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What Xi Jinping Tells His Military About Taiwan


 The Equation Read More 

Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article claiming that Chinese military strategists are looking to use China’s nuclear weapons in a new, more aggressive way. The article’s main source was a 2012 speech given by China’s President Xi Jinping to China’s Second Artillery (now the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force), which is responsible for China’s conventional and nuclear missiles.

UCS published that speech along with a translation and an analysis showing that it contains no evidence suggesting that Xi thinks about nuclear weapons differently than his predecessors.

We have also obtained a book of Xi’s speeches on Chinese military affairs from 2017 to 2019, intended for internal circulation, and we will be publishing a series of blogs analyzing what Xi has to say about various military topics. The first of these blogs analyzes his language on Taiwan in speeches made on November 3rd, 2017 and December 22nd, 2017.

As China’s military modernization rolls along toward the goal of building a “world-class” military by 2049, US officials increasingly believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping has a set timeline for a military operation. However, analysis of Xi’s speeches to his military shows no concrete timeline for an invasion, only exhortations for combat readiness and warnings about external interference in the cross-Strait status quo.

While the DPP does not explicitly call Taiwan an independent country separate from mainland China, it rejects the 1992 Consensus. The Consensus is an understanding between the Kuomintang (KMT), single-party rulers of Taiwan from 1945 until 1996, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that China and Taiwan belong to one country, with the point of contention being whether that country is the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China.

Lai has a history of statements that lean more strongly toward independence than his predecessor Tsai Ying-wen. With that in mind, there has been significant speculation about what tone Lai’s administration will set for Cross-Strait relations, and about how Beijing will react. May 23rd saw the resumption of the military exercises that have become more regular since Pelosi’s visit.

After the United States shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the Cross-Strait status quo has been shrouded in uncertainty. In a recent phone call to President Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated that the Taiwan question is the “first red line that must not be crossed” in US-China relations.

Where exactly that red line lies is hard to say, but official Chinese government sources offer the best clues. UCS has obtained a collection of speeches and comments made by Xi Jinping on Chinese military strategy, goals, and problems between April 2017 and May 2019. The collection is classified as an “internal publication” for use by “leading cadres above the regiment level.”

Speaking at his inauguration, President Lai used language that diverged in some ways from his predecessor Tsai, despite having committed in the past to maintaining her cross-strait policy. Lai was more cavalier about proclaiming the Republic of China’s sovereignty, and his reference to Taiwan’s position in the “first island chain” echoes US strategies in the region. This is of significant concern to Beijing, which often accuses the US of using Taiwan to contain China.

China has also reacted angrily to Lai’s inauguration; on May 21st, the main Party newspaper People’s Daily dedicated an entire page to various comments and articles denouncing, among other things, Lai’s comments, “Taiwan separatists,” and foreign countries for sending delegations to the inauguration. According to Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, the instability in the Strait stems from the DPP’s refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus. The most vicious repudiation came from an editorial on the same page, which called Lai the “ultimate scoundrel…destroying stability in the Taiwan Strait through advocating for relying on force to achieve the goal of peace… .”

Beijing then initiated another set of military exercises around the island, though as some have pointed out, Chinese media’s reaction was likely to be aggressive regardless of the content of his speech.

Still, the People’s Daily coverage does imply anger at perceived steps away from the status quo, and Xi’s comments on Taiwan in military speeches reflect a perception of stability in the Strait. “Achieving reunification of the motherland,” Xi said at a meeting of the Central Military Commission in December 2017, “is one of our Party’s three great historical missions” (articulated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the two others are speeding the modernization of socialism, and opposing hegemony and upholding world peace.) Xi said that China has a degree of control over cross-Strait relations that is “incomparable to the past”; further, China must exert the “utmost effort” to achieve peaceful reunification, but never abandon the possible use of force, and always firmly contain and deter “Taiwan Independence” separatist activities.

This language is similar to public statements from Chinese leadership on Taiwan, though the emphasis on exerting high effort to achieve peaceful unification stands out. That can be interpreted as seeking to avoid the use of force or, possibly, a commitment to finding non-military ways, coercive or not, of promoting unification.

Xi exhorts military preparedness throughout the book, warning that “some Western countries” are seeking to constrain China and oppose its development. Those comments are from a speech to the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint command Operations Center in November 2017. In that speech, Xi says that an increased risk of conflict between a growing power and an established power is a “rule of history.” This is reminiscent of the “Thucydides Trap,” a historical trend of conflict between rising powers and established powers

That Xi recognizes the “high risk” nature of this situation is positive, though he makes it clear that “to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we will not spare a war,” i.e. China will not abandon the possible use of force. However, in exhorting the military to be ready for war, he emphasizes that “we cannot say when we will fight.” Again, this can be interpreted in two ways. Xi is telling his army to be ready to go at any given time, which is not abnormal language from a commander-in-chief to his troops, yet it also suggests that Beijing is not working with a hard timeline for a cross-Strait conflict.

Xi’s language on Taiwan and on potential conflict when speaking to his troops conveys a desire for preparedness in the face of possible external influences. Xi says that when a war might happen is uncertain; thus, it seems that China’s mentality is to be ready to respond to possible external shocks to the status quo on Taiwan. And while Xi expresses confidence in the military’s ability to improve, he also highlights various shortcomings and areas for improvement.

Chief among those, perhaps, is corruption. 2016 and 2017 saw several dramatic corruption investigations of high-profile officials, and Xi’s speeches are littered with references to them. For example, speaking at the Central Military Commission’s Party Building meeting in August 2018, Xi called for “daring to turn the blade inward” with the aim of “…comprehensively rooting out their toxic influence.” Xi consistently expresses concerns around maintaining “absolute Party leadership” of the military; speaking to the CMC in December 2017, he mentions the need for solving the “weakening of absolute Party leadership of the PLA” over the preceding five years.

Combating corruption and improving the reliability of soldiers and officers is a significant part of China’s military modernization goals. Beijing’s goal, which Xi emphasizes in these speeches, is to achieve a “basically modernized force” by 2035 and a world-class military by 2049.

Beijing seems to be taking a patient, long-term approach to military modernization, and the consistent calls for combat readiness, reliability and loyalty suggest a perception of material military shortcomings.

Still, everyone with a stake in the cross-Strait relationship should keep in mind that there are red lines. Xi makes it clear throughout his speeches that “sovereignty and territorial integrity” must be protected. Even if China has doubts about its current capabilities and sees itself twenty-five years away from having a “world class” military, Beijing will certainly take action should it be put in a perceived position of extreme vulnerability or weakness.

Xi’s words on Taiwan show both determination and patience; he believes that China has a unique level of control of the cross-Strait relationship and that China must exert itself to achieve peaceful reunification, while warning that a specific time for war is still uncertain. Most of all, when it comes to Taiwan, Beijing does not want its hand to be forced.


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