Written by Douglas Paal.
China has just concluded its 19th Party Congress. The air is redolent with questions about how much will change and what will continue. After more than a year of extremely cautious avoidance of controversy, especially with its neighbors, Beijing may now have a free hand to make strategic and tactical adjustments without fear of their immediate effects on domestic political equities.
President Xi Jinping seized the opportunity of the 19th Party Congress to lay out a vision to carry China to 2050, the culmination of which will present the world with a fully rejuvenated China, joining the first ranks of developed economies and military powers. Though the words Xi chose avoided hard edges, they sent a nationalist message that is unmistakable: China is back, and it counts in the world. Xi emphasized China’s future contributions to global prosperity and peace, while striking a jealous, even defiant tone about its sovereignty and perceived interests.
By and large, this message conveys more continuity than change. As he concluded his first year as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013, Xi summoned a major foreign-affairs conference in Beijing, a policy conference on relations with nations on China’s periphery. The message then was on the whole positive and seemed to lift the curtain on a new era of creative diplomacy with China’s neighbors. Beijing subsequently amplified the Belt and Road Initiative to build land and maritime routes extending out from China, an initiative identified with Xi but with links to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and announced the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to deepen links with China’s neighbors and beyond.
But it was not long before continuing territorial and historical rivalries with some of those neighbors became hallmarks of Xi Jinping’s time in office. Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines are the most prominent examples, and India has had tensions with China, too. Xi’s ambitions for a smiling diplomacy on China’s periphery often came with a snarl. In fact, in his report to the 19th Party Congress, Xi took credit for two assertive policies enacted on his watch: the establishment of a Northeast Asian Air Defense Identification Zone over waters claimed by others, especially Japan; and the creation of military bases on low-tide emergent features in the South China Sea, defying neighbors’ interests and the critical findings of an Arbitral Tribunal about territorial rights on those features under the Law of the Sea Convention in 2016.
The 19th Party Congress results may ultimately produce changes in the personnel who administer Chinese foreign and defense policy, but these will take months to unfold, leading up to the National People’s Congress next March. So far, the rumor mills suggest much more continuity than change in the foreign policy apparatus. In the military arena, Xi has set in motion far-reaching personal changes, the impact of which may take years to unravel.
Context is important. Xi articulated an effective end to Deng Xiaoping’s famous “hide and bide” dictum, to keep a low international profile, in favor of promoting more expansive Chinese power and influence and an activist Chinese policy role. This comes as the United States has entered a new era under President Donald Trump, which most in the region see as one of withdrawal. The new U.S. administration is devaluing the post-World-War-II liberal international order and promoting an America-first agenda. The great Asian developmental success story, achieved at relatively low military cost due to the stability provided by past American power, is viewed as being put at risk by American distraction at home. It is as if the farmer who cleared the land, cultivated the soil, planted the crops, fertilized and irrigated them, suddenly left the harvest to China. Protestations from the Trump White House about continued engagement with the region remain more doubtful than trustworthy pending more evidence of accomplishment.
For Taiwan, this is a vital moment. In his report to the 19th Party Congress, Xi’s statements regarding Taiwan and ultimate reunification were unyielding. Partly this reflected the change in leadership on Taiwan since the last Party Congress, when a more emollient administration was in charge in Taipei. China has increased diplomatic and economic pressure on the new leadership to return to the political foundation of the previous eight years, the so-called “1992 consensus.” In the choice of words in the report, Xi seemed even to give a slight nod to Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, and her expressions of respect for the “historical realities,” hoping she will move toward accepting something closer to the “1992 consensus” as the basis of her cross-strait policy.
But there was a big iceberg hidden among the waves of verbiage in the Party Work Report. Xi said China will achieve “rejuvenation” by 2049, and reunification is integral with China’s revival. So he has set a soft final deadline for reunification with Taiwan by 2049. In reporting on the 19th Congress outcomes, the Xinhua news agency has not played this up, and presented a conservative agenda, probably so as not to provoke domestic nationalist pressures to grasp beyond China’s current reach. But the iceberg remains.
Over the past year, personnel adjustments of Taiwan-related staff raised the possibility Beijing might seek to increase pressure on Taiwan to return to a formula for relations closer to the “1992 consensus” that prevailed under the previous KMT government. Beijing might have been signaling an agenda to penalize the current DPP government for independence seeking tendencies, or to press an agenda for early reunification with the mainland. Yet conversations in recent months in Beijing with concerned officials deflected these suspicions and directed expectations toward more continuity than change.
How this set of possible outcomes is to be managed depends heavily on how the U.S. conducts its relations with China, Taiwan, and the region. It is our project to explore the choices facing Washington, as well as Beijing and Taipei. The new Trump administration is being tested in its capacity to manage these relationships with the president’s high profile visit to the region in November. We should scrutinize its conduct and the responses to it carefully.
Douglas Paal is Vice President for Studies and Director of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C. This article was first published on Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme. Image credit: CC by COP Paris/Flickr.