An assessment of the 20th CCP Congress for US policy towards Taiwan

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By Michael Mazza

Viewed in isolation, Xi Jinping’s (習近平) report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might not raise significant concerns about cross-Strait relations. The report’s language about Taiwan echoes that of past work reports, it emphasizes the preferability of “peaceful reunification,” reserves the right to use force if necessary, and avoids indicating a timeline for “resolving the Taiwan question.” It would be a mistake, however, to read the Congress Report in isolation. For a fuller appreciation of implications for Taiwan and thus for American Taiwan policy analysts should consider changes in tone and emphasis from the 19th Party Congress work report, and should consider the context in which the Party Congress took place.

Looking back

As is customary, Xi began both reports with an overview of the five years since the last Congress and an assessment of where things stood at the time of delivery. Those overviews tell us much about Xi’s priorities and preoccupations. In 2017, Xi called attention to “profound and complex changes” in China and the world, specifically “sluggish global economic recovery, frequent outbreaks of regional conflicts and disturbances, and intensifying global issues” and “a new normal in economic development” at home.

Despite those challenges, Xi painted a rosy picture of the CCP’s accomplishments over the preceding five years. Only after describing advances in “economic development,” “deepening reform,” “developing democracy and the rule of law,” “theoretical and cultural fronts,” “improving living standards,” and “building an ecological civilization” does Xi mention strengthening the military, Taiwan, and diplomacy.

In 2022, Xi has provided a similar, though not identical bulleted list. Military modernization and the implementation of “One Country, Two Systems” (國兩制), including for Taiwan, still fall near the bottom of that list, but the list now includes a new item “we have applied a holistic approach to national security” and it follows introductory remarks that are much darker in tenor. Whereas in 2017 China faced “profound and complex changes,” in the years since then Beijing has grappled with “grave, intricate international developments and a series of immense risks and challenges.” The CCP has, as a result, “worked with firm resolve to safeguard national security” a phrase that only appears about two-thirds of the way through the 2017 report.

In his introductory remarks this year, Xi also emphasized his success in responding to “turbulent developments in Hong Kong” and highlighted “separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ and gross provocations of external interference in Taiwan affairs.” The 2017 report only makes oblique reference to “external interference.” Now, however, Beijing is “confronted with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China,” concerns which are entirely absent from the 2017 report.

In Xi’s telling, in 2022 China is surrounded, isolated, and targeted with coercion. It is stalked by enemies, both foreign and domestic. It is prepared to fight and will “never yield.” Circumstances were not nearly so dire at the last Party Congress in 2017. Now, however, Xi paints a picture of China as cornered tiger, ready to thrash its way out of encirclement.

Deprioritizing economic development

The report to the 20th Party Congress maintains the big-picture economic goal that was present in the previous report essentially, greater prosperity for all Chinese by 2035. But there are reasons to wonder if Xi Jinping has deprioritized economic advancement. As noted, the top three achievements in 2017 were: “major achievements in economic development,” “major breakthroughs in deepening reform,” and “major steps in developing democracy and the rule of law.”

In last month’s work report, however, the top three achievements of the preceding five years were as follows:

  • “We have established the Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (better known as “Xi Jinping Thought”);
  • “We have strengthened Party leadership in all respects”;
  • “We have developed well-conceived and complete strategic plans for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era.”

Xi, then, has been primarily concerned with solidifying the CCP’s leadership of the country and with solidifying his leadership of the CCP. That economic development has been only a second-order priority is clear from his list of achievements. Xi stated that “We have achieved moderate prosperity, the millennia-old dream of the Chinese nation, through persistent hard work.” This could be a headline triumph, but it is instead relegated to fourth position.

Having successfully invested in the party’s control (and in his control of the party), Xi could turn to economic growth in the half-decade until the next Party Congress. But the work report, even given the discussions of economic issues, does not point to such a future. The emphasis on self-reliance in science and technology is defensive in nature. That is, it is not intended to reinvigorate growth, but instead to avoid the worst outcomes of China’s disentanglement from global supply chains, a process that is underway due both to Beijing’s own choices and to Western—and especially American efforts to limit China’s access to technologies the country uses to aggrandize its own military power, and that enable its worst human rights abuses.

Even absent technology access questions, China is facing economic headwinds that may be difficult to surmount as it continues to eschew market-based approaches. As Derek Scissors argued last year, “the PRC faces an unprecedented aging challenge that will sharply intensify late this decade, has serious debt problems, and prefers wealth-killing approaches to innovation and rural land.” Those challenges all predate the global pandemic, zero-COVID, the war in Ukraine, and global inflationary pressures.

Indeed, Xi’s stubborn adherence to his “zero-COVID” approach when other, less damaging options are available, makes clear that economic development is not a priority for Xi. Again, this is evident in the work report itself. Consider comparative mentionsa crude but illustrative measure of “economy” or “economic” versus “security” in the document. The former appears 65 times in the 2022 report, compared to 80 for the latter. This reverses the ratio present in the 2017 report (71 mentions of “economy” or “economic,” versus 43 mentions of “security”).

Whether this shift is because Xi fears he cannot deliver on economic promises or because he really does see enemies around every corner, it should be concerning for Taiwan. “Security” does not provide many obvious tangible deliverables to work towards for future party congresses. Xi has already claimed his policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as great successes. The party may welcome ever more far-reaching domestic repression, but that is presumably not something to brag openly about in search of political legitimacy. Making progress on Taiwan, however that might be defined, may become more important as a result of the new emphasis on “security.”

Making progress on Taiwan

Reassuringly, the report was ambiguous about how Beijing defines progress in “resolving the Taiwan question.” Xi promised the party would “unswervingly advance the cause of national reunification,” but he did not specify what that would look like. Dire conclusions, then, about a near-term threat to Taiwan are not supported.

Even so, happy days are not here to stay. Xi’s repeated gloating about his successes in Hong Kong, even as he insists on applying “One Country, Two Systems” to the Taiwan Strait, is revelatory. It demonstrates once again that Xi has little interest in winning hearts and minds in Taiwan or in convincing Taiwan’s people that unification can make their lives better. He promises instead the smothering rule of the CCP. At the Congress, the party enshrined that promise in its constitution by approving amendments on “fully, faithfully, and resolutely implementing the policy of One Country, Two Systems” and on “resolutely opposing and deterring separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence.’”

Meanwhile, promises to engage in wide-ranging cross-Strait consultations are deceptively diplomatic. In truth, Xi aims to stoke divisions in Taiwanese society. His offers of discussions are predicated on acceptance of the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識), which Taiwan’s ruling party rejects. Beijing aims to sideline Taiwan’s elected leaders and the people that voted for them, creating the conditions for domestic tensions and fractious politics.

It is clear that the velvet glove approach, even if it was only concealing an iron gauntlet is a thing of the past. Theories abound about Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) removal from the Party Congress, but if it was premeditated, it is worth remembering that it was on Hu’s watch that China last adopted relatively softer tactics vis-à-vis Taiwan. Even if only symbolically, Hu’s eviction from the Great Hall of the People put the final nail in the coffin of cross-Strait détente.

Implications for the United States

There were no earth-shattering developments pertaining to Taiwan during the latest Party Congress. It is clear that Xi Jinping will continue to emphasize sticks over carrots in his cross-Strait policy. The work report in particular its prioritization of security over the economy supports the argument that the PRC threat to Taiwan is growing more urgent, but is not yet imminent.

To maintain peace and stability in Asia, the United States should match that advancing threat with some urgency of its own. In the coming years, the primary task for Taiwan will be to counter PRC coercion and to render that coercion ineffectual. Washington can support Taiwan in doing so. Via the provision of arms, investments in its own armed forces, and ramped-up bilateral training, the United States can slow the growth of and perhaps even erode China’s emerging military advantages in the Taiwan Strait.

By putting forth and vigorously implementing an ambitious bilateral trade agenda including reciprocal market access the United States can reduce Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese economy and thus its susceptibility to Chinese economic warfare. By using its diplomatic heft to support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and to buttress third countries’ deepening ties with Taipei, the United States can reduce Taiwan’s international isolation in ways that limit the effectiveness of Chinese bullying.

Importantly, China’s shifts from prioritizing economic development to prioritizing security, and from prioritizing carrots in the Taiwan Strait to prioritizing sticks necessitate a parallel shift in Washington’s own Taiwan Strait policy. In particular, the United States should continue rebalancing its approach to emphasize deterrence rather than reassurance vis-à-vis Beijing. Washington should avoid precipitous action, like seeking to establish formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, but sustained Chinese coercion of Taiwan naturally requires sustained US efforts to counter that coercion.

The main point: Xi Jinping’s report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in particular, its prioritization of security over the economy supports the argument that the PRC threat to Taiwan is growing more urgent. The United States should respond with urgency of its own.

Michael Mazza is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, a non-resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, and a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Source: Global Taiwan Brief – Vol. 7, Issue 22

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