Telegraphing Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: South Korea and the Xi Jinping Factor

By | October 01, 2022 | No Comments

“Xi Jinping, Man of the People”; image and caption courtesy Chinese Central Television, Beijing, 2016

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought a cascade of anxiety to Northeast Asia. Will Russian expansion outward from Crimea and the ostensible tightening of Russia’s partnership with the PRC embolden Chinese action in the Taiwan Straits?

As the Chinese Communist Party approaches its 20th Party Congress, the ongoing consolidation of Xi Jinping’s power in Beijing entwines with these concerns. (To understand the relationships at play at the Congress, the Asia Society has helpfully depicted the CCP leadership as a sort of Eye of Sauron.) To what extent does Xi Jinping’s remoulding of the Chinese Communist Party in his image, his more aggressive rhetoric with respect to external security, and his authorization of ongoing erosions of the status quo in the Taiwan Straits, indicative of outright conflict or deepening of Cold War trends?

South Korea, Taiwan, and the War in Ukraine

South Korean analysts have been thinking about these things for a while. For some, the war in Ukraine has triggered concerns over the revival of the Republic of Korea’s Cold War-era policy toward Russia.

Two days before the Ukraine war kicked off, the Seong-Hyon Lee produced an impressive analysis of the hot-and-then-cold South Korean discussions for a “Taiwan contingency”:

So far, despite Taiwan’s geopolitical situation featuring heavily in South Korean media, the Taiwan Strait issue has yet to enter the country’s mainstream policy agenda. Moreover, some pockets of South Korea’s policy community feel uneasy when the U.S. begins to place greater emphasis on the issue of Taiwan than on the issue of North Korea. [Yet] North Korea may also find the diversion of U.S. attention from the Korean Peninsula to the Taiwan Strait to be an opportunity to engage in more military adventurism against South Korea.

Seong-Hyon Lee, “South Korean Angle on the Taiwan Strait: Familiar Issue, Unfamiliar Option,” Stimson Center Policy Memo, 23 February 2022.

Going back further into the pre-Ukraine war architecture, one can find deeper background on South Korea-Taiwan’s “distant relations” is provided by Chaewon Lee and Adam P. Liff, who note “significant (potential) flexibility” in Seoul’s approach to Taiwan, along with essays on ROK-China relations from Andrew Yeo at Brookings and a report from John Nilsson-Wright and Yu Jie at Chatham House.

As Anthony Rinna’s recent translations on this website have emphasized, some South Korean analysts are highly concerned about a spillover effect from the war in Ukraine. Some South Korean analysts have demonstrated concerns over a Korean War scenario for Ukraine. ROK analysts took careful note of Matthew Pottinger’s remarks at a podcast with the American Enterprise Institute in March 2022, when the former US Deputy National Security Advisor covered the Korean War analogy with recent events in Ukraine in some depth.

Nancy Pelosi at the US Embassy, Tokyo, following on from her trip to Taiwan. Image by Franck Robichon.

The funeral of Abe Shinzo in Tokyo provided the prompt for Kamala Harris’ meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo. (Fittingly, the White House readout of the conversation did not mention the Vice President’s trip to the Demilitarized Zone.)

One wonders to what extent Abe’s last public pronouncement on Taiwan will end up winning out. In an April 2022 opinion piece comparing Taiwan to Ukraine, Abe calls for the abandonment of US “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, citing his own statements to Chinese leaders about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as an example of successful communication.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (center) takes in a military exercise in 2017. Via Flickr.

Xi Jinping and Taiwan

In this context, the reading of Xi Jinping’s intentions seems paramount. For such a reading, South Korean analysts can turn to Kerry Brown’s interview with Hankyoreh. In conversation with the liberal daily, Professor Brown takes a remarkably light touch to Xi, saying that calling him a “dictator” is hardly helpful and that in fact Xi is a “servant” of the Chinese Communist Party whose upcoming third term as Chairman might actually be quite popular amongst the Chinese masses. If only there were a way to measure public sentiment to prove as much, and if only more scholars or Western diplomats were fresh from unmediated personal interactions with the Chinese masses, we might have more recent anecdotal data upon which to pin such hopes. (James Palmer of course takes a far bleaker view of Xi’s rule and the Chinese public’s response to the official propaganda celebrating the every action of the supreme leader.)

As for Xi Jinping’s outlook on Taiwan, we can take Xi’s summer 2021 speech as one baseline. The good folks at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) have a good roundup of the discourse, including this chestnut:

It remains to be seen how impatient Xi will become in making progress on this agenda and the extent to which he will turn Taiwan into a legacy issue given that he would be ninety-six years old in 2049 and that he seems to desire to drive major change during his rule.

David Sacks, “What Xi Jinping’s Major Speech Means For Taiwan,” Asia Unbound (CFR blog), 6 July 2021.

Susan Thornton, Bonnie Glaser and others looked at the prospect of conflict in the Straits, with Glaser astutely noting that there are parameters beyond the personal here which need measuring. Xi’s personality cult might in the end be less important than Five Year Plans, the balance between internal and external security in Fujian province, and the intellectual weight of Warring States-era Chinese military strategies.

Xi Jinping commemorates the 100th anniversary of the CCP in July 2021

So what if the Ukraine war has, in fact, changed very little about the PRC’s approach to Taiwan, but in fact it is the aggregation of Xi Jinping’s personal power which is the key metric? In that case, it might be useful to have some insight into the detail of his considerations in looking at Taiwan.

Madoka Fukuda, a scholar in the Department of Global Politics at Hosei University, has done so in a contemporary way in a recent journal article:

This article summarizes the characteristics of the Xi Jinping regime’s policies toward Taiwan and analyzes how they have changed over the course of the reelection of President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus, and the change of administration in the United States. The first result of the analysis is that Xi Jinping’s policy toward Taiwan has increasingly relied on military power as a means to an end. In addition, its purpose and nature have evolved from warning against Taiwan independence and US-Taiwan cooperation to changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait to his own advantage. Second, in non-military United Front operations toward Taiwan, Xi Jinping has focused on unilaterally promoting reunification as an established fact without being influenced by trends in Taiwanese politics or public opinion.

Madoka Fukuda, “The Xi Jinping Regime’s Maneuvering against Taiwan: Characteristics and Prospects,” Asia-Pacific Review, Vol.29, No. 2 (2022), 79-101.

In the next post in this series, a different leader’s viewpoint will be examined with respect to security in the Taiwan Straits: Mao Zedong. A look at some of Mao’s previously unpublished papers on the relationship between internal security and the Taiwan issue will aid in understanding some of the tensions inherent for a charismatic leader seeking to both mobilize public and institutional support for his policy, but also keeping war hysteria in check domestically.

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