The People’s Republic of China (PRC) seemed to be considering, by July 2020, whether to risk early military conflict as a means of moving its declining strategic fortunes back from the precipice. Its momentum thus far in challenging the U.S. and the market societies has been based on non-kinetic amorphous warfare. Now, PRC Pres. Xi Jinping was being forced by a range of circumstances — a declining economy, the socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus epidemic, and a range of natural and demographic disasters and trends — to take precipitate military action before the final window on the path toward global dominance closed for the PRC.
Pres. Xi had moved into a situation similar to, but far more grave than, the 11th-hour desperation which faced Lt.Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentine military ruler, in 1982.
Any delay in a decisive gesture by Xi at this stage would see Taiwan’s strength continue to rise, the PRC’s economy continue to slide, and the PRC’s isolation increase still further. The tacit alliance of its adversaries and former dependent trading partners were now gathering against Beijing.
The alternative to precipitate action by Pres. Xi could well only be his retirement from office, one way or another, or his transformation of priorities back to domestic control.
The PRC economy and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were, in early July 2020, far from ready to take the kind of external military action which could escalate into a direct and protracted confrontation even with the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) main territory, let alone with the U.S. or other “Quad” partners such as Japan, Australia, or India. ROC Minister of National Defense Yen Tehfa said on May 29, 2020, that Taiwan was preparing for “the worst”: an invasion in some form by the PRC. On July 3, 2020, he said that the ROC Armed Forces were combat-ready, as the PLA had moved with ships and aircraft to encircle Taiwan.
The ROC Armed Forces were preparing, meanwhile, for the 36th annual live-fire Han Kuang military exercise from July 1317, which is specifically designed to counter a PLA attack.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived suddenly on July 3, 2020, in the mountainous area around the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between Indian and PLA forces in Ladakh, Kashmir, to say, essentially, that the Indian Armed Forces were ready to meet the PLA. Significantly, there are indeed vital geopolitical considerations at play in the confrontation between Indian and PRC forces in the Kashmir region, if Beijing was to retain its overland access to the Indian Ocean and, simultaneously, deny India land access to Central Asia.
So where does this leave Pres. Xi?
Pres. Xi does not wish to risk a full confrontation with India, which would be more logistically difficult for the PLA than for India, because it would be an all-consuming event from a military standpoint. And yet he needed to give India sufficient pause from taking advantage of Beijing’s dilemma while Xi sought a restoration of his fortunes elsewhere. In the meantime, Prime Minister Modi was aggressively moving to penalize the PRC in the economic sphere.
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Certainly, Pres. Xi had, in May and June 2020, been probing for opportunities to escalate against Vietnam and even Malaysia, while also constantly escalating against Japanese interests in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea.
But Pres. Xi’s “precipitate strategic action” — possibly imminent given the rapidly declining situation in which Pres. Xi finds himself — could include highly risky military action against the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan), perhaps starting with an action to seize one of the ROC’s outlying southern island groups, the D?ngsh? Qúnd?o (Tungsha or, in Western parlance, Pratas islands).
Failure to demonstrate decisive authority and the resurgence of his prestige, Pres. Xi, also General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission CMC) since 2012, could face either his removal from office by the CPC or even the PLA, or could see the grip on power by the CPC significantly challenged by unrest within the Chinese mainland. The acceleration of the unraveling of the CPC’s (and Xi’s) credibility within China and globally has been exacerbated by the reinforcement of the PRC’s economic decline and outlook, which is characterized by rising unemployment levels and an upsurge in natural disasters at a time of growing international isolation.
Pres. Xi, in other words, must act rapidly to reinforce his control or see either challenges to the CPC’s control or action by the CPC against him.
The D?ngsh? islands (in fact, one island, two coral reefs and two banks) are located about 170 nautical miles (310km; 200 miles) southeast of Hong Kong, and are administratively part of the Kaohsiung municipality of the ROC, and more than 500km south of the ROC capital, Taipei. The group, consisting only of 174 hectares of land in total, surrounded by coral reefs, is central to the subsea oil deposits in the economic zone under ROC sovereignty.
Pratas Island, the only part of the group constantly above water, has an airfield but is not significantly (and certainly not sufficiently) militarized by the ROC.
The PLA by mid-May 2020 was discussing imminent military exercises to simulate the takeover of D?ngsh?, and CPC sources indicated that the exercises — which would actually be held near Hainan Island (PRC) — could be transformed into an actual military operation without warning.
Even the CPC English-language newspaper, Global Times, hinted at the action, quoting the Japanese Kyodo News agency as saying: “The D?ngsh? Islands are located in the route from PLA naval bases in Hainan Island to [the] Pacific Ocean via the Bashi Channel in the south of Taiwan Island, making it strategically important to the PLA’s entry to the Pacific Ocean.” Global Times hinted that the ROC had been considering leasing D?ngsh? to the U.S. as a forward base for deploying intelligence-gathering and antisubmarine assets, which would be “dangerous to the PLA”.
The umbrella strategic action which Xi had hoped would extricate him from his position was the distraction of the U.S. and its allies from gaining continued economic and strategic revival during and after the COVID19-related health/economic panic, while the PRC faced decline. Xi considered U.S. resistance as the principal limiting factor in containing Beijing’s rise, and he considered Pres. Trump the galvanizing factor in this.
However, it seemed that events were moving too rapidly against Beijing for Pres. Xi to be able to wait until the U.S. elections. Certainly, if at all possible, Beijing had hoped to keep the U.S. internally preoccupied — and the Trump White House on the defensive — until the U.S. elections. PLA actions before the U.S. elections could prove too alarming to U.S. and international audiences, galvanizing a decisive U.S. and Western response, which would only serve to strengthen the chances for Pres. Trump’s reelection. It would galvanize an external threat to the U.S. at a time when the Trump White House was defensively fighting the COVID19 health scare.
So what, if anything, could a successful PLA attack achieve by conquering and seizing the D?ngsh? territory?
At best, from Beijing’s standpoint, the seizure of D?ngsh? would show the limitation of U.S. support for Taiwan, and possibly soften Philippine and ASEAN states generally in their resolve to resist the PRC. It would serve as a continuation of a “salami strategy” — one slice at a time — of taking land and sea territory away and strategic maneuvering room from the ROC, and pushing the U.S./West away from the Chinese mainland. There are some 13 significant islands and island chains, including Taiwan itself, and D?ngsh?, which comprise the ROC.
The next major target for the PLA would be several of the ROC islands close to the Chinese mainland, specifically the highly fortified Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu island groups.
There is little doubt that the ROC Armed Forces would defend the Kinmen and Matsu groups, but those island chains are within very close striking range of mainland (PRC) artillery and protected air and amphibious power. And the PRC would make a judgment as to whether, if it was able to succeed against Kinmen and Matsu, it could then isolate Taiwan, the main island, to the point where a de facto surrender or symbolic dominance of the ROC could occur.
The question is: what then? What would that achieve for Xi, other than a possible short reprieve for the CPC, given that none of the overarching fundamentals of mainland China’s strategic decline would have been resolved?
The economic decline of the PRC, and its existential food and water challenges, and even its now declining leverage over Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) partner states around the world, would remain unaddressed. A breathing space for Xi and the CPC would be just that. There appeared to be no plans to revitalize the economy in a meaningful and sustainable fashion. The cooption by the CPC of the main “private sector” pillars of financial success has actually led to their declining utility and capability in the wider world.
In other words, should it survive (with or without Xi at the helm), the CPC would be forced to preside over a mainland China (even a China reunified with Taiwan and Hong Kong) which would have to reevaluate for the time being its plans for “global hegemony” by 2049. It would have to retreat into itself, à la the maoist era, and bide its time. It has, since 2012, already begun the move back to maoist economics.
As with Galtieri’s attempts at his salvation as leader of Argentina by seizing the Falkland Islands from the United Kingdom in 1983, Xi’s breakout to continue the PRC’s momentum toward “global hegemony” relied on too little strategic energy and on the essential hope that his enemies would surrender or collapse. The nature of his breakout, however, was counterproductive; it ensured that he galvanized his opponents at home and abroad, at a time when he was losing his primary global leverage: ensuring that his trading partners had become totally dependent on the PRC.
This tableau still has many aspects to play out before it becomes a setpiece in 21st Century history. The CPC has certainly not abandoned the reality that its non-kinetic and indirect weapons of the “new total war” must dominate in order to paralyze its adversaries. That Xi could utilize (and he still may not) exercises of a military nature to seize parts or all of the Republic of China (Taiwan and its island chains) would either be a decisive gesture of intimidation or the move which brings the entire maoist experiment decisively down on the CPC’s head.
Even absent such a dénouement, Xi’s only option would be to see a China and a world of reduced economic capability and growth and, if it could, a world in which the other great powers would be hobbled by their own problems while Beijing somehow regrouped. And yet the world at large would almost certainly see a revival over the coming years: North America (U.S., Canada, Mexico) is already reviving despite the continuation of the COVID19-related challenges and politics; the UK and Australasia are also reviving; India, too. Japan, at least, remains stable and economically powerful, and strategically freed from the post-World War II constraints.
What then becomes the “post-PRC” global power framework? India and Russia seem set to emerge into greater prominence, and the galvanizing of the fronts which emerged in 2020 to confront or restrain the PRC would gradually dissolve into new competitions. India under Narendra Modi would see for itself a global role which may find it pushing hard into the Eurasian sphere as well as globally into the maritime competition.
And where would that lead?
By Gregory Copley via Defense and Foreign Affairs
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