The Relationship between Domestic Politics and Diplomacy under the Xi Jinping Administration
- Why Were the Large-Scale Military Exercises Decided? -

Chisako T. Masuo

1. Introduction: China's Military Exercises Besieging Taiwan

On August 2, 2022, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Although she stayed in Taiwan for about 20 hours, China ferociously opposed her visit and used it as a pretext to conduct large-scale military exercise. They started at noon on August 4 and seemed to attempt to encircle Taiwan by setting up six exercise zones. China announced on the evening of August 2 that the exercises would last three days from August 4; however, they were prolonged without prior notice until August 10.

On August 10, China released its assessment of the exercises in the form of a statement by Army Senior Colonel Shi Yi, the spokesperson for the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), which was responsible for the military exercises. First, Shi underscored the achievements of the military exercises stating that the Eastern Theater Command organized joint military operations in waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan Island and successfully conducted a test of naval-air joint operational capabilities. He further noted that the Eastern Theater Command would continue to keep a vigilant eye on the changing situation in the Taiwan Strait, regularly organize joint combat-readiness security patrol toward the Taiwan Strait (常态组织台海方向战备警巡), and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity (Italic by the author). 1 Since the 2016 inauguration of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Xi Jinping administration has frequently circumnavigated Taiwan with fighter jets and militarily threatened the island nation; it will likely normalize "non-war military actions" in Taiwan's vicinity. The Chinese authorities are also intensifying the propaganda by noting that the "strait median line," which has long served as a buffer line between China and Taiwan, did not previously exist as Taiwan had been a part of China. 2

Under the original "one country, two systems" policy proposed by Deng Xiaoping, Taiwan could retain its military after reunification. However, the "White Paper on Taiwan," which China released on August 10, 2022 for the first time in 22 years, deleted the relevant statement and changed conditions for the "one country, two systems" without explanation. The document also criticizes the United States 13 times, stating that "the obstacle (the DPP) must be removed" from Taiwan, and that "we always insist on being fully prepared to respond to external interference and major events of ‘Taiwan independence' by non-peaceful means and other necessary measures." 3 With the recent military exercises, the Xi Jinping administration started to change the status quo over Taiwan, increasing military tensions with the United States and Taiwan. Thus, the international crisis that began with Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has spilled over to East Asia.

Are the recent military drills of any use to China in the long run? Many adverse effects have already been pointed out. The people of Taiwan, accustomed to threats from China, continued to enjoy their daily lives with equanimity in the face of the unprecedented military exercises. Many TV programs and newspapers reported that the Taiwanese people were eating and drinking as usual in the streets of Taipei. In Hualien, which looks out on the Pacific Ocean, tourists went whale-watching as scheduled on August 4. 4 China's intimidation tactics of showing the Taiwanese people what would happen if they defied China hardly worked.

The August military exercises revealed to the world part of China's ulterior motive. This time, China mobilized all types of military forces as if to simulate an invasion of Taiwan and conducted practical drills, including launching 11 missiles (according to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense). Meanwhile, Taiwan and other countries capitalized on the drills, which appear to have been very costly, to gather information on the Chinese military's operations and capabilities. According to some expert analyses, the Chinese military intends to encircle and blockade the entire Taiwan Island and to win a short-term battle by massive missile attacks instead of landing on the island by amphibious ships as had been anticipated. 5 With these considerations in mind, the parties concerned will focus more on careful preparations. Given the original objectives of the military exercises, should China not have gone so far as to conduct such a wide-scale of practical drills?

International public opinion is unfavorable to China. Seen as a reaction to a trip abroad by a member of US Congress, the military exercises of that magnitude were excessive. A sinister image of China as prone to the use of force to solve problems has further spread throughout the international community. 6

Moreover, this time, China deliberately set up an exercise zone in waters adjacent to the Ryukyu Islands and the Bashi Strait to check "external powers." 7 When pointed out that five missiles launched by China fell in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson retorted, "China and Japan have not carried out maritime delimitation in relevant waters, so there is no such thing as China's military actions being held in or entering Japan's EEZ." 8 These strong words and actions made Japan aware of the similarity of security challenges that Japan and Taiwan are facing and of the necessity of strengthening its defense measures and commitment to international cooperation. 9

In other words, China, which unleashed hostility toward not only the United States and Taiwan but also to Japan in the recent military exercises, underscored its image of an "authoritarian regime" that prefers the use of force to solve problems; and also demonstrated to the international community that it is cut from the same cloth as Russia. This will inevitably accelerate the bipolarization of the world, and as a result, China's diplomatic options have considerably narrowed.

Why, then, did the Xi Jinping administration make this choice? This paper is intended to review China's recent developments in diplomacy and domestic politics and consider where the rationale lies for the decision China has lately made over Taiwan. The subsequent discussion will allow the present author to give a concise prediction of the direction of China's foreign policy under the third term of the Xi Jinping administration.

2. China's Views on International Situation Following the Ukraine Crisis

First, allow us to examine China's diplomatic situation over the past several months. By mid-June, China had begun to adjust its policy toward Russia and to seek reconciliation with the United States. The two personnel appointments announced on June 14 proved this move. On that day, Xinhua, in its coverage of an agriculture-related conference, curtly announced that Chen Quanguo, a Politburo member who had served as secretary of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from 2016 to 2021, was transferred to the post of deputy head of CCP Central Rural Work Leading Group. The State Council also officially announced that Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng would move to the post of deputy director of the State Administration of Radio and Television. 10

Chen Quanguo was the person who carried out repressive policies against Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the direction of Xi Jinping. In May of this year, the "Xinjiang Public Security File," published by the Washington-based nonprofit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in collaboration with 14 world media outlets, disclosed statements made by Chen at a meeting in the autonomous region in May 2017. At the meeting, Chen ordered: "If [a detainee] runs away even a few steps, shoot him dead." 11 Le Yucheng was the leading figure of the "Russia School" at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; he was instrumental in creating the close relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. When Xi Jinping first unveiled his "Belt and Road Initiatives" in Kazakhstan in September 2013, Le undertook preparatory work as ambassador to the country and subsequently served as deputy director of the Office of the Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission. He helped implement Xi Jinping's international strategy. He was the cadre expected to succeed Foreign Minister Wang Yi after next year. By effectively ousting these two cadres, Xi Jinping passed the responsibility to them for "mistakes" in the two areas that the United States was concerned about --- the Uyghur repression and Sino-Russian collaboration, thereby attempting to justify policy modification in those areas. Undoubtedly, this was his conciliatory appeal to the United States.

The next day, June 15, was Xi Jinping's birthday. On that day, Xi Jinping telephoned Russian President Putin to explain China's new policies. According to a released summary of the telephone talk, Xi told Putin, "China is willing to continue to support each other with the Russian side, and to advance close strategic cooperation between the two countries." Xi said he had no intention of abandoning Russia altogether. Yet, on the other hand, he added, "China has always made its judgment independently by taking into account the historical background of the Ukraine issue, and actively promoted world peace and stability of the global economic order. All parties should promote the proper resolution of the Ukrainian crisis in a responsible manner." 12

"Independently" is a historical key word that signifies the adjustment of relations among the major powers. China formally proposed a "independent foreign policy (duli zizhu duiwai zhengce)" in 1982. At that time, for its national interests, China modified its overly close relationship with the United States and began improving relations with the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping seems to have intended at this point to keep a bit of distance from Russia while cooperating with the United States in some way or other.

Xi Jinping's new foreign policy became visually visible at a BRICS-related conference in late June. From June 23-25, China hosted online three consecutive nights of a business forum cum a summit of the five BRICS countries, plus a high-level dialogue on global development attended by the leaders of 13 other countries. Xi Jinping attended and delivered speeches at all of them. Photos publicized on that occasion by Xinhua showed a significant change in thinking on the Chinese side. In a composite image of the online BRICS Summit, Xi Jinping was shown above the BRICS logo, flanked by the leaders of South Africa and Brazil on his left and right sides, respectively, while Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi were shown below each of the two leaders. 13 The disgraceful treatment on Putin at the high-level dialogue was even more blatant. China published a virtual group photo at this time, with Xi Jinping standing before the Dialogue logo plate, i.e., in the middle of the line of the heads of state. Xi was flanked on either side by the other 17 leaders, aligned in a seemingly random manner, irrespective of their official membership in the BRICS. President Putin was not allowed to stand next to Xi Jinping, but was the fourth from him; Modi stood at the eighth, second from the extreme left. 14

During the opening ceremony for the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022, Xi Jinping accorded Putin special treatment among the foreign guests assembled in Beijing, staging a face-to-face meeting with him before the opening ceremony. The two leaders had a commemorative photo taken without a face mask and at a distance of only 20 cm between them. 15 Nonetheless, Xi must have by this past June decided that he would no longer give preferential treatment to a waning Russia.

What, then, did these changes indicate? The foundation of China's foreign policy decisions is an overall assessment of the international situation. Before the Ukraine war, China intended to counter the United States in tandem with Russia in the international arena. For China, the burden of the US-China trade war since 2018 was significant. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out globally in the spring of 2020 and US President Trump imposed an embargo on semiconductor exports to China, the country was shocked that one of its economic lifelines was in danger. Chinese experts concluded that the United States launched an attack not only on Russia but also on China; and that a new global Cold War began. 16 In March 2021, the Xi Jinping administration proposed the "Long-Range Objectives Through to the Year 2035," which consists of three five-year plans, and worked hard to build a self-reliant nation. In this context, China found a reliable partner in Russia. In the same year, Chinese researchers on Russia, mainly from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, conducted research on how China should cooperate with Russia in the areas of agriculture, science and technology, and the economy in the event of a confrontation with the United States or other Western countries. 17 China still feared the United States as a superpower and believed it would join forces with Russia to confront the United States.

However, immediately after the Winter Olympics closed, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. From the outset, China adopted a sympathetic stance toward Russia. Yet, given that the Chinese government was slow in ordering the evacuation of Chinese residents in Ukraine, it appears not to have received advance information from Russia. The invasion led to comprehensive economic sanctions against Russia by the Western powers. Russia's long-term decline began. For realist China, this meant it would have to endure a long-term rivalry with the United States without backing from Russia. In other words, China could not help concluding that it suddenly found itself at a disadvantage. Rationally speaking, China should have prioritized rebuilding its camp rather than engaging in rivalry with the United States.

In a telephone conversation with Putin, Xi Jinping said that China would strengthen communication and coordination in the United Nations, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other important international and regional organizations; promote solidarity and cooperation among emerging market countries and developing countries; push the international order and global governance in an equitable and rational direction. 18 At a BRICS-related conference that followed, Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed that China is a member of the big family of developing countries. Xinhua released an episode where the Egyptian president addressed Xi Jinping as "brother" at a dialogue on the last day of the conference. 19 At this point, China was attempting to create its image of deepening cooperation with the Global South, leading them as the "older brother" and assembling around it anti-Western powers over the long term.

Yet, this policy was, as a result, abandoned, and China conducted the large-scale exercises around Taiwan. At the foreign ministers' meeting of the East Asia Summit concurrently held, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov left the conference room when Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi delivered an address. 20 Against its own rational will, China is again obliged to side with Russia, plunging itself into a more disadvantageous situation.

In the next section, we will examine the domestic political situation during the same period to see why the Xi Jinping administration made such an "irrational" decision.

3. Opposition from the "Pro-Capitalist Faction"

Kunihiko Miyake, a diplomatic commentator, pointed out that China's recent large-scale military exercises have led to the increased involvement of the United States and Japan in the Taiwan issue. He said, "China has often made strategic misjudgments on such an occasion as a quinquennial CPC National Congress; Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012 was another such an occasion for China." 21

The timing of the recent exercises is analogous to that of the 2012 anti-Japanese protests during the Senkaku Island crisis in that, regarding both incidents, the decision was made in the summer preceding a CPC National Congress to reshuffle the top leadership of the CPC. However, there are significant differences between the two incidents regarding the party's internal power structure on each occasion. In 2012, when Xi Jinping was about to become general secretary, his power base in the party was still weak, whereas the Communist Youth League led by his predecessor Hu Jintao and the Shanghai clique led by Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin were still dominant. As struggles over personnel appointments for the positions of top leadership intensified, every faction feared being taken advantage of by others if it took a lukewarm stance toward Japan. In consequence, Chinese policies as a whole have hardened.

Today, Xi Jinping has nearly established his dictatorship, and there are no longer any forces to prevent his third election victory. Although there are intra-party struggles over membership in the Standing Committee of the Politburo or the Politburo, they are fundamentally a competition to be approved by Xi Jinping. Therefore, Xi's decisions on foreign policy will not be affected by the struggles over power. Why, then, has his foreign policy nonetheless hardened?

Turning now to Chinese society, this time, a notable phenomenon was observable. For the first time in the decade since the Senkaku Island crisis, public opinion was allowed to vent its frustration and anger, or at least encouraged, by the administration. On August 2, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that 700,000 Chinese people were tracking Pelosi's flight with the Flightradar24 application. 22 But the actual number of people who joined the effort must have been much higher. At that time, numerous websites were set up in China to reproduce and display Flightradar24 data and to exchange opinions in chat rooms. At the website where the author was browsing, the visitor counter exceeded 3 million at around 10:30 p.m. Beijing time when Pelosi arrived in Taiwan. Even during the military exercises, high-spirited military videos incessantly emanated from China; Chinese public opinion was intoxicated by China's increased military strength.

The Xi Jinping administration, born out of the massive anti-Japanese demonstrations, has been earnest in controlling public opinion so as not to repeat the same mistake of the previous administration restrained by public opinion. Technically and politically, the CPC can already manage public opinion and its medium, the Internet. This time, however, the Xi Jinping administration ventured to stir public outrage over Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. The question is, why was this necessary?

The best-known example of a Chinese dictatorship attempting to mobilize public opinion is Mao Zedong at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Mao was popular with the general public as the father of modern China. In reality, however, he bankrupted the economy by starting the Great Leap Forward in 1958. He was obliged to hand over the daily business to the "pro-capitalist faction" led by President Liu Shaoqi and the Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CPC, Deng Xiaoping. Frustrated with this situation, Mao tried to recapture power from the "pro-capitalist faction." Chanting "To rebel is justified (zaofan youli)," Mao instigated the young "Red Guards" loyal to him to oust the pro-capitalist cadres from all CPC organizations in the country. The domestic political context of the recent large-scale military exercises may have been analogous to this.

The above analysis is reinforced by a 16-minute video of the "Expert Seminar for Leading Cadres at the Provincial and Department Levels: ‘Learn the Spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping's Important Speech and Welcome the 20th Party Congress,'" which was held on July 26-27 --- just before the Xi-Biden phone conversation on July 28. The event was a seminar for leading cadres at the provincial and central governmental department levels. In his speech, a tired-looking Xi Jinping said, "The whole party must enhance the sense of crisis, adhere to the bottom line thinking, maintain the firm will to fight, strengthen the skills of struggle, respond to changes with the right strategy ... and, through a tenacious struggle, open up new horizons for our national businesses." He encouraged the cadres. However, none of the hundreds of mask-worn cadres assembled there took notes during Xi Jinping's speech. Moreover, some gave Xi a hard glare, some closed their eyes, pretending to be asleep, while others, moving their eyes back and forth, perfunctorily heard Xi's lecture. A sense of fatigue prevailed among most, if not all of the participants, who appeared to answer their supreme leader's call for endless struggles with sabotage as best they could. 23

Xi Jinping's various policies appear to be strongly resented by the cadres who must actually implement them. It was not long after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that Xi boasted to the Chinese citizens that China was the only country in the world that succeeded in containing the epidemic. To pursue the zero corona policy that had become Xi's political achievement, Shanghai enforced an unscientific lockdown of over two months starting at the end of March 2022; many Beijing citizens were quarantined at home for about a month. Similar situations took place in many other places. Local CPC cadres were busy placating citizens angry about "human rights abuses by the CPC" and ensuring them food and medical care.

The COVID-19-related costs, including those for frequent PCR testing, weigh heavily on local finance. Local governments have so far been able to finance themselves by selling land-use rights. Yet, since Xi Jinping instituted a series of policies that ban speculation in real estate, the financial sources of local governments became depleted. However, to keep the economy going, the Xi Jinping administration instructed local governments to take measures to combat unemployment, inject fiscal resources into small and medium-sized banks, and avoid negative growth rates. The cadres were deeply concerned about this situation. Reportedly, as many as 100,000 people attended a May 25 teleconference organized by the State Council led by Premier Li Keqiang. However, due to political considerations for Xi Jinping, the state-run CCTV touched lightly on this mass meeting after four other topics in its coverage of the day. 24 In June, local governments around the country began drastically cutting the salaries of civil servants. 25 Around this time, cadres who served Xi Jinping faithfully, such as Chen Quanguo and Le Yucheng, were ousted one after another at Xi's convenience. The usual arrest of corrupted cadres went on while important personnel shifts were announced much before the National Party Congress slated for the autumn. 55-year-old Lu Hao, once considered the most promising person in the Communist Youth League, was also forced to retire as head of the Ministry of Natural Resources. 26 The cadres seem to have accumulated pent-up antipathy toward the Xi Jinping administration, which treats all policies and cadres as its political tools; as a result, they must have lost their motivation. The confrontation between the supreme leader and many cadres belonging to the "pro-capitalist faction" is the same pattern of the power struggle that led to the Cultural Revolution.

In this adversity, Xi Jinping turned to the public, which applauded his anti-corruption campaign. To turn Pelosi's visit to Taiwan into a national political drama, thereby restoring a sense of solidarity and solid support for the regime --- precisely serves Xi Jinping's political purpose of increasing his centripetal force at home. The unprecedented large-scale military exercises were a rational choice for Xi Jinping, given the intense tension with the "pro-capitalist" cadres. When its domestic and foreign policy interests collide, China always prioritizes domestic politics.

4. Conclusion

How, then, will this internal power structure affect the foreign policy of the Xi Jinping administration in its third term? Most importantly, the destabilization of the Xi Jinping administration may likely come earlier than previously considered. Xi Jinping, who spent his youth during the Cultural Revolution, is not free from populist tendencies. Having established a personal dictatorship, Xi has prestige but lacks centripetal force toward himself; he will therefore continue to mobilize the masses to maintain his power.

In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, China's foreign policy was idealistic (in the sense of seeking a world revolution) on the one hand but, on the other hand, it was so hardened as to be irrational against the powers that did not follow its ideals. Today, Xi Jinping is advocating the realization of a "community with a shared future for mankind" on the one hand and threatening others with military and economic force on the other hand. His foreign policy and that in the early Cultural Revolution era are quite analogous, but since China's current national power is incomparably higher than that in the 1960s, its movement will be directly linked to the direction of the international order. The instability of China's domestic politics may be a factor furthering the bipolarization of the world.

The Xi Jinping administration has already invested a large amount of state funds in the military, domestic security, COVID-19 countermeasures, space and maritime infrastructure construction, and science and technology promotion measures focusing lopsidedly on specific fields. China will also face a grave population problem in the future. Just as the socialist camp experienced a decline due to economic difficulties during the Cold War, China will likely face an economic predicament in the long term (over a 10 to 20-year span). In the process to that point, however, China will urge many countries to accept its various claims and demands and will thus endeavor to secure and expand its interests. For the Xi Jinping administration, sovereignty and security have significant domestic political implications. The entities confronting China on these fronts will be subjected to even greater diplomatic, military, and economic burdens in the future. The more shaken is Xi Jinping's footing at home, the weightier those burdens would become.

Unquestionably, the China problem is critical as it will have a decisive impact on Japan's future. In the process of China's annexation of Taiwan, Japan's national power base could be circumscribed a great deal, geographically, politically, and economically. Meanwhile, Japan lacks even a national team of experts to conduct a thorough study of China and to work out comprehensive countermeasures. Japan only belittles China as an "authoritarian" state. It has not systematically examined such cardinal issues by bringing together the wisdom of experts on how to deal with China's overwhelming power or how to safeguard Japan's national interests by exerting the superiority of democracy. China will eventually decline, but nobody can tell if Japan will not fall earlier.

It may be high time for Japan to earnestly face the China problem, which will be inseparably associated with the regeneration of our nation.

(Professor, Kyushu University)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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