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China Restraint on Taiwan Shows Xi Has Bigger Concerns Now

China Restraint on Taiwan Shows Xi Has Bigger Concerns Now
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, right, speaks during an event with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, US, on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Taiwan hailed President Tsai Ing-wen's unprecedented meeting with House Speaker McCarthy on US soil as a "rare opportunity," even as the move risks provoking renewed military tension around the island.

After former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi touched down in Taiwan last year, it took less than an hour for China to announce missile tests and military drills encircling the island. 

By that standard, Beijing’s initial reaction to President Tsai Ing-wen’s unprecedented meeting on US soil with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been muted. Although China released statements condemning the meeting and sent an aircraft carrier in waters just south of the main island, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Thursday morning it detected only one Chinese military aircraft and three vessels in the surrounding region over the past 24 hours.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has several reasons to hold fire for the moment, even if he plans a more aggressive military response in the coming days.

For one, he’s currently hosting French leader Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an effort to win support for his vague blueprint to bring peace to Ukraine — and to counter US efforts to block China’s access to new technology like advanced semiconductors. After arriving in Beijing Wednesday, Macron said he didn’t see a “will to overreact” from China and praised the “personal time” he was getting from Xi in the next few days. Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is also set to visit China next week.

“If Beijing seriously raises military tension at this juncture, it would make life very difficult for von der Leyen and Macron, and take the wind out of the sails of any European China dove voices for a long time,” said Wen-ti Sung, a specialist on Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations at Australian National University.

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In Xi’s first public remarks on Taiwan since Tsai’s California meeting with McCarthy, he said Thursday that “the Chinese government and the Chinese people will never accept anyone making a fuss about the ‘One China’ issue.”

“Expecting China to compromise on the Taiwan issue is just wishful thinking and anyone doing so will only shoot themselves in the foot,” he told von der Leyen.

China’s aggressive military response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the first by a sitting House speaker in 25 years, spooked the rest of the region and beyond. Since then, the Philippines has moved to strengthen military ties with the US, South Korea and Japan agreed to resolve a decades-long dispute that impeded security cooperation, and Australia took another step toward acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK.

Moreover, the drills prompted many leaders in Europe to start lumping China and Russia together, entrenching the notion that Beijing would soon invade Taiwan just as Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine. The possibility of a war in Asia, something that was long unthinkable, has prompted governments and companies to assess their exposure to China — a development that threatens to hurt a lackluster economic recovery from Covid Zero, not to mention the nation’s long-term growth prospects.

Chinese and U.S. Forces Could Clash Over Taiwan

Xi has embarked on a charm offensive of late, seeking to rebrand China as a force for peace in the world. Besides his diplomacy over Ukraine, Xi agreed to support a debt-relief deal for Sri Lanka and helped broker an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore normal diplomatic relations. He’s now seeking to mend ties with key US allies, including France and Australia, in a bid to prevent China from becoming isolated on the world stage.

Another key restraint for Xi is the Taiwanese election scheduled for January 2024. Any stepped-up military threats tend to help Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which is currently in a tight race with the China-friendly Kuomintang. China is currently hosting Ma Ying-jeou, the first former Taiwanese president to ever visit the world’s second-biggest economy, making it even worse for the KMT if Beijing were to offer an aggressive response.

Tsai also has one eye on the election. After receiving chants of “I love you” by hundreds of Taiwanese Americans at her first public event in New York at the beginning of her 10-day trip, she jokingly said: “You know, I am not running for president anymore.”

Yet throughout the trip, she was keen to show that her party and its likely candidate, Lai Ching-te, can avoid unnecessary provocations that could trigger a war. Tsai kept her appearances low key, didn’t announce any new policies in her public remarks and spoke broadly about democratic principles rather than mentioning China by name. Perhaps biggest of all, she convinced McCarthy to meet her in California instead of heading over to Taiwan.

China, for its part, also sought to manage public opinion better than last year, when expectations built up on social media that Beijing would block Pelosi from landing in Taipei. A search for references to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting on Twitter-like Weibo only showed mostly official accounts reposting government statements. The comment sections were heavily censored, with most responses not showing up.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, was more restrained than before, when he suggested that Chinese planes could “forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane.”

On Thursday he wrote to his more than 20 million fans on Weibo that Beijing will make sure Tsai eventually pays a price for meeting McCarthy: “This round is just at its beginning.”

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