CONCERTED EFFORTS NEEDED TO DISCOURAGE XI FROM INVADING TAIWAN
On March 5, outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered his last Government Work Report on the opening day of China’s National People’s Congress. One could read multiple messages in Li’s even-toned address, which lasted one-hour. Based on what Li read—and chose not to read—out of his report, I have attempted to figure out how his report reflected Xi Jin-ping’s true intentions.
Li skimmed over several passages as he read his report, presumably having obtained Xi’s consent for doing so beforehand, but notable was his leaving out parts that referred to China having “strengthened war preparations” and “significantly improved the level of modernization—and combat capability—of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).” Li also omitted references to the communist government having strictly dealt with matters relating to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Notably, the original text did not contain any reference to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
From the context of Li’s report it is obvious that China is conscious of the critical eyes of the international community and is trying to create a peaceful image for itself. The Western world, having formed a solid presence against Russia’s aggression, is looking on China with distrust for continuing to stand with Russia and refuse to condemn its outrage. In the US, top leaders, including President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have repeatedly referred to signs of Beijing escalating military support and have warned that such a development would have serious consequences.
To soften criticism from the international community, Beijing recently tried unsuccessfully to play the role of a “bona fine intermediary” in the Russia-Ukraine war. But Beijing completely lost face, as its 12-point peace proposal, announced on the one-year anniversary of the war last month, failed to interest Ukraine and its allies on the grounds that it only represented Russia’s interests. And yet there is a reason why China must mend fences with the US at this juncture: its serious economic downturn.
The Chinese government earlier announced that its economic growth rate last year stood at 3%, with the unemployment rate among younger workers having reached 17.5%. Some economists suspect the Chinese might actually have registered a minus growth rate in 2023, with the unemployment of younger workers having possibly surpassed 30%.
In his report, Li referred to “insufficient demand in the domestic economy,” “uncertainty about the future of private investment and corporate growth,” and “difficulties in stabilizing employment.” “The engine for trade growth has been weakening as pressure from outside has increased,” the premier warned, pointing out that “innovation capability in Chinese science and technology has been sluggish.” Seen throughout Li’s report was the magnitude of China’s stunning economic predicament. China definitely must strive to mend fences with the US in rebuilding its economy.
China’s Fierce Military Buildup
The Biden administration is imposing a rigid export ban on China-bound chips and related supplies in tandem with Japan and the Netherlands. When the ban is implemented soon, Chinese industries will get bogged down. Nothing is more important for China than to shatter the wall of US trade sanctions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will lose its raison d’être if it fails to live up to the government’s pledge to realize economic growth and enrich people’s lives. Hidden behind its strong words is China’s desperate need to put maximum effort into improving its ties with the US.
Akio Yaita, Taipei bureau chief of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, cites changes in China’s domestic situation as the reason for its posture toward the outside world having apparently turned soft lately at least on the surface:
“China reacted bitterly last August when Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Taiwan as US House Speaker. At the time, a cut-throat power struggle was in progress in China. As you know, it is China’s old trick to create an enemy outside in order to tighten control at home. But the situation in Taiwan also has since changed significantly.”
In the drastic personnel shake-up during the 20th CCP congress last October, Xi staffed the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo and the Central Military Commission solely with his “yes-men.” He thus scored a complete victory in the domestic power struggle. No longer does Xi have to be concerned about opposition forces within the party. Neither is there a need for Xi to bolster his leadership by creating an enemy outside and heightening the sense of crisis at home.
Behind Xi’s skin-deep smile diplomacy toward Taiwan, China continues to be firmly committed to bolstering its military capabilities. With his sights firmly lined up on Taiwan’s presidential election slated for next January, Xi has vowed to “never promise to renounce the use of force” when it comes to a reunification with Taiwan.
China’s military budget for 2023 has been increased by 7.2%. Experts speculate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) actually spends at least 1.5 times more than the published figures. The relentless nature of China’s military expansion can be seen in these numbers.
Questioning the joint operations capability of the Russian army in the Ukrainian war, the PLA Daily has pointed out that the PLA must view the Russian experience as a warning to itself. Given that the PLA lacks authentic war experience since fighting the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, the daily specifically advocates the necessity of improving the capabilities of its commanders.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) has for years been sounding the alarm that, with 340 ships, the Chinese Navy has the world’s largest fleet—40 more than the US Navy—and that China is planning to increase their fleet to 400 warships in the next three years. With a strong sense of crisis, the DoD points out that the PLA, in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan, has increased the number of its tank landing ships and amphibious transport ships by 1.5 times to 52 in the three years from 2019 to 2022.
Entire Earth on Brink of War
Despite China pursuing so rapid a military buildup, Li skipped reading the portion of his address that referred to Taiwan. Behind his decision are noteworthy changes in Taiwan’s political situation, explains Yaita:
‟In Taiwan’s local elections held last November, the ruling Democratic Party led by President Tsai Ing-wen suffered a crushing defeat. In the mayoral election in Taipei, incumbent Democrat Chen Shih-chung got trounced by Chiang Wan-an, a Nationalist and great grandson of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The results forced Tsai to resign as head of the ruling party to assume responsibility. With time running in favor of the top opposition Nationalist Party, Xi understands that resorting to tough measures now would favor the Democratic Party. Until Taiwan’s general election scheduled for next January, I believe Xi will assume a wait and see attitude, careful not to give the Taiwanese a sense of fear or caution.”
All countries must now feel as though the entire globe is on the brink of war. While the Russian war of invasion drags on in Europe, nations in the Asia-Pacific must share a sense of crisis about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. All the democracies of the world, especially Japan and Taiwan, must devote every effort to discourage China from attempting to invade Taiwan. An attack on Taiwan would be an attack on Japan, and both Taiwan and Japan would turn into battlefields. The extent of sacrifice and tragedy would be beyond all imagination.
The Ukrainians have been fighting bravely, but the tragedy began when their nation failed to deter the Russians from attacking their motherland.
Last December, the cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida approved a revision of three defense-related documents, pledging to bolster the military power of our Self-Defense Forces. That itself deserves high marks, but the Kishida government must now employ its diplomatic power to the hilt in order to deter China’s plot to steal Taiwan. In this regard, one finds it absolutely incomprehensible why the Upper House of the Diet failed to allow Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to attend the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi March 1-2.
The logic of the Upper House members of Kishida’s Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) purportedly was that all cabinet members are traditionally required to attend deliberations in the chamber’s budget committee. But the fact is that Hayashi ended up spending only 53 seconds in answering questions from the floor. The LDP’s Upper House members argued that the attendance of all cabinet members was extremely important. But the 2023 budget proposal had already passed the Lower House and was to be automatically enacted 30 days after having been sent to the Upper House. So, the deliberations in the Upper House were a “dead rubber,” so to speak. The LDP certainly has no small number of able lawmakers in the Upper House, but none of them sadly was able to come to grips with the damage Japan would suffer from failing to allow its foreign minister to attend the G20 function. It is no use crying over spilt milk, but I think it was truly pathetic.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,040 in the March 16, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)