Xi Jinping testing Biden’s resolve to defend Taiwan

There is confidence in Beijing that the White House lacks the spine to follow the example set by Xi in sanctioning not just Mike Pompeo but Speaker Pelosi. Thus far, even a senior colonel in the PLA has not been sanctioned by the Biden administration, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat

The Commander-in-Chief of all US armed forces, who is also the Head of State and government of the world’s pre-eminent superpower, demonstrated a lack of will in militarily defending US and allied interests in his pell-mell retreat from Afghanistan last year. Earlier, as Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden had argued against the (successful) effort at neutralising Osama bin Laden in Operation Geronimo as “too risky”. At least while Biden remains in his current job, military planners within the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing believe that they have a window of opportunity to browbeat Taiwan into submitting to PRC overlordship.

This would come about initially through the demilitarisation of Taiwan and the acknowledgement of PRC “suzerainty” over the island country, followed by further steps at integration in the manner being witnessed in the Hong Kong (Non) Autonomous Region, which today has a similar degree of CCP control over its functioning as do other metropolises such as Shanghai, Macau and Guangzhou. Within the decision-making matrix of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, the CMC enjoys primacy over even the Standing Committee of the Politburo, where final decisions by the Office of the General Secretary are concerned.

As for the formal government led by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, that has been downgraded to a level that resembles the period when Lin Biao, Chairman Mao’s Defence Minister until his fall from grace, reigned over the policy field and provided the sinews needed by Mao to humiliate and destroy the CCP leadership of the time.

As part of the CCP version of the “strategic ambiguity” policy followed by the US and India in key matters where dealings with the PRC are concerned, a few articles are allowed to be published every once in a while that call for avoiding efforts at a military takeover of Taiwan. Such views do not reflect the consensus within the CMC, which is that once two conditions are fulfilled, the time would have arrived for an invasion and occupation of Taiwan. These conditions are (a) that the US abstains from intervention in such a conflict and (b) the people of Taiwan acquiesce, albeit willingly, in the occupation by a much bigger force of their country.

Where the European partners of NATO are concerned, their pathetic performance in 21st century theatres such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya has convinced the CMC that the only military capable of taking on the PLA is that of the US. In such a context, the determination to resist or accept what will be telegraphed through infowar as the “inevitable” takeover of Taiwan by the PRC is the question, and Biden’s performance in kinetic contexts and substantive as distinct from symbolic White House moves has increased the number of CMC analysts who believe that President Biden may “huff and puff”, but otherwise accept rather than respond to the PLA carrying out kinetic operations against Taiwan. Should the US not respond, the belief within the CMC is that Tokyo too would follow the example set by Washington in “living with the inevitable”.

WORDS, WORDS AND MORE WORDS

Whether in Japan, the US, the EU or in India, there is a powerful infowar network that each functions under the superintendence of a senior colonel within the PLA. It is this network that has ensured widespread belief within the population of such target zones that the provocation for the unprecedented intensification of PLA activity within the air and sea space of Taiwan since Speaker Pelosi left the country was created by her and by President Tsai rather than by General Secretary Xi Jinping. This is reminiscent of those misogynists who say that it was the “provocative behaviour” of the victim of an assault rather than the perpetrator that was responsible for such an incident.

What is taking place across the Taiwan Straits is intended to (i) convey a message to the US (and therefore also to Japan) that any attempted resistance to a future attempt at a military takeover of Taiwan is doomed to failure and (ii) convince the people of Taiwan that they are alone in the face of the overwhelming force of the PLA, and hence need to vote in apologists for Beijing the next time polls are held in Taiwan, which is a few months from now. Another trope is that for all its touch talk, the CCP is not going to resort to military force, but will use non-military means in its efforts at subduing Taiwan.

Such an impression goes against the evidence accumulated thus far, including in the aftermath of the Pelosi visit. Of course, the effort in infowar is to cover up truth with lies, and in this, the infowarriors of the CMC have had some success. It is noticeable that thus far, it has been Secretary of State Antony Blinken (who is considered within policymakers in China to fortunately be obsessed with Russia and Europe rather than paying needed attention to China and the rest of Asia) rather than Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin who has led the verbal charge against the PLA intrusions into spaces under the long-established jurisdiction of Japan and Taiwan.

The CMC’s infowarriors are spreading the story that it was External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar who blocked Secretary Blinken from adding Taiwan in the basket of tensions that the US Secretary of State mentioned in his public remarks as being discussed with EAM Jaishankar on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting. Given Jaishankar’s many forthright statements on the subject of PRC overreach, such a story is obviously concocted, the more so as PM Narendra Modi’s actions responding to efforts by the PLA in 2017 and 2020 to trample on Indian security concerns have been a textbook example of firmness.

TIME FOR ACTION

Will Taiwan in the reign of Xi be what Czechoslovakia was in 1938, a victory by default by a revisionist and authoritarian power intent on turning upside down the status quo? Once again, with customary skill, the CMC’s infowar corps are spreading the story that manoeuvres that are intended to create “Shock & Awe” among target countries are just a one-off. This is the opposite of what they represent, which is a testing of the waters to judge the likely reaction of the US in particular to kinetic operations against Taiwan.

There is confidence in Beijing that the White House lacks the spine to follow the example set by Xi in sanctioning not just Mike Pompeo but Speaker Pelosi, the third in line to the US Presidency. Thus far, even a senior colonel in the PLA has not been sanctioned by the Biden administration, which has contented itself with pained expressions of shock by known Europe First ideologues such as Secretary Blinken, with Defence Secretary Austin suddenly losing his voice in a manner not seen in him in the matter of the conflict in Europe. The other two Quad members are watching whether there will be measures that reflect the intent and intensity of the manner in which Xi Jinping has sought to redraw Red Lines concerning kinetic activity directed at Japan and Taiwan, and similar hesitancy is the case with ASEAN.

As for the European powers, including the UK, the soothing clink of cash registers in several corporate houses has thus far ensured that they act in a totally contrasting manner to the “fire and fury” that they have unleashed on Russia, a power that is on any count far below the PRC in terms of threat and ability to react. Czechoslovakia was in effect left to fend for itself, and thus far that appears to be the case with Taiwan as well, no matter how many times there is the pious recital of the “Taiwan is not alone” hymn by Speaker Pelosi. Lack of substantive countermeasures, including sanctions rather than measures such as the tariff relief favoured by some in the US Department of Commerce, are needed so as to avoid strengthening the hawks in the CMC sufficiently to enable them to carry out General Secretary Xi Jinping’s dream of annexing Taiwan.

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