Security Challenges in East Asia: A Wilson Center Panel

In the run-up to the 19th Party Congress in China, observers and citizens in Taiwan anxiously waited to hear if Xi Jinping would have anything of importance to say about their island. Would policy change? Would an expected time frame for reunification with the mainland be established? Were cross-strait relations headed for a shake up?

Many in Taiwan were relieved the hear Xi Jinping spent a paltry six minutes of his three-hour marathon speech to the CPC National Congress addressing what Beijing considers a rogue province. As reported by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) at a recent panel hosted at the Wilson Center, nothing presented at the Party Congress was particularly new or threatening.

Raymond Burghardt, former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, described Chinese interaction with Taiwan as evolving; “the hard part is getting harder and the soft part is getting softer.” By this, Burghardt was referring to the combination of Chinese hard and soft diplomacy efforts vis a vis Taiwan. On the hard side, military actions are on the rise, with increased air and sea patrols near Taiwan and a well-publicized effort within the PLA Navy to establish the ability to launch effective amphibious actions, with the potential target being obvious. On the soft end, China has launched a disinformation campaign, with more and more stories appearing in Taiwanese media about supposed government actions that everyday Taiwanese would likely not approve of; the only problem is that they are entirely fabricated, designed to splinter and fragment the population of the island. With a carrot and stick approach, Beijing also offers sweetened deals for Taiwanese professionals and business leaders to come to the mainland, creating a sort of brain-drain campaign that saps the island of some of its most valuable and innovative citizens.

Rorry Daniels, Associate Project Director at the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at NCAFP, underlined the low to nonexistent levels of trust in Beijing for Tsai Ing-wen’s government. The Party leaders in Beijing view her government as one that is only interested in full independence, with any overtures to cooperation representing a bad faith effort. Daniels described the relationship between China and Taiwan as a cold peace, but not frozen. Both sides are allowing a stalemate to continue because both assume that time is on their side. On that front, Xi Jinping designating no successor seems to imply that he plans to outlast Tsai, whose time in government must come to an end by 2024.

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Rear Admiral Micheal McDevitt echoed the idea that cross-strait relations will likely remain stable in the coming years. General perceptions of threat from China are not at a high alert at the moment and Xi has apparently told the propaganda department of the government to lay off the narrative of reunification by force.

Shifting the focus to North Korea, Evans Revere, a senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group, brought insights from the Chinese perspective on the recent developments of the North Korea situation. He noted that he repeatedly heard chatter about how the United States routinely overestimated the abilities of the North Korean missile program, a bizarre claim given the multiple shocks the U.S. has endured at a newly unveiled weapons or delivery systems capability from the impoverished peninsular state. On the topic of negotiations, the Chinese government was reportedly very positive about the possibility of unconditional talks that were floated by Rex Tillerson. These hopes , however, were quickly dashed when the Secretary of State was undercut by the President. Regional governments were perhaps hoping that unconditional U.S. talks could be more successful than the failed Chinese visit to the DPRK and the lackluster Korean trip to China.

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Following the panel presentation, rounds of questions yielded interesting comments by the presenters. Asked what the next big story coming from China will be, Rear Admiral McDevitt pointed out that China’s transition to new military hardware and reorganization of the PLA to fight a long campaign may be aimed at the strategic goal of making Taiwan’s situation look increasingly tenuous, presumably to undermine the the island population’s faith in their government. Rorry Daniels pointed to what she views as an impending crisis over water usage and sharing in Northwest China and Central Asia, where the impacts of climate change may be felt more acutely by those in already water-scarce regions.

Asked what the next regional crisis would be, Evans Revere’s opinion was clear; “Korea, Korea, Korea,” noting that “we’re one U.S. preemptive strike away from chaos.”  Ralph Cossa was convinced that a self-inflicted trade conflict between the U.S. and China could possibly be the next world event to cause friction in the Asia-Pacific. After threatening a trade war several times on the campaign trail and actual war during his presidency, Donald Trump might just make either of these a reality.



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