Why China May Play Tough in the Lead-Up to Its 19th Party Conference
The implication of this calibration is that if and when China uses the foreign policy card, it will do so by targeting the peripheral, albeit highly symbolic, interests of its foreign opponents rather than directly attack them. Thus, while other countries’ interests in the East or South China Sea might come in China’s crosshairs, it is highly unlikely that Beijing would choose to directly confront Japan, for example, over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islets. Besides the challenge of dealing with the JSDF itself, Beijing would risk prompting a U.S. intervention and ensure Chinese defeat—the last thing CCP members in need of a quick distraction abroad would want. Instead, we can expect China to ramp up harassment by fishing and Coast Guard vessels, as well as more frequent intrusions by the PLA Navy/Air Force and dramatic contact with their Japanese counterparts.
The same law will apply for the South China Sea, where China will seek to minimize the risks of direct intervention by the United States. That being said, as China faces much weaker opponents in that area than it does in the East China Sea, the likelihood of escalation is relatively higher there, particularly as China has invested billions of dollars militarizing the area in recent years. Therefore, if the CCP needs a quick foreign policy fix to help mitigate a crisis at home, opponents like Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, which all have claims in parts of the SCS, will conceivably be likelier targets. The benefits of threatening those outweigh the costs, while the potential of defeat is, barring U.S. intervention, markedly lower.
A third possible target for foreign adventurism in the lead up to the Party Congress is Taiwan, the object of significant symbolism in China and within the CCP. Already, pressures to do more to “rein in” Taiwan have been building since May 20 last year, when Tsai Ing-wen of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) assumed the presidency. Within the CCP and PLA, a number of voices have already expressed impatience with and discontent over how President Xi has handled relations with Taiwan; many want him to do more to “punish” President Tsai for refusing (with popular support) to embrace “one China” and the so-called “1992 consensus” that Beijing insists is a precondition for dialogue. So far, President Xi has withstood the pressure, and while his government has done a few things to signal its discontent (drawing in diplomatic allies, pressuring foreign governments to strictly abide by the “one China” framework, freezing some official channels of communication with Taipei, blocking Taiwan’s participation at international institutions, increasing the PLA presence near and around Taiwan and disappearing a Taiwanese human rights activist), it has refrained from taking action on a level that would risk destabilizing the Taiwan Strait. This is large part due to the fact that claims of it being a “core interest” notwithstanding, Taiwan is nowhere near the top of President Xi’s priority list. But it could quickly become one if his back is against the wall over domestic issues and his survival as a politician is at stake.
Nevertheless, even if Taiwan represents a “logical” target for foreign distractions, here, too, Beijing is unlikely to directly confront it in a way that would threaten Taiwan’s very survival. In other words, while China might escalate its actions (and certainly its rhetoric, which is largely risk- and cost-free) against the democratic island-nation on “national reunification,” it is highly unlikely to take direct military action (missile strikes or outright invasion) against Taiwan proper—not only because of the prospects of severe material losses on both sides, but also due to the uncertainty over a U.S. and/or Japanese intervention, which would completely change the equation. As in the East and South China Sea, Chinese calculations will focus on maximizing the likelihood of gains while seeking to reduce any possibility of a backlash that would neutralize, if not outweigh, the benefits. Thus action against Taiwan, even if more drastic than what has come before, will remain limited.
Still, there are a number of escalations that the Chinese side could implement to “punish” Taiwan and in the process either manufacture a needed foreign distraction amid domestic crisis or to bolster the image of CCP/PLA officials battling for positions in the next Politburo. Yet even here, the object(s) of China’s attention, both political and territorial, would only be peripheral to Taiwan’s core interests, causing a level of discomfort to the Taiwanese (and domestic pressure on the Tsai administration, most assuredly) but coming short of the type of action that would risk prompting major retaliation or international involvement. (The loss of a few more official diplomatic allies, or even small bits of its outlying territory, or the inability to join global institutions, would spark a political storm in Taiwan, but all of this is survivable and not indispensable for Taiwan’s ability to continue existing as a sovereign state.)