After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) visited Taiwan, China started its most aggressive actions against the island nation under the guise of a military exercise since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power. Taiwan responded with similar activities. Many are concerned that such chest-thumping could lead to a larger conflict. Are they right?
Taiwan and China
On Aug. 9, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu announced that China was preparing for an invasion. “It is conducting large-scale military exercises and missile launches, as well as cyber-attacks, disinformation, and economic coercion, in an attempt to weaken public morale in Taiwan.”
In response to China’s exercises, the Taiwanese military has started drills, firing howitzer shells into the sea. Although President Joe Biden has stated that he is “not worried” about an invasion, the situation is tense and could escalate, even involving the United States.
The COVID-19 lockdowns have severely punished the Chinese economy; in the second quarter, it shrank by 2.6%. That may not sound grave, but any growth is fueled by such extreme debt leveraging that even a nominal expansion of 5% is experienced as a recession. In practice, China is going through a near-depression-level contraction, severely hurting the ordinary citizen.
How does a totalitarian regime respond to domestic trouble? The classic formula is by diverting attention to an external enemy.
President Xi Jinping has increasingly focused on rebuilding the communist fervor of the Mao era, which combines extreme nationalism and socialism. The promise of reunification with Taiwan has played a crucial role in that effort. Just like Hong Kong was a constant reminder of the ineptitude of communism under Chairman Mao Zedong, Taiwan’s thriving democracy is a chronic sore thumb for Xi’s regime.
With China’s growing economic trouble spawned by COVID-19, the “war” games against Taiwan appear more a way of diverting attention from domestic calamities. Therefore, when Pelosi announced that she was traveling to the island nation, Xi saw it as both a threat and an opportunity to display the growing military might of China. State media warned her that there could be an escalation of hostilities if she landed in Taiwan.
Apparently, the Chinese government never considered the possibility that she would ignore the threat and land anyway. When she did, no invasion happened, which amounts to a profound loss of face. Chinese social media was filled with videos of crying, despairing citizens hitting themselves in the head to signal their disappointment and shame.
It seems the current action against Taiwan is more an effort to regain that lost face than to open the door to a greater conflict.