The year 2021 began with triumphant statements from Chinese leaders about the “time and momentum” working for China. The year ends with the rise of American power in Asia and the fall of Chinese power, according to the Asia Power Index, an annual assessment based on data of the relative power of the Indo-Pacific states. conducted by the Lowy Institute.
These results undermine China’s preferred strategic discourse. Beijing’s goal is to generate wide acceptance that China is the future, that America is in decline, and that other countries would be wise to focus on China’s rise rather than get shot by the United States.
Chinese authorities’ efforts to sell a narrative of America’s decline are likely to benefit from fewer purchases (outside of China) than they could a year ago. The United States has made measurable progress over the past year in the fight against COVID-19; revitalize international alliances and partnerships; restore global leadership on climate, human rights and public health issues; investing in home infrastructure; and the revival of the US economy. As Michael Fullilove and Hervé Lemahieu observed in Foreign Affairs, the United States is now the only major world economy which is expected to be larger in 2030 than what was predicted before the pandemic. And with the Democracy Summit, the Biden administration has reaffirmed America’s unparalleled convening capacity on the world stage.
Of course, the scenario of American renewal is neither linear nor irreversible. Many Americans are deeply concerned about the polarization of domestic politics and the risk of American institutions collapsing, especially if undemocratic-driven leaders gain power in the next election.
As for China, its foreign policy performance over the past year has been defined by withdrawal and assertive nationalism. Chinese leaders have remained cloistered within their own borders. They cut funding for the Belt and Road Initiative projects. Chinese officials have bristled with criticism and lambasted countries that China sees as defying its interests, including Lithuania over its decision to open a representative office in Taiwan. As a result, China’s image in the developed world is arguably at its lowest level since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
Domestically, China’s economic growth is slowing. The country is on a downward demographic slope, with a workforce expected to shrink nearly 20% from current levels by mid-century. Productivity growth is slowing and China’s investment-driven economic model is losing its vitality. Beijing is undermining its own growth potential by cracking down on its most innovative sectors, including its high-tech sector.
To be clear, the Chinese economy is still growing and will likely continue to do so in the future. The Chinese military continues to deploy new capabilities, many of which appear designed to try to prevent US involvement in any future eventuality across the strait. China continues to strengthen its presence in various regions of the world, mainly relying on the power of its wallet to make inroads. The Chinese leadership remains largely able to handle the national narrative inside China thanks to their strict information controls. Xi Jinping (習近平) also remains firmly in command of the levers of power and is almost assured of a third term at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. In other words, China remains a stubborn but constrained competitor.
For these reasons and many more, China’s leaders seemingly remain confident in their country’s growth trajectory. This assurance in China’s continued rise justifies Xi’s public pleas for patience in reaching a long-term resolution on Taiwan. However, Beijing’s strategic patience is unlikely to diminish its short-term goal of taking visible steps to move Taiwan’s affairs forward in its preferred direction. The Chinese leadership remains clearly focused on their efforts to change the character of cross-strait relations in their favor.
In the past few months alone, Beijing has carried out an unprecedented number of military sorties through the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone around the same time the United States and its allies were conducting a major naval exercise at sea. from southern China. Chinese authorities have also orchestrated the turnaround in Nicaraguan diplomatic relations to coincide with Taiwan’s participation in the Democracy Summit.
Looking ahead, Beijing may step up efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s politics over the next two years. Even though the Chinese leadership faces headwinds, they still have bandwidth and are incentivized to try and create a political environment in Taiwan that is conducive to their preferences for the 2024 election. Beijing will almost surely seek to create the disadvantage of the Chinese. candidates he opposes and tailwinds for candidates who support his vision of developing relations between the two shores. These efforts are likely to be expressed more visibly in the run-up to next year’s local elections, the results of which could shape the mood of voters in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections of 2024.
The relentless pressure from Beijing will test the courage of the Taiwanese leadership. Fortunately, President Tsai (蔡英文) is pragmatic and calm, attributes that should help her lead Taiwan with a firm hand through the coming storm. Faced with a predictable increase in pressure in the years to come, the abilities of Taiwan’s next group of leaders will also be tested as they seek to build public confidence in Taiwan’s resilience and generate a support for policies aimed at strengthening the security and well-being of Taiwan. .
Ryan Hass is Principal Fellow and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he also holds the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy Program.
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