China’s threats against Taiwan are not being overlooked amid the war in Ukraine given their similarities to how Russia prepared for its invasion. In this context, a member of the U.S. National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, speaking at a defence conference in Ottawa, provided her views on Beijing’s motivations and outlook for its relations with Russia.
Cynthia Watson, dean of faculty and academic affairs with the Washington, D.C.-based National War College, said she believes the biggest takeaway for Beijing from the Russian attack is that there can be a great deal of international cooperation under U.S. leadership to stop actions that go against the rules-based international order—and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has to weigh those factors when considering acting against Taiwan.
“Taiwan remains the last issue from the Chinese Civil War, that many people within the Party believe the Party absolutely cannot back down on, because if they were to do so, it would show the vulnerability of the Party,” Watson told an audience of primarily military personnel during a session titled “Understanding China” on March 11 at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence 2022.
However, she sees “the possibility that there is a timeline that [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping believes he must fulfill, and it being a relatively short one for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.”
The fact that there are voices in Taiwan more aggressively calling for the island nation to wholly reject unification “probably is one of the things that is most alarming and potentially setting [Beijing’s] aggressive timeline into effect,” she added.
Asked what risk Beijing might face if the world turned against Chinese manufacturing should it invade Taiwan, similar to the global sanctions imposed against Russia, Watson pointed to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, which resulted in international sanctions.
The business community came back to China just 18 months later and began providing technology and investment, she said, noting that “it's actually after 1989 that we see some of the greatest growth in China, fuelled by outside investment and fuelled by outside technology and the movement of capital to China.”
She added that she believes Beijing is “counting on the same sort of short-term memory if the world were to turn on them on Taiwan,” but reiterated her view that “the Party doesn’t believe it has a choice on Taiwan.”
However, she said questions abound regarding what timeline Xi has in mind for Taiwan, and it’s a matter of “reading the tea leaves” given the “impenetrable nature” of understanding CCP decision-making.
Russia and China
Much has also been discussed about the relationship and co-dependence between Russia and China in light of the Ukraine crisis. Watson actually doesn’t see a growing relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi.
“There's no question that China recognizes that there is a danger to this relationship,” Watson said, adding that there is an inherent mutual distrust that’s bound to grow starting “in the not-too-distant future” due to China being much “healthier” based on its younger demographic and stronger economy.
Nevertheless, the topic of China’s food security has been vastly under-appreciated, she said, as it used to rely on Ukraine as a major source of grain. She also noted that part of the reason China feels greater ties to Russia is its need for Russia’s natural resources.
Watson said she is confident there’s a sense on the mainland that China’s growth since the mid-1970s is now seeing “some structural challenges, whether they're demographic, whether they're environmental, or whether they're simply that the model they have been working on, seems to have exhausted itself that lead the leadership to potentially feel very anxious.”
However, she said her sense is that the CCP is going to continue taking whatever steps it needs domestically to keep people employed and to engage in social spending, adding to its already-significant internal debt, doing so in ways “that may not make sense to us as outsiders in terms of economic stability.”
She reminded the attendees that under Xi’s predecessors, China opened up economically, joined the World Trade Organization, and saw its economy grow by leaps and bounds. But Xi, she said, is making China more internally focused and the CCP is now less willing to entertain different ideas.
The first thing in the CCP’s mind is its survival while retaining power, Watson said.