Few events in international politics better illustrate the volatile cocktail of geopolitical contestation, competing nationalisms, and domestic political constraints than the recently concluded visit of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. While the United States and Taiwan acted in accordance with the democratic logic of their policies, China’s actions had to follow the dictates of its communist system.
The party-state established by the Communist Party of China (CCP) in 1949 was based on a “social contract,” albeit with CCP characteristics, with the Chinese people. This contract establishes the legitimacy of the party within the Chinese body politic. It is therefore as much a CCP survival strategy as a governance technique. As the Party evolved from a revolutionary entity to a ruling establishment, this contract also transformed – the lofty romanticism of “liberation” was replaced by the imperatives of “peaceful development”. Today, this socialist utopia is defined by the ideal of “national rejuvenation”. Interestingly, the Taiwanese issue has remained a constant in the various avatars of this contract.
Although it is old political jargon, national rejuvenation under Xi Jinping is the clarion call of a civilizational state and not simply a cherished ideal of a republican experiment or a communist state. In this version, national renewal is both flexible in its ideological scope and expandable in its territorial ambitions. It is important to note that the nationalist justification for building rejuvenation does not come from narratives of victimization suffered during the “century of humiliation”; it is set in the glory of an imaginary past, and is thus both more assertive and aggressive in its orientation.
Besides being a nationalist project, national rejuvenation is also Xi’s personal investment. A successful recovery of every entity and ideal belonging to the “rejuvenation” landscape could seal its position as a figurehead within the CCP’s pantheon. Therefore, China’s growing warmongering toward Taiwan must be situated within the dynamics of the CCP’s political expediency, Chinese nationalism, and Xi’s ambitions.
While Pelosi’s visit was not a first for a Speaker of the United States House, the logic of the “rejuvenation” policy warranted a belligerent response from the Chinese side – the regimes that aspire to claim the pre-eminence of Antiquity cannot be perceived as compromising their “fundamental interests”. either by a national public or by the international community. In this paradigm, any act that facilitates the recognition of Taiwan as a political entity is anathema as it violates the spirit of national rejuvenation and, therefore, the contract between the CCP and the Chinese people.
While the visit and its effects on US-China relations have implications for Xi’s leadership, they do not necessarily impact his plans for the upcoming 20th Party Congress. Although there are sources of criticism and dissatisfaction with Xi’s foreign and economic policies within the CCP’s upper echelons, the Chinese president has meticulously invested his last two terms in dominating the Party’s institutional framework. and the state. Therefore, there is little room for elite discontent to take the form of effective opposition against Xi in the immediate future.
Moreover, the democratic logic of a direct correlation between political criticism, fluctuating public opinion, and a leader’s outlook cannot be extrapolated to the Leninist structure of the CCP as a whole. The Central Committee that will choose China’s next leadership at the 20th Party Congress will have the largest number of delegates from provincial Party committees. As mentioned in a previous article (“Extraordinary power of Xi”, IE, June 15), most of the newly elected provincial party leaders have experience working in provinces where Xi previously served as party leader. In addition, delegates from all contingents will be indirectly controlled by the organization department headed by Chen Xi, a longtime confidant of the president.
While Xi’s future third term appears to be largely shielded from the visit, he may face serious criticism from party elders at the upcoming CCP meeting in Beidaihe. This criticism could be more serious on two substantive points in Pelosi’s speech in the presidential office. Pelosi referred to “self-determination” as one of the core values of US-Taiwanese relations. And as a senior retired Indian diplomat pointed out, she used the wording “the people of Taiwan” instead of “the people of Taiwan” as mentioned in the Taiwan Relations Act. The significance of this departure in diplomatic parlance will not be lost on the Party veterans.
Since the Taiwan issue is intrinsically linked to the CCP’s legitimacy and Xi’s personal agenda, China will not launch an outright war until the military balance favors the United States. Moreover, with a third term almost guaranteed, the usefulness of any war over Taiwan for Xi is limited at this time.
At the same time, the strategic community should take cognizance of the non-military methods professed by Chinese leaders and scholars to achieve the goal of national rejuvenation and, therefore, the resolution of the Taiwan question. A notable development was the United Front Work (UFWD) Central Conference held on July 29-30. At the conference, Xi urged the UFWD to come up with an action plan to foster pro-unification sentiments among the Taiwanese public, businesses and intelligentsia.
As the CCP advances in its imperialist scheme to subsume Taiwan, the Taiwan issue will continue to remain the defining feature of international politics for years to come.
Aggarwal is a Senior Fellow at the India Foundation. She is currently based in Taipei as a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University. She is also a Huayu Scholar at NTNU