Butterfly Effect: China’s Real Target Is Taiwan - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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For Xi Jinping, the new controversial law for Hong Kong is part of a bigger plan to restore his credibility at home and send a message to Taiwan and the West.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said Hong Kong is effectively “no longer autonomous” from mainland China. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has said Washington might impose sanctions on China. And Beijing says American threats are signs of a “new Cold War.”

All of this rhetoric is rooted in a proposal for a controversial law, unveiled last week at China’s National People’s Congress. The proposal bill, which will now be drafted by a smaller committee, would bypass Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous legislature in allowing the mainland to use military force to crush “subversive activity” and “terrorism” on the island. It comes months after pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong successfully blocked an extradition law.  

But Beijing’s moves aren’t only about Hong Kong. Its real target is Taiwan, and political legitimacy in mainland China for President Xi Jinping, whose credibility has taken a beating over his handling of the coronavirus crisis. It’s a high-stakes game drawn from the playbook of Xi’s frenemy, President Donald Trump.

Taiwan’s success in handling the pandemic and global concerns over China’s opacity in the early days of the scare have bolstered the international stature of the self-governing region that has otherwise been bleeding diplomatic allies to Beijing’s economic clout in recent years. Earlier this month, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, the U.K., Japan, Australia and New Zealand lobbied to try and get Taiwan a seat at the World Health Organization. Beijing — whose “One China” policy means it won’t deal with countries or agencies that diplomatically recognize Taiwan — has expectedly pushed back. But the proposal is still on the table, only postponed for now.

Trump, in an angry letter this month to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, claimed that Taiwan’s heath authorities had warned the UN agency of “human to-human transmission of a new virus” as early as Dec. 31 — though that’s not true. Meanwhile, France has promised to sell Taiwan weapons. And at press briefings, White House officials have been seen wearing masks labeled “Made in Taiwan.”

For all its bluster, China knows it can’t hope to regain Taiwan as a part of the motherland anytime soon. But it also can’t afford to see the self-ruled territory gain greater diplomatic weight. So it’s responding with its own stern messages — both direct and indirect.

On the one hand, it is planning military drills for later in the summer that will simulate the takeover of the Pratas — Taiwanese islands in the South China Sea. On the other hand, it is using the proposed security crackdown in Hong Kong to warn moderates in Taiwan against escalating tensions with Beijing. To the U.S., China is signaling an implicit trade off: The more Washington tries to needle Beijing by strengthening ties with Taiwan, the more Xi will try and impose his own writ over Hong Kong. Let’s not forget, China’s National People’s Congress is a rubber-stamp parliament — if it wanted to, it could pass the Hong Kong law in minutes. For the moment, Beijing appears to be testing the waters.

There’s another gain that Xi is likely eyeing. In a series of posts on Chinese social media, writer Fang Fang pointed out government lapses that allowed the virus to spread in its initial days. Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, a member of the Communist Party, has described the country’s president as a “joker.” These rare public criticisms have since been censored — Fang’s posts have been pulled down, and Ren has been arrested. But the Communist Party knows that the sentiment isn’t limited to a few individuals.

What better way to get people to rally around the flag and the leader than to create the threat of an external enemy? China knew that its proposed law for Hong Kong would spark criticism and threats of punishment from the West. That in turn allows Beijing to paint the U.S. as a villain looking to erode China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

China is doubling down on this approach, with tensions also rising along its largely disputed border with India, where New Delhi has accused the People’s Liberation Army of repeated infiltration over the past week. It’s a growing crisis that the West has largely ignored so far, but fits in with Beijing’s overall posture these past few days.

Xi’s strategy is laden with risk. If the U.S. does go ahead and impose sanctions, investors and companies might flee Hong Kong — many have already downsized operations after last year’s protests. The loss of Hong Kong’s stature as a global financial capital and vital port would significantly hurt an already troubled Chinese economy, weathering its first recession in 44 years. Fresh clashes have intensified between protesters and police in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has promised support to the people of Hong Kong. And the new law will only reaffirm to ordinary Taiwanese that they can’t trust China’s “one country, two systems” model — ostensibly in operation in Hong Kong. Yet if it helps bolster Xi’s image at home by accusing America of interfering in China’s affairs, it’s a gamble the Chinese president is willing to take.

If the approach sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Trump has spent the past few weeks using China as his punching bag to deflect criticism of his own administration’s management of the coronavirus crisis. Xi’s showing that two can play at that game.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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