Learning from Russian incursions, and its assertive foreign policy that has seen limited resistance, might encourage China to achieve national rejuvenation before the 2049 deadline by giving up the idea of peaceful unification of Taiwan with China.
On the 3rd of September 2019 at the Central Party School of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping gave a speech titled “Struggle” (douzheng 斗争), where he referred to recent Chinese history: under Mao Chinese people stood up (zhan qilai 站起来), under Deng and his predecessors Chinese people became rich (fu qilai 富起来) and under Xi’s rule Chinese people will become powerful (qiang qilai 强起来). Vladimir Putin had already said in 2011 that “the main struggle is for world leadership, and here Russia is not going to argue with China.”
One major obstacle on China’s path of becoming powerful is the issue of Taiwan. Taiwan’s strategic importance for China lies in the capability to access uninterruptedly the Pacific Ocean and as such escape the entanglement of the US and its allies and break out from the first island chain.1
Xi said in 2013 and 2019 that the solving of the Taiwan issue cannot endlessly be passed on to future generations. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary speech, Xi said that China is willing to resolutely smash any “Taiwan independence” plots to create a bright future for national rejuvenation, which sets the timeframe for establishing Chinese rule in Taiwan by 2049. In 2005 China passed an anti-secession law, which creates the legal ground for using “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if it tries to “secede” from China.
Sino-Russian Defence Cooperation
It is unlikely that Russia will come to China’s assistance if conflict erupts over Taiwan, but has Sino-Russian cooperation helped or hindered China reaching its historic goal of national rejuvenation?
The weapons transfer of S-300 and S-400 batteries and Su-35 fighter jets have enabled China to threaten foreign navies and air forces near China, and would seriously hinder the US and its allies’ assistance to Taiwan. Joint exercises have enabled Chinese inexperienced forces to learn from more experienced Russian counterparts and their operations in Ukraine and Syria. Since 2012 joint naval drills have covered a lot of ground from the Baltic Sea to the South China Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk and have increased operational flexibility and readiness for deployment. In addition, naval drills in disputed waters are a sign of support for each other’s territorial claims.
Furthermore, China’s military modernisation and reform has to a large extent followed Russia’s example and lessons learned from Chechnya and Georgia. After coming to power Xi has established firm control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by reorganising the command system and the force structure, education and training.
Similarly to Russia, the focus has shifted from preparing for large scale attacks to managing regional conflicts. The PLA’s concept of active defence since 2015 includes both de-escalation and seizing the initiative in case of threat to China’s economy or polity. The concept of three warfares (public opinion; psychological and legal warfares), introduced in 2003 and developed ever since, leaves room for plausible deniability if PLA troops, in the form of green men, were to move across the Taiwan Strait in civilian ferries to defend “compatriots” on the other shore.
Encouraged by Lack of Response
Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait could be encouraged by the lack of response it has received in building artificial islands in the South China Sea, organising state-led mass detention in Xinjiang or shutting down Hong Kong civil society all in violation of international law. The same could be said about Russia and its incursions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. If China’s potential incursion to Taiwan was met by maritime blockade by the US and its allies, China could still possibly rely on good neighbourly relations with Russia for having access to alternative trade routes along the Belt and Road Initiative and access to Russian and Central Asian energy resources.
The appeal to Russia in China’s incursion to Taiwan would be increased operational space in its sphere of interests due to the US’s attention and capabilities drastic shift to Asia Pacific. In addition, in the future we could also bare witness to military transfers from China to Russia, especially when it comes to naval vessels. China already has the world’s biggest navy. It is obvious that Europe has no way of stopping Russia purchasing from China something similar to the Mistral-class warship.
For China, the light for military modernisation and reform so far has shined from Russia as the primary source of its advanced military equipment and the mould for restructuring. Learning from Russian incursions, and its assertive foreign policy that has seen limited resistance, might encourage China to achieve national rejuvenation before the 2049 deadline by giving up the idea of peaceful unification of Taiwan with China.
The US’s focus moving to the Asia Pacific would mean that my Taiwanese neighbour’s problem today could become an Estonian problem tomorrow – because in the environment of limited capabilities there are not enough resources for both European and Asia Pacific regions. On the other hand, the same applies to China. Stronger relations between Europe and Taiwan increase the cost of conflict for China as it does not want to face sanctions from the American and the European market at the same time.
1 The first island chain refers to the first chain of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).