San Francisco was just another link in a long chain of events that are resulting in a multiplying of frictions between Beijing and Washington, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has been facing growing uneasiness with his leadership style within the senior ranks of his party. This is the consequence of (a) economic turmoil in China in an era of attempted decoupling of industry and commerce from that country, (b) the consequent steady fall in property prices and (c) rising unease within the CCP at Xi’s intrusive control over the party machinery and its personnel, including his whimsical appointments and punishments. These appear to be fuelled mostly on the basis of personal loyalty. In such a situation, it was imperative for Xi to travel to San Francisco for the APEC conference to convey the impression globally and domestically that the Sino-US relationship is re-entering a stable and friendly phase.
The problem facing Xi is that in past periods, it was possible for the CCP’s top leadership to use honeyed words to successfully camouflage the PRC’s hostile actions against a target country. Equally helpful in such a cover up was that several such operations were done through foreign cutouts rather than directly. Such camouflage has begun to fray with the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, where the pro-Russia and Hamas-friendly tilt of the PRC is clear even to the many western apologists of the CCP. Six weeks after the start of the conflict between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, a war that began with the latter’s terror attack on Israel, it has become impossible to ignore which side the CCP is on, evidently to ensure that US attention got focused away from the Taiwan straits.
In Ukraine, Beijing’s pro-Moscow stance shows although sometimes language used by its spokespersons denote a more neutral hue. The war in Ukraine and now in Gaza have, not coincidentally, been seen as helpful to the Central Military Commission staff officers tasked with preparing plans for a steady snuffing out of Taiwan’s sovereignty. At present, Taiwan is a country in all but name. CMC planners have been tasked by Xi Jinping to work on a plan of action that will result by 2027 in Taiwan becoming another Hong Kong in all but name. Economic headwinds in China have led Xi to focus on achieving military success to ensure a fourth term, and the biggest prize would be the de facto takeover of Taiwan by the PRC.
In the PLA strategy of invasion by stealth, practically the whole of Taiwanese air and sea space has by now come under the control of the PLA, all that is as yet left being land. Artificial Intelligence is being used by CCP infowarriors to attempt to create a perception in young Taiwanese in particular that any kinetic resistance to the PLA would be ineffective. Images from both Ukraine and Gaza added to those created by AI are being disseminated in CCP-controlled social media platforms to create a defeatist mentality among the Taiwanese. Unfortunately for Xi, the opposite is taking place. As more facts tumble out about the repressive, control freak nature of the CCP top leadership, the greater is the antipathy within the Taiwanese public to becoming another Hong Kong, a city which Xi has made autonomous in name only.
TAIWANESE REJECT UNIFICATION
Global distaste for the bullying of Taiwan by the PRC is mounting, and barring a shrinking number of citizens mostly in their 70s and 80s, Taiwanese citizens oppose any form of control of their country by the PRC. They regard themselves not as PRC citizens but as Taiwanese, in the same way that those of Chinese descent in Singapore consider themselves to be Singaporean and not Chinese in the political sense of that term. The DPP, the ruling party in Taiwan, has nominated a popular and personable advocate of an independent Taiwan, William Lai, as its standard bearer in the Presidential elections due early next year. Even the KMT, which in past decades was dominated by individuals who favoured eventual unification with China, has nominated a Taiwanese rather than what is termed locally as a “Mainlander” (i.e. an individual descended from those who arrived from China in 1949 or later) as its standard bearer.
KMT Presidential candidate Hou You-yih, was in the past Chief of Police during the Presidential term of pro-independence DPP leader Chen Shui-bian, and recently went on a very successful tour of the US. Being “dark blue” (or in other words, favouring eventual merger into the PRC) now makes any politician toxic to most voters, which is why the KMT is now dominated by those who are “light blue” (or in other words, those who favour the status quo rather than either get absorbed into China or make a unilateral declaration of independence).
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is a lifelong believer in democracy and in the right of her people to be free from external control. She has been careful to avoid giving any excuse to the CCP to intervene in the island country, which is why the unilateral aggressiveness of the PRC under Xi has raised global concerns and boosted support for Taiwan in a manner not seen in the past. In effect, by the actions of the CCP, Taiwan has been set on a course to join Japan and South Korea in being a military ally of the US. Despite the influence of the Sino-Wahhabi lobby in Washington, President Biden has repeatedly signalled his intent not to permit distractions in Ukraine and Gaza to prevent the US from intervening kinetically in any situation involving a land invasion of Taiwan by the PLA. According to sources in San Francisco, this was conveyed emphatically to Xi as well.
INVESTORS LEAVE THE PRC
The shifting of tectonic plates altering US-PRC relations from ally to friend to rival to foe have led to a shrinking of appetite among global investors to put more money into China. Since 2019, any foreign investor has to cede full control of data to the CCP so as to operate without hindrance in China. Those who are uncooperative find themselves in trouble with the authorities very quickly. The US, Taiwan and Japan were the mainstay of foreign investment in China, but by 2021, all investors from all three have begun relocating to more welcoming shores, including India. As a consequence, unemployment is rising in China and growth has become sluggish. Property values have been going down steadily, bad news in a country where many tens of millions invest in property as a way of securing their future through later sale at a high price of the physical asset.
Several within the CCP believe the aggressive approach of Xi to be the cause of China’s economic decline, and such a perception is spreading in sync with shutdowns and job losses. Critics of Xi find themselves in prison or bankrupted by arbitrary actions of local authorities. For Xi, it was politically essential to show that it was business as usual between the US and China, so that the outward flow of foreign investment would get reversed. For the Chinese side, the Xi-Biden meeting was about optics, while the meeting between Xi and the top CEOs of the US companies was the substantive business. In the meeting with CEOs, it became clear to the executives who had paid $40,000 to have a Chinese-laced dinner with Xi that the PRC would not change its present course, however much Xi in his meeting with Biden sought to paper over such inflexibility.
Whether it be plunging the US into an opioid crisis through the smuggling of fentanyl, or building up military assets throughout the world through debt trap diplomacy, the CCP would go ahead with such moves, talk of cooperation notwithstanding. At the $ 40,000 a head business dinner, Xi’s contempt for the US and democracy came through in his responses, making several of his fellow diners take more seriously those who had claimed that General Secretary Xi was a throwback to the Mao era who has jettisoned Deng Xiaoping Thought completely in a return to both Maoist rhetoric and attitude towards private investment.
Continuing economic headwinds will show that Xi has failed in his mission of luring back foreign investment to the PRC. Nor has there been success during the meeting of the top leadership of both sides in Xi convincing the Biden administration to lessen restrictions on transfer of advanced technology to China. In view of the risk of kinetic conflict between the two superpowers, such restrictions continue, although as yet behaviour-altering apps such as TikTok have been allowed to continue under Biden.
For President Biden, the very optics of meeting the CCP General Secretary without getting anything more substantive than a repeat of vague commitments often made and subsequently ignored in the past are a vote loser, making higher the prospect of the Democratic Party moving towards another candidate in next year’s Presidential polls. Given that it was Xi who travelled to meet Biden rather than the other way around, most of the population of the PRC are unlikely to be taken in by media accounts of the Xi visit re-opening the way to large-scale sharing of technology and movement of investment into China by the US.
While some headline writers trumpeted the “historic” nature of the meeting, San Francisco was simply just another link in a long chain of events that are resulting in a multiplying of frictions between Beijing and Washington. As events of the first half of the past century show, playing nice with dictators makes not just bad policy but bad politics in a democracy, as President Biden will soon discover.