The Last Thorn on China’s PeripheryChina has had an exceptionally good year in pacifying the challenges on its periphery. The one exception is Taiwan, where the coming election of a China-wary candidate underscores the limitations of its policies
Like most major powers China contends with a plethora of economic, political and geopolitical problems. Start, for example, with its complex relations with the U.S., where it is now confronting a rapidly hardening (though still inadequate) challenge to its repeated attempts to extend its maritime control in the South China Sea. Economics is another emerging China bugaboo, as its still nascent efforts to transition from an investment and export based development model to one more geared to consumption are encountering strong domestic opposition (mostly generated by state-owned enterprises) and tepid GDP numbers. Unless those numbers improve, it risks alienating its politically potent middle class, which up until now has traded Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promises of ever greater material benefits for widespread political quiescence. Particularly with the party leadership increasingly tied in knots over the consequences of Chairman Xi Jinping’s (習近平) wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign, this is a problem to watch.
On at least one important front however, China’s situation has recently improved. This is the area of periphery management, which only a year ago looked like blowing up in its face. In Hong Kong, for example, Beijing was facing a well-organized movement to extend electoral eligibility to non-CCP-vetted politicians and end its carefully constructed monopoly on political power. But by patently waiting the movement out — and undermining its effectiveness through the use of Triad-affiliated street gangs — it maintained its monopoly on authority and not coincidentally set the stage for a further expansion of its already substantial control, particularly in the fields of higher education and the media, where the blackballing of moderate candidates for key university positions and the (impending) purchase of Hong Kong’s premier English-language newspaper (by Chinese businessman Jack Ma) have consolidated its position to a point not seen since it first took control of the former British colony in 1997.
That same level of success is also being achieved in Xinjiang, another critical outpost on its sensitive periphery, which in recent years has been hitting the international headlines against the background of a determined Uighur rebellion against Han rule. The rebellion has already racked up a number of formidable achievements, including repeated Uighur attacks on People’s Armed Police installations and other symbols of Han authority. But the rebellion’s momentum is now being undermined by its unfortunate identification with global Islamic terrorism, which particularly in the wake of the Islamic State’s slaughter of more than a hundred people in Paris and the FBI’s determination that a Muslim couple’s killing of 14 people in California was terrorist-related has become a major political liability. Like it or not, this will deprive the Uighurs of the political oxygen they need to survive the considerable security onslaught that China likely has planned for them. Their prospects aren’t very bright.
In Tibet as well, China’s position is strong and getting stronger. The 80-year-old Dalai Lama’s political influence has been rapidly declining, as Tibetan factionalism metastasizes amid the deep-seated unhappiness that some younger Tibetans feel about his supposedly milquetoast policies and China’s cultivation of a tamer Tibetan leadership. The situation has now reached the point where many Tibetan activists believe that when the Dalai Lama dies, the movement for Tibetan autonomy (and for Tibetan independence) will likely die with him. That is precisely the outcome that China has long been working toward, not least because it would signal another major victory on the road to pacifying its periphery.
There is, however, one important place on China’s periphery where things are not going well for it at all. This is Taiwan, with its rapidly eroding Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) brand and the growing likelihood that the nation’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will yield a China-wary leadership that enjoys that not only widespread domestic support, but also considerable backing from key regional powers including both Japan and the U.S. Underscoring the extent of China’s Taiwan problems, no less a light than Xi recently railed against the failure of Communist functionaries to move the island decisively in China’s direction during the seven years of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) famously China-friendly presidency. While it is true that Xi’s comments (contained in a CCP memo) showed an abysmal lack of understanding of how most democratic polities operate on the ground (every Taiwanese problem, Xi insisted, could be easily fixed through the proper application of CCP-directed command and control measures), they were still revealing in that they correctly accessed the extent of China’s inability to convince ordinary Taiwanese of the supposed benefits of Chinese political control. In that one sense at least, he clearly knew what he was talking about.
The question now is what China intends to do to try to change things. One possibility is that particularly with its other peripheral problems seemingly under control, it will begin devoting more attention to undermining Taiwan’s political legitimacy, stealing away its diplomatic allies, and further constraining its participation in international organizations. This would almost certainly erode the standing of its new Taiwanese government, though as long as it continued to enjoy the confidence of Japan and particularly the U.S., it could easily survive these challenges. China might also choose to coerce Taiwan militarily, perhaps even undertaking a series of demonstratively threatening measures like stepping up economic pressure on places like Kinmen and Matsu or firing missiles off the Taiwanese coast. Once again though, assuming that both Japan and the U.S. remained on Taiwan’s side, there is no reason to believe that such actions would have any but the most transitory political impact. The bottom line here is that China has no real Taiwan game plan, which given the decidedly China-wary sentiments of the large majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people, is very much as it should be. It is thrashing about in the dark.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.