Roots of Chinese Strategic Doctrine and Statecraft
Near the end of 2015, General Secretary Xi Jinping (习近平) announced a shift in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA-中国人民解放军）strategic doctrine, orienting the Chinese military toward achieving long term modernization goals. The Central Military Commission (CMC) has since restructured military organization within the services, command and control doctrine, and instituted new definitions of regional security theaters. Moreover, improvements in logistical connectivity, weapons systems, and quality of leadership will allow China greater joint operational capability, making possible more poignant regional power projection. As the latest Department of Defense China Military Power Report underscores, new reforms have been implemented to improve the PLA’s “ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland and strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the military.”
Maintaining a tight grasp on continental territories and maritime features remain at the apex of Xi’s military objectives. However, if one wants to understand Xi’s geopolitical strategies, one must understand China’s historical conceptions of its empire and the degree to which China perceives itself to be encircled by real and potential adversaries.
Over a century of Chinese strategic humiliation drives Xi Jinping’s military reform and his desire to resuscitate China’s vast imperial glory to eventually realize the “Chinese Dream.” For Xi, the Chinese Dream is direct translation of his desire to resuscitate the glory of the Middle Kingdom and erase a past of Integrating Chinese historical ideology and geopolitics can shed light on why the CCP might begin considering both old and new strategies to reunify its fractured kingdom.
To better grasp the historical pressures influencing Xi’s military reform as it pertains to Taiwan, three underlying strategic principles need to be examined:
- Xi’s will to maintain territorial sovereignty over “separatists,”
- His perception of encirclement and U.S. counter-encirclement strategies,
- and Xi’s reconsideration of the use of force for geopolitical ends.
Enduring Conceptions of Boundaries and Order: The Ideology and Geopolitics of Xi’s Taiwan Strategy
Splittism: PRC Rogue Territory Strategy
The first component of Xi’s national and regional security strategy is the centralization of power over separatists or those dubbed guilty of attempts at “splittism.” Xi thus has his strategic eye fixed on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Current political trends in Taiwan fuel the CCP’s unease.
Democratization in Taiwan is a clear signal to Beijing that it’s regional grip is being challaneged. The Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party has established itself as pro Taiwanese independence, and in the wake of the Chen Shuibian (陳水扁) presidency, moderation and assurance of status quo cross-Strait policy. The primarily pan-Green, Sunflower Student Protest Movement (太陽花學運) raised concerns over cross-Strait, black box politics under Guomindang (KMT) president, Ma Yingjiu (馬英九). After Tsai Yingwen’s (蔡英文) election in 2016, Chinese media asserted that Taiwan should abandon its “hallucinations” of independence and that continuing to do so would be a “poison” to Taiwan’s future vitality.
Qing Imperial Claims
The afterglow of ideological fervor and civilizational continuity remain important factors in contemporary Chinese ideas about nation statehood and grand strategy. Memories of the Qing dynasty at its height define the CCP’s notion of China’s rightful borders, and the strategy and tactics of the Warring States period influence PLA joint-operational reforms, especially dealing with a Taiwan contingency.
In 1644, the Qing Dynasty conquered Beijing and established its rule over a relatively cohesive Chinese empire. By 1683, the Kangxi Emperor had taken Formosa (modern Taiwan), making the island a tributary of what China now conceives of as a subservient Sinosphere. Taiwan later fell into Japanese hands in 1895, and in 1949 shifted to the Chinese Nationalists after the Chinese Civil War. The PRC’s historical claim to Taiwan is indeed ambiguous, but the determination for reclamation stems largely from Qing imperial boundaries and a shared “Chinese” identity.
According to Central Intelligence Agency demographic data, 95% of Taiwan’s population is of mainland ethnic descent. Rhetorical appeals to a coherent, Chinese civilization are part of Xi’s ideological argument from authority as he attempts to solidify control over continental borders and outside territories.
The efficacy of reintegration through ethnic means is up for contestation, but it is clear that Beijing has both vested ideological and geopolitical interest in disallowing Taiwanese independence. Emerging reforms and trends under Xi Jinping underscore the fact that the PRC hopes to reintegrate Taiwan into its sphere of influence by 2049 and is willing to use force to do so.
The CCP views the Taiwanese splittism problem as an internal one, undermining Confucian values of harmonious order and territorial claims derived from the glorious Qing Dynasty era. However, in addition to ideological arguments surrounding the “one-China” policy are Xi’s views on Taiwan as a possible point of blockade and adversarial forward operational capability through what China has called the first island chain.
Encirclement / Counter-Encirclement: First Island Chain Contestation
The second element of Xi’s Taiwan strategy is thus geopolitical in nature. Since the Hu Jintao presidency, the PRC has become increasingly wary of an island blockade that could undermine China’s maritime trade routes and naval power projection capabilities.
Under president Hu, the PLA began significant military reforms under the auspices of the “New Historic Missions” to counteract adversarial attempts to encircle China. In 2004, the CCP established these missions to solidify party rule over the military, pacify domestic instability, and stifle the Taiwanese separatist movement by force if necessary. One need only look to the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 and the bombing of Jinmen and Mazu to understand China’s potential inclination toward force to maintain control of its territories.
The Chinese Mask of Defensive Posture and a Resurgence of Coercive Taiwan Strategy
Since Taiwan sits within China’s demarcation of the first island chain, and remains a fixation of China’s maritime strategy, it is plausible that Xi Jinping will consider incremental military escalation, deception, and political warfare to dissuade Taiwanese independence movements and uphold the “1992 Consensus”.
If Xi establishes political and military control in the South China Sea and encircles Taiwan, the PRC will be well situated to dictate terms surrounding freedom of navigation, frustrating both Taiwanese and American interests. PLA reforms seem to suggest that China is preparing for regional, conventional conflict in which maritime expansion and reclamation is key.
As Dr. James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College asserts, America must work with allies such as Japan to dissuade China of pushing into the first island chain vis-a-vis Taiwan by military means. As of now, however, assurance of American support seems unclear.
Deflecting “The Great Telos of Return”: U.S.-Taiwan Policy Measures
With PLA ideological and counter-encirclement strategies in mind, the U.S. and Taiwan have a few policy options worth considering when diagnosing a PLA invasion strategy.
First, as the Taiwanese Quadrennial Defense Review (歷年國防報告總檢討) outlines, the Taiwanese military should develop indigenous capabilities that will form a credible deterrent against a PLA invasion while also bolstering its reserve forces, making an amphibious landing less palatable for the Chinese. On the aerial side, weapons systems such as indigenous cruise missiles and the acquisition of asymmetric capabilities such as unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVS) could be utilized to counter the Chinese edge.
Moreover, Taiwan could turn Chinese encirclement strategy against the PLA, making an invasion too costly for Xi. As Holmes points out, Taiwan can utilize is mountainous topography and reinforce offshore defenses, frustrating Chinese access and lethality with its own counter tactics and strategy.
Also key to Taiwanese survivability are U.S. arms support and proper net assessment of Chinese strategic culture. The recent announcement of an arms package for Taiwan is a step in the right direction, but it may not be enough. Toshi Yoshihara explains that American perceptions about Chinese strategic use of its military force have been misguided and thus ineffective in checking Chinese strategic success. The U.S. and Taiwan should thus continue sharing intelligence while conducting bilateral military exchanges. The U.S. could also provide professional military education to Taiwanese officers, bolstering a cooperation and understanding of Chinese strategic objectives.
Continued passive measures against Chinese incrementalism and encirclement is not in the interest of either Taiwan or the U.S. Xi’s strategic ambiguity and use of “gray-zone,” diplomatic tactics must be dealt with accordingly. As Holmes and Yoshihara maintain, the U.S. should seek to counteract Chinese grand strategy by reinforcing commitments to regional allies, and form a counter-encirclement strategy of its own. Taiwan could play an invaluable role in this initiative.