Xi, the PLA, and the State of Perpetual Conflict

What if the leadership in Beijing saw advantages in not resolving the Taiwan ‘issue’?
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
J. Michael Cole

Continuing a long tradition set by his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on Wednesday warned against “independence forces” in Taiwan, calling them “the biggest threat to cross-strait peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.

Xi, who made the remarks at this year’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was not saying anything we’ve not heard before: The Taiwan independence movement “poisons” stable cross-strait relations and threatens to “divide” the Great Chinese Nation.

One peculiar characteristic of that rhetoric is that regardless of who runs the government in Taipei — Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — Beijing keeps repeating it.

That is not by accident. By sustaining the notion of “Taiwan independence” forces threatening peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing ensures that Taiwan and China remain in a state of perpetual conflict. Note how Beijing never clearly defines “independence,” a term which is vague enough to encompass both those who seek de jure independence (i.e., the creation of a sovereign state called Taiwan) and the majority who support the “status quo” or de facto independence; or “forces,” which could mean anything from small civic movements to the institutionalized pan-green DPP/Taiwan Solidarity Union.

By design, those forces are impersonal, the equivalent of closet communists during the red scare in the U.S. during the Cold War, or “homegrown terrorists” in the ongoing global campaign against violent Islamic extremism. Those faceless forces, which cannot ever be eradicated completely, provide the state with a convenient tool to justify its actions — fear. Historically, states worldwide have cultivated fear within the public to increase their defense budgets when money could be better spent elsewhere (e.g., education, infrastructure, health care, &c), or to enact national security laws that violate the rights of their citizens and those of foreigners on their territories.

China is certainly not doing anything different, what with the “internal” threat posed by “splittist” forces in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, rights activists and foreign forces from the CIA to the National Endowment for Democracy, all of which is used to justify an annual budget for the People’s Armed Police that surpasses that of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Fear of “Taiwan independence forces,” which supposedly threaten the very existence of the People’s Republic of China, serves a similar function — to rationalize increasing defense spending, even in times of slowing economic performance (China’s military budget for 2015, estimated at US$145 billion, will be about 10% higher than in 2014, despite forecasts of about 7% GDP growth during the same period, the lowers in 11 years).

Of course the PLA is concerned with several other contingencies, including territorial disputes in the East/South China Sea and India, competition with the U.S. and Japanese military, as well as growing global responsibilities from peacekeeping to counter-piracy. All of those can be used to justify increases in defense spending. But they are all external factors which do not directly threaten the ideological foundations of the state. Nothing, at least according to official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric, threatens the survival of China more than the forces of separatism, of which Taiwan is the prime symbol. Consequently, despite its new set of responsibilities, the PLA remains very much configured to respond to a Taiwan scenario in which its units are called upon to “retake” the island.

Even if the CCP leadership is disinclined to use its military against Taiwan, a move which it knows would unleash uncontrollable forces that could have catastrophic effects on China (not to mention on Taiwanese “compatriots”), the Taiwan “question” nevertheless provides justification for a robust and expanding military.

In fact, if the aim of the civilian leadership in Beijing is, as I suspect, to keep the generals and the defense establishment happy (and thereby avoid a mutiny), the best way to do so is to continue to throw money at them. (Some of it will go towards the acquisition of new armaments, while a fraction will be redirected to line the pockets of corrupt officials.)

As long as the Taiwan “issue” isn’t resolved, Beijing will have carte blanche to continue increasing defense spending perpetually. Hence the “forces” on Taiwan that continually “threaten peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

It would be easy to construe Xi’s remarks as reflecting fear of a “pro-independence” DPP victory in next year’s 2016 elections, which is now a very likely prospect, or that he was responding to the KMT’s “landslide defeat in last year’s local government elections,” as the South China Morning Post phrased it in an article this morning. In reality, the outcome of the elections, or the fact that the DPP has stated its commitment to improving relations with China, matters little. Regardless of who wins in 2016, “independence forces” will continue to exist in Taiwan. The reason is simple: Even if the “Pro-Beijing” KMT somehow managed to win the election, it would have been voted in by a Taiwanese public that is overwhelmingly against becoming part of the PRC. In other words, even those who cast their ballot for the KMT can ultimately be described as being part of “independence forces,” as they largely favor the “status quo” and therefore de facto independence (according to a recent opinion poll, 17.1% of Taiwanese would be in favor of unification if the only two options were independence or unification; this figure, however, drops to 7.9% if a third option, the “status quo,” is added).

Like any other military institution that has substantial influence on the civilian leadership, the PLA thrives on perpetual conflict. And Beijing, the hostage in this equation, must make sure it can deliver what the generals want. It accomplishes this by repeating the old warnings, as Mr. Xi did on Wednesday, and by continuing to insist on a political “solution” to the Taiwan “issue” that it knows (unless it is completely ignorant) the Taiwanese will never agree to: the “one country, two systems” formula, which for all intents and purposes ensures that the Taiwan “question” will never be resolved.*

Perpetual conflict is far more lucrative for the PLA fiefdom and it prevents the generals from turning on the civilian leadership. Everybody wins.

* Beijing probably understands that it must make a much better offer to Taiwan if any peaceful resolution to the conflict under the terms of unification is to be achieved. However, it is also probably aware that a better offer — say, a “Federalist” solution — would cause problems in other parts of China, where minorities could rightly ask, “If Taiwanese can receive preferential treatment, why not us?” See J. Michael Cole, “National Consolidation or Poison Pill? Taiwan and China’s Quest for ‘Re-Unification,’” China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st-Century Policy, Vol. 3, Donovan C. Chau and Thomas M. Kane, eds. (Santa Barbara: 2014), pp. 3-20.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

4 Responses to “Xi, the PLA, and the State of Perpetual Conflict”

March 05, 2015 at 5:35 am, k ma (@taemannom) said:

What “uncontrollable forces” would be unleashed by a PRC invasion of Taiwan?The CCP would have completed the historic mission (in the eyes of many PRC citizens) of reuniting China after the age of humiliation.


J. Michael Cole

March 05, 2015 at 5:41 am, J. Michael Cole said:

Fog of war; long pacification campaign across Taiwan; risks of U.S./Japanese intervention; possible sanctions/economic embargo against China; unrest in other parts of China; &c…


March 05, 2015 at 10:08 pm, elvira said:

Hello, my name is Elvira
I think this article is really interesting
As a Taiwanese, I’ve been taught that we are an independent and democratic country, and it is! We have our own Government, laws and systems
Taiwan has separated from China for ages, for us, it’s impossible to change the truth like this, and we have our own beliefs:)


March 14, 2015 at 4:08 am, Mike Fagan said:

The problem with the “perpetual conflict” thesis is that it depends on attributing a constant rationality to China’s civil and military leadership. Yet only a short-lived burst of human error, or some other madness, is needed to capsize the whole thing.


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