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The South China Morning Post has called the fate of Taiwan “the most disruptive factor in Beijing’s complex relations with Washington.” As the ultimate goal of his “China Dream” and national rejuvenation of Chinese nation policy, President Xi asserted that “the country is growing strong, the nation is rejuvenating and unification between the two sides of the strait is the great trend of history.”
The Grand Plan and the Six Stabilities
It is important to not lose sight of the fact that the Taiwan issue is simply one step in China’s “Grand Plan”, as the end goal of which is pushing the United States, and its influence, out of Asia. While securing Taiwan would be an important achievement, China’s strategic objective cannot be achieved without other policies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and establishing control over the East and South China Seas. Each of these objectives must be understood within the region’s geopolitical context; the regional balance of power currently established through the Washington-led “democratic alliance” of the Quad with Australia, Japan, and India. China’s Grand Plan must also be viewed through the regional diplomacy that Beijing is exercising throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean basin.
The United States is fully aware that Beijing’s strategic objective begins with the survival of the CPC and its “legitimacy” to rule, according to President Xi’s anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan. A report to the United States Congress in 2018 concluded that the CPC’s primary goal of is to “maintain its hold on power by ensuring domestic stability, protecting sovereignty claims, and defending China’s territorial integrity.” These are, in essence, coded into China’s National Security Laws. Because China’s strategic objective is predicated on this legitimacy, the CPC mustprovide economic and social stability for its citizens. This cannot be achieved without an uninterrupted supply of energy resources to both deliver economic growth and sustain military capacity. This rationale is key to the preservation of the CPC’s power. It should come as no no surprise that, given China’s current economic challenges, Beijing has called for “six stabilities” of the economy—including employment, finance, trade, and investment—as imperative for the CPC’s survival.
Driven by National Identity
China’s primary objectives on protecting sovereignty claims and defending its territorial integrity begin with Taiwan, as the PRC has always seen Taiwan as a part of its national identity. Even in 1951, an American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report recognized that Taiwan was “the last stronghold of the Nationalist regime” and that the Chinese were resolute in “capturing Taiwan in order to complete the conquest of Chinese territory.” The rest of the world has moved on, but for the Chinese, the civil war and the hostilities that followed have never formally ended.
Taiwan however, is not merely a runaway province. It is a strategic focal point in the first island chain which would provide China with a “permanent aircraft carrier” to project its power and influence over the Western Pacific and the second island chain. This is generally referred to as Anti Access or Area Denial. China is already monitoring this region by placing undersea surveillance devices near the American military base in Guam, the largest in the Western Pacific.
In addition, Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College and Joel Wuthnow of the US National Defense University have quoted Chinese military sources which conclude that, without securing Taiwan, “a large area of water territory and rich reserves of ocean resources will fall into the hands of others” and “China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific.” Another Chinese military publication has further concluded that “the biggest obstacle to the expansion of our national interests comes from the First and Second Island Chains set up by the United States.”
The United States, for its part, takes no official position regarding the competing claims in the South China Sea. Washington however, does exercise its right to conduct the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) under the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. Soon after his four-day January visit to Beijing, US Navy Admiral John Richardson hinted that the United States could still send an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait despite new Chinese missile threats and other “technology advances which pose a greater threat to American warships than ever before.”
Thus, the Chinese establishment of its Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea and the island-reclamation followed by military buildup in the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea—as well as the use of a maritime militia—are not only meant to claim de facto rights to the resources within the nine-dash-line, they are tactical steps toward employing coercive diplomacy with its neighbors, and establishing operational control over the region in its move toward unification with Taiwan. China is also working on the diplomatic front to “peel” away those countries that currently recognize Taiwan, which now is only considered as a “sovereign entity” by the Holy See and 16 member-states of the United Nations.
A separate, but related issue, is that China believes it still has some unfinished business with Japan, both with respect to the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands in the East China Sea as well as the broader historical context of national humiliation. Under President Hu Jintao during 2003-2007, for example, Japanese fighter jet deployments against Chinese intrusions averaged about 37 per year. However, under President Xi Jinping, the number of fighter deployments have averaged around 560 per year during 2013-17—a 15-fold increase. I is no accident that China’s first nationally built aircraft carrier has been called the “Shandong”—a colonial province that was ceded to Japan after World War I.
The Enablers of National Rejuvenation
The key enabler that has allowed Beijing to protect its sovereign claims and project its power has been China’s explosive economic growth. As its economy cools however, major programs such as the BRI will be critical to any future projection of power. The BRI’s envisioned purpose is to “promote regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations, and promote world peace and development.” Behind this hearty mixture of material, economic, and cultural aspirations however, lie other hidden motivations not likely to be mentioned in official rhetoric.
First, China also wants to decrease its dependence on domestic infrastructure investment and begin moving investments overseas to address its capacity overhang. It should not come as a surprise that the key instrument of this investment transfer occurs through the Chinese system of “state capitalism,” further solidified by President Xi. Among the BRI’s infrastructure development projects, Chinese companies accounted for 89 percent of the contractors, according to a five-year analysis of BRI projects by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The BRI also parallels numerous regional economic and infrastructure development initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). A number of the member-countries of those projects have found the abundant Chinese capital too attractive to resist. Sri Lanka, this year’s chair of the BIMSTEC, for example, is currently granting China a 99-year lease at the Hambantota Port and approximately 15,000 acres of land nearby for an industrial zone which would help pay for part of the $1.1 billion the country now owes China. Laos and Cambodia—members of ACMECS—are so indebted to China that Australia’s former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has purportedly opined that they have become “wholly owned subsidiaries of China.” Some countries have now learned from the Sri Lankan experience and have recognized that the costs of Chinese investment far outweigh the benefits. Bangladesh, for instance, has declined Chinese funding for the much needed “20km-long rail and road bridges over Padma river” and has instead opted to “self-generate funds.” Thailand is working to create a regional infrastructure fund through ACMECS to reduce reliance on China and avoid China’s “debt trap” diplomacy.
Even outside the BRI’s immediate domain, China is using its wealth to diplomatically isolate Taiwan. In Latin America, China peeled away El Salvador's support in August after peeling away the Dominican Republic’s in May 2018. China’s growing influence in Africa means that now only Swaziland—a tiny landlocked country—recognizes Taiwan, following Burkina Faso’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in May 2018.
China is also expanding its presence and engagement in the Caribbean with capital investments and infrastructure financing, a move which has netted it significant regional influence due to America’s lack of financial support to the hurricane belt. The Caribbean—the so-called “Third Border” of the United States—has been neglected even after Congress passed the U.S.-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016. Furthermore, the Trump White House has shownlittle interest in engaging the Caribbean basin. Many observers think that the region is “too democratic and not poor enough” to get on the American foreign policy agenda even though Washington has long noticed Chinese “inroads” in the region.
Beijing has often hailed Chinese investments as “win-win.” However, given that many countries both within and outside the BRI are now indebted to China, it is not clear whether the partnership is a win for both China and its counterpart. China could actually win twice, since a) it is generally well understood that the switching of allegiance is more monetary than ideological, and b) the recipient often ends up indebted to China without the means to repay the debt.
Second, China wants to internationalize the use of its currency alongside the BRI and its acquisition of new partners in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean basin. Making the renminbi (RMB) a global currency in 2015 had been one of the highest economic priorities of Beijing’s Grand Plan. China and some 65 BRI countries—which collectively account for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves—are increasingly using the RMB to facilitate trade and infrastructure projects. Pakistan, for example, switched from using the dollar in bilateral trade with China to the RMB after President Donald Trump publicly attacked Pakistan on Twitter for harboring terrorists. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (C-PEC) to Xinjiang—a BRI project—can now depend upon a steady stream of Chinese capital. Pakistan also minimized the weight of American diplomatic threatssuch as cutting off economic assistance and military support. Use of the RMB would also help authoritarian regimes like Iran, North Korea, and Sudan undermine the American-imposed “financial sanctions” due to violations of norms such as human rights, child labor, and human trafficking. Furthermore, the success of the BRI, if achieved, would establish Eurasia as the largest economic market in the world and could shift the world away from the dollar-based financial system.
Third, China seeks to secure its energy resources through new pipelines in Central Asia, Russia, and South and Southeast Asia’s deep-water ports. Beijing’s leadership has been concerned for some years about its “Malacca Dilemma.” President Hu Jintao declared in 2003 that “certain major powers” may control the Strait of Malacca and that China needed to adopt “new strategies to mitigate the vulnerability.” The Strait of Malacca is the main conduit connecting China to the Indian and Pacific Oceans via the South China Sea, and is also the shortest sea route between oil suppliers in the Persian Gulf and key markets in Asia. In 2016, 16 million barrels of crude oil transited through the Malacca Strait each day, 6.3 million of which were destined for China. In 2017, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest crude oil importer. The sustainability and security of energy supplies is a key input to China’s domestic stability and economic growth, its military operations, and, concomitantly, the very legitimacy of the CPC. Initiatives under the BRI—such as the C-PEC to Xinjiang province, the Kyaukpyu pipeline in Myanmar that runs to Yunnan province, and the ongoing discussions for the proposed Kra Canal in Thailand—are of vital interest because they would provide energy resources from the Middle East alternative routes to China, bypassing the Malacca Strait. The BRI will also support expansions of China’s military bases across the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea.
Global Response Led by Washington
As Beijing’s intentions become clear, the rising tensions have now revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, Japan, and the US. Each member has its own economic and geostrategic concerns over balancing China’s expanding power and influence using a host of counter-strategies. President Trump has, for example, signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018—a belated expression of America’s commitment to the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.
The United States Senate has also passed the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act of 2018 to reform and improve American overseas private investment to help developing countries with ports and infrastructure. Its main goal is countering China’s influence and assisting BRI countries with alternatives to China’s “debt trap” diplomacy.
From a historical perspective, China’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. In the 60-plus years since American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared the three principles—1) the US would not recognize the People’s Republic of China, 2) would not admit it to the UN, and 3) would not lift the trade embargo—China has grown from a veritable economic backwater to one of the most powerful economies in the world. China now seeks to create a new set of global norms while overturning the existing norms that Beijing claims it had no role in creating. That may be true, but China should remember that those existing international norms have also played a critical role in raising China to where it is today.
Headed for War? Indications and Warnings
Successive American and Chinese leaders have come and gone, but China’s strategic objectives remain the same as they were in 1965 when the CIA concluded, inter alia, that the goal of CPC for the foreseeable future would be to “eject the West, especially the US, from Asia and to diminish US and Western influence throughout the world.” The CIA further reported that Beijing also aimed to “increase the influence of Communist China in Asia” as well as to “increase the influence of Communist China throughout the underdeveloped areas of the world.”
While tensions remain fraught between Washington and Beijing, the logic of China’s exercise of military power and its willingness to go to war, however, is more nuanced—and not necessarily direct. In any confrontation with the United States, Beijing’s strategy will include “creating sufficient doubt in the minds of American strategists” about the likelihood of winning an armed conflict with China. In his book, On China, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concludes that the Chinese are likely to measure success through “the means of building a dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome of a conflict becomes a foregone conclusion,” rather than through the battles won. The United States, for example, has helped China by sowing doubt among nations in the Indo-Pacific as to what Washington’s commitment to the security and stability of the region.
Security cooperation between the United States and its allies is not intended to “contain China.” Rather, it is aimed at maintaining a regional balance of power to ensure stability and that no one power overwhelmingly dominates the others. Whatever claims China has made about a “Peaceful Rise,” it is clear that “peaceful” is ringing somewhat hollow. Yet, American policies must not embark on a fool’s errand to “contain China,” which would be a “historic blunder.” Instead, the United States should continue to engage allies and friends and maintain a consistent and persistent presence—regardless of the administration in place—as an expression of its resolve, unity, and commitment to security, peace, and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As China continues its military buildup and modernization, the challenge for American negotiators is that intentions, but not capabilities, may change. That the United Kingdom is now seeking to establish military bases in Asia and the Caribbean reflect continuing, and rising, concerns for the United States, the countries of those regions, and those on the European continent.
In addition, the United States and its allies should apply unified pressure in negotiating with China and engaging Beijing to respect global norms in trade, technology transfer, and intellectual property theft. It is quite clear that China’s behavior in pursuit of its Made in China 2025 goals is a concern for the United States and for other advanced economies. As China moves to center stage, Beijing must recognize that in the long run it is in China’s interest as well.
In the broader scheme of things, China should measure its ideological priorities against their costs. If and when China and Taiwan unite, it will be based upon a mutual amity and belief that it is in the interest of all Chinese people to do so—not through coercion and aggression. Beijing cannot bend history to its will.