Status: 23/09/2023, 03:04 a.m.
By: Sven Hauberg
Taiwan in sight: China's military is ready to fight. © Imago/VCG
China wants unification with Taiwan. Not necessarily by military means, as the president of Taiwan's leading think tank says in an interview. Nevertheless, the situation is dangerous.
Taipei – Will China attack Taiwan soon? Lai I-chung doesn't think so. Instead, China's state and party leader Xi Jinping will resort to other means to unite the democratically governed island with the communist People's Republic, says the president of the Prospect Foundation, Taiwan's leading think tank on international politics. During the conversation in Taipei, Lai warns against provoking Xi – and explains why Xi will not abandon his ally Vladimir Putin anytime soon.
Mr. Lai, how dangerous are the tensions between China and Taiwan at the moment?
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are rising. Xi Jinping has made unification with Taiwan a prerequisite for China's "national rebirth," and he would do anything to keep himself and his Communist Party in power. This makes unification an urgent matter from the point of view of the Chinese. However, Xi Jinping is not currently trying to achieve this goal by military means.
Rather, China relies on coercion and military intimidation. They want to scare Taiwan so much that we submit. But that's not going to happen. We must make it clear to Xi Jinping that an invasion would not only not be unsuccessful, but would also come at a high political cost to him. So that he doesn't even try.
"Not only Xi Jinping, but many Chinese want Taiwan to be united with China"
But there is also a great desire among the Chinese population for Taiwan to unite with China.
That's right. Not only Xi Jinping, but many Chinese want Taiwan to be united with China. There is a lot of nationalism in China, always has been. Under Xi Jinping, however, Chinese politics has become more unpredictable. The irony is that, in a way, Xi is actually helping us. Because thanks to his behavior, we get more support from the West.
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But it seems to be precisely this support that provokes China.
China has already increased pressure on Taiwan in 2016, after the election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwanese president. It wasn't until two years later that the U.S. began sending ships through the Taiwan Strait. Or let's look at the South China Sea. China built artificial islands there years before the US got involved and expanded its sphere of influence. Yes, we must not provoke China, but neither do we. China's government is very easily upset, and so we have to be very careful that they don't lose face. We must be kind to China. If someone is in trouble, you shouldn't point the finger at them. It has always been the case that China is the thinest-skinned at such moments.
They allude to the economic difficulties that China is currently struggling with.
China is facing major challenges, some of which are structural. The real estate crisis, for example, is the result of over-investment in a sector in which demand has not grown accordingly. Private consumption is weakening, people are simply not spending money at the moment. Other, democratic states would now provide incentives to consume – China, on the other hand, does not. I'm not sure Xi Jinping is aware of how serious this problem is. Without structural reforms, these challenges will remain. What we also see is that a lot of data is no longer published, for example on youth unemployment. Apparently the situation is so bad that we are not supposed to know.
"If Xi Jinping feels backed into a corner, he could do terrible things"
What does this mean for Taiwan?
Taiwan has been one of the most important investors in China for 25 years, but we are changing our policy. In 2011, we invested almost 50 billion US dollars in China, last year it was less than 5 billion. The USA, Japan, South Korea – all of them want to invest less and are relying on "de-risking". This will certainly not lead to a collapse of the Chinese economy, but the plight of companies and the population is increasing.
What follows from this?
One consequence of this is that the pressure that has built up must be released in order to distract from the internal difficulties. China does this by fueling nationalism in the country. We are currently seeing this in the campaigns against Japan, which has recently begun to drain treated water from the nuclear ruins in Fukushima. From Taiwan's point of view, China's current economic decline has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, China's military capabilities will be weakened if the country's economic deterioration. But if Xi Jinping feels backed into a corner, he may conclude that he has no alternative but to do very terrible things.
You just spoke of how unpredictable Xi Jinping is. Xi recently dismissed his foreign minister without explanation, as well as two high-ranking generals. What's going on?
It is quite normal for authoritarian regimes to behave in an opaque manner. The supreme leader never explains the decisions he makes. In this way, it maximizes the deterrent effect. Because he wants people to be clueless. Xi Jinping, for example, did not go to the G20 summit in New Delhi. Does he find such meetings boring? Or are there other reasons? We'll never know.
"The relationship between China and Russia is a relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin"
Finally, how do you assess the relationship between China and Russia?
The relationship between China and Russia is currently mainly a relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Since Xi took office, his first trip abroad has taken him to Russia almost every year. And if we look at Xi Jinping's body language, it's only when he meets Putin that he smiles. Not with other heads of state. Many believe that China and Russia do not share the same interests. But if Putin were to fall, it would severely damage Xi Jinping. Moreover, if China were to really attack Taiwan, it would lose its most important backer. That is why China will continue to support Russia.
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