Welcome, China Watchers. Phelim Kine, your regular host, is on vacation this week. Your guest host is Tong Zhao, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. His research focuses on strategic security issues, such as nuclear weapons policy, deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation, missile defense, hypersonic weapons, and China’s security and foreign policy. He is the author of “Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability” and “Narrowing the U.S.-China Gap on Missile Defense: How to Help Forestall a Nuclear Arms Race.” Over to you, Tong. — John Yearwood, global news editor
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban may not have immediate implicationsfor the credibility of U.S. commitment to Taiwan. But the Afghan National Army’s rapid collapse and the American military’s hasty withdrawal highlight an important fact for decision makers in Washington, Taipei and Beijing: The U.S.’ future commitment to defending Taiwan is inherently interconnected with Taiwan’s own commitment to defending itself.
If Taiwan will not fight for its own independence, neither will Washington; similarly, if Washington shows hesitation, Taiwan’s resolve may also break down. This reminds Beijing of some of the key vulnerabilities in the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship.
To some extent, the withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates the U.S. seriousness in meeting the security challenges from the great power competition with China. On the other hand, as Washington recognizes Beijing as a rising peer competitor, the importance of working with Beijing to maintain bilateral strategic stability and avoid catastrophic conflicts and mutual destruction also becomes more obvious, not to mention the increasing need for cooperation to address urgent global challenges, such as the pandemic and climate change.
In this sense, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 provides a more relevant precedent than the current Afghan crisis. The fundamental challenge to the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is the growing tension between maintaining bilateral strategic stability with China and fighting China over Taiwan in a violent military conflict that has every potential to escalate into an all-out major power war.
Beijing has not been shy about its thinking of how to undermine the resolve of both Taipei and Washington. Believing that the relative balance of power ultimately determines the future geopolitical landscape, China has been focused on establishing military advantages against Taiwan and American forces at the theater level in the Asia-Pacific region. By the time Beijing can demonstrate clear military advantages, neither Taipei nor Washington would have the resolve to put up a fight that is doomed to fail. Indeed, as China moves the military balance increasingly to its favor, it feels vindicated to see a debate in Washington about whether the United States should cut loss in its failing military assistance to Taiwan.
In recent months and years, China dispatched air and naval patrols near Taiwan, conducted military drills in the region, and practiced new force mobilization and projection capabilities. In doing so, it signaled that China is not only accumulating greater military advantages but also better prepared and more willing to employ its newly gained power to achieve the goal of unification.
There is growing domestic discussion about the necessity for China to take the initiative and forcibly achieve unification sooner rather than later, although the government has so far remained silent on its position. The appearance of China pushing a more assertive and ambitious agenda could help the Chinese paramount leader secure a third term in 2022. But the growing ambiguity over the real Chinese intention also makes it harder for Washington and Taipei to coordinate and prepare. The risk of misjudgment and escalation of tensions will inevitably grow.
In the mid- to long-term, Taiwan likely sees the solution in its development of asymmetric military capabilities to deny China the ability to launch a blitzkrieg. However, to acquire such capabilities will take time and will require substantial and sustainable assistance from the United States and other partner countries. Meantime, China will certainly utilize its full economic, diplomatic and political leverage to block any foreign attempts to assist Taiwan. Beijing, Washington and Taipei will repeatedly test each other’s resolve in this constant arm wrestling, with implications for the rest of the world.
And now, back to your regular China Watcher programming…
— A tech update from Protocol | China. Protocol | China, backed by Robert Allbritton, publisher of Protocol and POLITICO, tracks the intersection of technology and policy in the world’s largest country. Sign up for the newsletter and learn more about Protocol’s research here. This week’s coverage includes a look at a new report showing how Apple exports mainland censorship to Taiwan and Hong Kong, why Chinese e-commerce sellers are taking on the world without Amazon, and who Chinese web users now consider the country’s “Steve Jobs.” (Hint: it’s not Jack Ma.)
— Sherman calls out “coercive” China: Deputy Secretary of StateWendy Sherman on Friday criticized the Chinese government’s “coercive behavior” toward Lithuania in response to China’s umbrage at the name of a new Taiwanese diplomatic outpost in Vilnius. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Sunday recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded that Lithuania do likewise in reprisal for allowing Taiwan to christen its new representative office in Vilnius the “Taiwanese Representative Office.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Friday dismissed U.S. and European Union criticism of China’s diplomatic targeting of Lithuania as “wanton comments.”
— Biden’s “Democracy Summit” causes blowback for Taiwan: President Joe Biden’s announcement last week of a virtual “Summit for Democracy” on Dec. 9-10 has raised hackles in Beijing about Taiwan’s possible participation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in March that the U.S. would invite a Taiwan representative to the event. The rabidly nationalistic Chinese state media platform Global Times on Thursday foreshadowed a looming sharp Chinese Foreign Ministry response to that possibility by warning that China “will definitely not accept the US to invite Taiwan [President] Tsai Ing-wen to participate in the meeting.”
— Chinese Ambassador: Taiwan “most important” issue: Newly arrived Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang informed the State Department’s Sherman in a meeting on Thursday that “the Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.” The two held what Qin described as “candid and in-depth discussions.” Sherman said her focus in the meeting was to “review the issues I raised with PRC officials last month.” Those issues included human rights concerns as well as Beijing’s blocking of the World Health Organization’s ongoing probe into the origin of Covid-19.
— Yellen mulls Beijing trip: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is considering a trip to China later this year, Bloomberg reported last week. Variables affecting the possibility and timing of that trip, which would likely include meetings with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, include safety considerations linked to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
— U.S. Customs seizes fake vaccination cards: U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Memphis, Tennessee, reported on Friday that they have seized 121 shipments containing 3,017 fake blank Covid-19 vaccination records from China since the beginning of the fiscal year. Michael Neipert, Memphis CBP area port director, was not amused. “If you do not wish to receive a vaccine, that is your decision,” he said of the U.S. market for fake vaccine records. “But don’t order a counterfeit, waste my officer’s time, break the law, and misrepresent yourself.”
Hot from the China Watchersphere
— The fall of Afghanistan heightened security fears in China, POLITICO’sStuart Lau reported Wednesday from Brussels: “Afghanistan looms larger in the mindset of China’s leadership than you’d imagine from the countries’ mere 47-mile stretch of shared border — a curly line that you’ll easily miss if Google Maps is not sufficiently zoomed in. … For China, the nightmare is Islamist terror attacks, plotted across that short border. Before Beijing turned to its more recent draconian policies like internment and forced sterilization against the Uyghur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang, which neighbors Afghanistan, Chinese anti-terrorism officials accused the Taliban of supporting Uyghur militants who they said plotted ‘thousands’ of attacks inside its territory since the 1990s.” More from Lau here.
— Big business crackdown to continue: China’s State Council and the Communist Party’s Central Committee indicated on Thursday that they will subject the country’s business sector to increasingly tighter government scrutiny and control over the next five years. The 10-point plan will tighten regulation on “important fields,” including technological innovation and science and seek to reduce the influence of “foreign-related rule of law.” The announcement suggests that Beijing’s recent anti-monopoly initiatives against large domestic technology companies and a crackdown on the educational tutoring sector have just been opening shots in a possible long-term campaign to neuter the power of the country’s corporate sector.
— Online gaming gets regulatory scrutiny warning: Official state broadcaster China National Radio dropped a hint on Saturday that the online gaming industry may be the next target of the government’s regulatory attacks on various business sectors. In an online commentary, CNR urged regulators to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to games that “distort history.” That move is an extension of the government’s criminalization of what it call “historical nihilism,” an umbrella term that applies to any historical accounts that contradict the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s historical narrative.
— China accuses Canada of “megaphone diplomacy”: China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday accused the Canadian government of “megaphone diplomacy” in its criticism of recent prosecutions and convictions of Canadian citizens by Chinese courts. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that Canada “is ganging up with a handful of countries to confuse right with wrong in disregard of facts” by criticizing recent court judgments against Michael Spavor and Robert Schellenberg. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last weekderided as “unacceptable and unjust” a Beijing court sentencing of Spavor, an entrepreneur, to an 11-year prison term for espionage.
— China calls WHO coronavirus probe “political”: The Chinese government doubled down on its refusal to cooperate with a World HealthOrganization’s proposal for a second investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu dismissed that effort as “political tracing” and indicated that China will not cooperate with such a probe.
— China fears accelerate Japan defense planning: The Japanese government will accelerate revision of its “Medium Term Defense Program” due to concerns about a worsening threat by Chinese military forces, the Japan Times reported Friday. The updated timetable of the revised plan is designed “to counter China’s growing assertiveness in surrounding waters and prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.”
— Carbon targets reap hot air warning: Chinese investments in new heavily polluting coal-fired power plants and steel factories severely undermine the country’s “carbon neutrality” targets, a research report released Friday concludes. The report by the nongovernmental Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air warned that 18 new steel blast furnace projects and 43 new coal-fired power plants announced earlier this year will upon completion emit “an estimated 150 million tons of CO2 a year.”
— Weibo tiptoes around Taliban victory: What Chinese social media users don’t or can’t say online is often as important as what they do say. That’s the lesson of the muted online commentary regarding the implications of the Taliban overthrow of the Afghanistan government of President Ashraf Ghani. The hashtag “Where will the situation in Afghanistan go” had accrued a relatively anemic 5.9 million shares by early in the week considering the topic relates to the spectacular collapse of the government of a country on China’s sensitive western border. Commentary ranged from Schadenfreude chortlings on the fate of “pro-U.S.” forces to anodyne musingson how Afghanistan “once again stands at the crossroads of its destiny.” Conspicuously absent in the commentary was any mention of the implications of the Taliban’s ascendancy for China, reflecting the Chinese government’s fraught wait-and-see attitude to how that victory might affect China’s interests. For more on that, here’s China Watcher from two weeks ago.
— Celebrity excoriated for Yasukuni Shrine selfie: The actor/singer Zhang Zhehan likely regrets the cheerful selfiehe took last week at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, which includes tributes to convicted Japanese war criminals. Repercussions so far have included Sina Weibo on Sunday shutting down Zhang’s account, dozens of brands including Coca Cola and Maybelline that have cut sponsorship ties, and China’s Association of Performing Arts demanding a public boycott of all Zhang-related products. Zhang has apologized, sparking the hashtag “What do you think of Zhang Zhehan’s apology for ignorance,” which has accrued more than 57 million shares. “Not all mistakes can be forgiven,” one Weibo user growled about Zhang’s selfie indiscretion. Zhang’s pillorying also spawned the hashtag “What exactly is the Yasukuni Shrine” which had garnered more than 720 million shares.
— Romantic “break-up” fee draws online fire: Weibo’s abuzz over the costs of romantic love. Literally. The alleged demand by Chen Lu, jilted longtime girlfriend of singer Henry Huo Zun, for a 9 million yuan (US$1.4 million) “break-up” fee has mobilized even the hardest of online Chinese hearts. The hashtag “Does Chen Lu’s 9 million break-up fee constitute extortionracked up more 500 million shares. Commentary was mostly scathing, with Weibo users alternately exhorting Huo to “sue the blackmailing woman” to bemoaning how a “break-up fee” exposes “the horror and sadness of human nature.”
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.