With the conclusion of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary of the CCP Xi Jinping has begun his third term in office. The newly announced list of members of the Politburo Standing Committee shows that Xi’s power is firmly entrenched; in contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden is about to face the challenge of November’s midterm elections, and whether he becomes a lame duck president or not will determine the success or failure of this latest round of China-U.S. relations.
Following U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s prediction that Xi would occupy Taiwan by force earlier than expected in his new term, the 20th National Congress of the CCP amended its party constitution to include “resolutely opposing and containing Taiwan independence” for the first time. After the 20th Congress, there will also be major changes to China’s diplomatic personnel, with 69-year-old State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi expected to replace 72-year-old Yang Jiechi as the head of the CCP’s Central Foreign Affairs Office. Qin Gang, who only last year went from vice minister of foreign affairs to becoming China’s ambassador to the U.S., is expected to be promoted to foreign minister. As China redeploys itself with regard to U.S.-Taiwan relations, how China-U.S.-Taiwan relations evolve in future will become the focal point for all parties.
During his tenure as foreign minister, Wang crossed swords with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and current Secretary of State Blinken on several occasions, proving himself up to the task in each case. Qin, who is now entering the Politburo as something of a dark horse, has only been ambassador to the U.S. for a little over a year. The fact that he is taking over a ministerial-level post from a deputy-level post in such a short span of time shows that diplomatic work with the U.S. will be the focus of Xi’s diplomatic strategy.
It is possible that Blinken understood that “anti-Taiwan independence” would be included in the CCP’s constitution at the 20th National Congress, and that he therefore determined that Xi would take military action against Taiwan sooner rather than later. However, after Blinken and the top brass of the U.S. military repeatedly leaked that the CCP would attack Taiwan earlier than expected, White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby recently stepped in to emphasize that there was no reason for a conflict to break out in the Taiwan Strait. This was tantamount to a slap in the face to Blinken, revealing that the White House does not want the conflict between China and the U.S. to escalate excessively and will step in to cool things down, when necessary, to keep the China-U.S. “dam” from being breached.
Judging from the current mood on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, it may be asking too much for either Beijing or Taipei to take the initiative in seeking to restart any dialogue. While Blinken has twice said that he would not rule out an early military invasion of Taiwan by the CCP, he has also expressed the hope that Beijing would establish a dialogue with Washington on the issue of peace in Taiwan.
Apart from the issue of Taiwan, there will still be an opportunity for the leaders of China and the U.S. to hold bilateral talks at Indonesia’s Group of 20 Bali summit, set for November. When the time comes, they may or may not be able to reach agreement on the issues of global climate change, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, tariffs, inflation, the economy and Taiwan; but even if the highly competitive overall situation between China and the U.S. cannot be changed, if the current tensions can be eased only slightly, that will be something to be welcomed by all parties.
However, Biden’s November midterm challenge is looming. If the Democrats lose the majority in both the House and the Senate, Biden will immediately become the aforementioned lame duck and will be at a disadvantage in U.S.-China diplomatic negotiations. As far as outcomes, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen administration will be weakened, regardless of whether its stance is to join forces with the U.S. and oppose China or to resist China and protect Taiwan. In addition, Xi’s new term will see an intensification of efforts at combating Taiwan independence, so the Tsai administration should be more circumspect in word and deed to avoid bringing disaster to the country through violent clashes.
The author is professor emeritus, Department of Diplomacy and International Relations, Tamkang University, Taiwan.