Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on telegram
Share on whatsapp
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email

The Coming US Election Presents a Balancing Act for Beijing

◎ China is conducting its most serious military escalation against Taiwan since it fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait in 1996.

China is conducting its most serious military escalation against Taiwan since it fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to protest the country’s first direct presidential election. Over the weekend, China flew 18 People’s Liberation Army aircraft, both bombers and fighters, provocatively violating Taiwanese airspace. Does China perceive that the window of opportunity to get away with an attack on Taiwan is closing or opening? It’s not yet clear whether Beijing views the costs and risks of aggressive action are increasing or decreasing.

Its upscaling of preparations for an assault could mean either that (a) it believes time is running out and it must act sooner rather than later, or (b) it has greater latitude to move any time it chooses and should continue its preparatory planning while desensitizing Taiwan and the United States to the increased frequency of mere “training” exercises.

China has expanded its military forays around Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen’s reelection as president in January, and as the Trump administration broadens its efforts to enhance Taiwan’s relations with the United States and the international community.  Under a second Trump administration, America’s economic, diplomatic and security relationship with Taiwan only promises to deepen.

The U.S. presidential campaign presents Beijing with both opportunity and danger. It may believe that President Trump is so preoccupied with fighting off the challenge from former Vice President Joe Biden that he would be unable to respond coherently to a sudden move against Taiwan. It also may minimize the risk of a strong U.S. response because of Trump’s frequent touting that he has kept the United States out of another “endless foreign war” — though a U.S.-China conflict is unlikely to be protracted.

Trump’s political task has been made exponentially more daunting by the ongoing economic crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic. Conveniently for China, the virus that originated in Wuhan spread at a time when Trump’s trade pressures were succeeding in extracting significant economic concessions that, if continued, would have forced regime-threatening political reform in China.

Beijing clearly would welcome a change of leadership in Washington instead. But attacking Taiwan before Nov. 3 might reveal an unpleasant surprise for China. Rather than being paralyzed by hesitation, Trump may be quite prepared to react swiftly and decisively, especially given his resentment at China’s handling of the virus outbreak and Xi Jinping’s deceitful representations.

The president recently suggested as much, saying that his trusting feelings toward Xi had changed and that his administration has forewarned Beijing of his retaliatory intentions. He said, ominously, “China knows what I’m gonna do. China knows.” The open question is whether Xi and his colleagues are deterred by a commitment not made publicly and not subject to condemnation if unfulfilled, as was President Barack Obama’s evanescent “red line” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

This time, however, a firm, forceful response by Trump would be strongly supported by an American public equally resentful over the impact of the virus on their lives and favorably disposed toward the people of Taiwan.

The rallying of public opinion behind the president would boost his prospects for reelection, precisely the opposite result that Beijing desires.

Under that analysis, China is unlikely to make a move before Nov. 3 and instead will first await the election results. If the vote is close, with a disputably narrow margin for either Trump or Biden, great civil discord in America is likely. With an escalation of domestic protests and disorder, Beijing may decide that would be the time to act while the administration and the nation are distracted and divided.

But, again, a president under siege domestically might well seize upon an external challenge to mobilize public support behind his domestic position. His political opponents almost certainly would accuse him of a “wag the dog” tactic and it could well exacerbate bitter internal divisions — an outcome that would please not only China but Russia, Iran, North Korea and other regimes that do not wish this country well. Beijing would have to decide whether the perceived benefits of a quasi-civil war in America would outweigh the incalculable costs to China of outright conflict with an aroused United States.

If either candidate were to win the election with a clear and definitive margin, most of the country would accept the result and civil unrest would be muted. If the winner is Biden, China would have no incentive to move against Taiwan before he takes office in January. With the disruptive Trump out of the way, Beijing would expect a gradual reversion of American policy back to the softer, less confrontational 24 years of the Clinton-Bush-Obama period, and the prospect that it could win without the need for fighting — on Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, and other contentious issues.

If Trump wins convincingly, Beijing would be back to its assertiveness dilemma — whether to move aggressively now, before Taiwan and the United States further build their defensive posture, or to hope the triumphant reelected president would feel vindicated rather than vindictive toward the Chinese Communist regime that has done so much to undermine him and the country he governs.

First published in The Hill.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of SinoInsider.

Search past entries by date
“The breadth of SinoInsider’s insights—from economics through the military to governance, all underpinned by unparalleled reporting on the people in charge—is stunning. In my over fifty years of in-depth reading on the PRC, unclassified and classified, SinoInsider is in a class all by itself.”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Unique insights are available frequently from the reports of Sinoinsider.”
Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow for China Strategy, The Heritage Foundation
“Thank you for your information and analysis. Very useful.”
Prof. Ravni Thakur, University of Delhi, India
“SinoInsider’s research has helped me with investing in or getting out of Chinese companies.”
Charles Nelson, Managing Director, Murdock Capital Partners
“I value SinoInsider because of its always brilliant articles touching on, to name just a few, CCP history, current trends, and factional politics. Its concise and incisive analysis — absent the cliches that dominate China policy discussions in DC and U.S. corporate boardrooms — also represents a major contribution to the history of our era by clearly defining the threat the CCP poses to American peace and prosperity and global stability. I am grateful to SinoInsider — long may it thrive!”
Lee Smith, Author and journalist
“Your publication insights tremendously help us complete our regular analysis on in-depth issues of major importance. ”
Ms. Nicoleta Buracinschi, Embassy of Romania to the People’s Republic of China
"I’m a very happy, satisfied subscriber to your service and all the deep information it provides to increase our understanding. SinoInsider is profoundly helping to alter the public landscape when it comes to the PRC."
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Prof. Ming’s information about the Sino-U.S. trade war is invaluable for us in Taiwan’s technology industry. Our company basically acted on Prof. Ming’s predictions and enlarged our scale and enriched our product lines. That allowed us to deal capably with larger orders from China in 2019. ”
Mr. Chiu, Realtek R&D Center
“I am following China’s growing involvement in the Middle East, seeking to gain a better understanding of China itself and the impact of domestic constraints on its foreign policy. I have found SinoInsider quite helpful in expanding my knowledge and enriching my understanding of the issues at stake.”
Ehud Yaari, Lafer International Fellow, The Washington Institute
“SinoInsider’s research on the CCP examines every detail in great depth and is a very valuable reference. Foreign researchers will find SinoInsider’s research helpful in understanding what is really going on with the CCP and China. ”
Baterdene, Researcher, The National Institute for Security Studies (Mongolian)
“The forecasts of Prof. Chu-cheng Ming and the SinoInsider team are an invaluable resource in guiding our news reporting direction and anticipating the next moves of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.”
Chan Miu-ling, Radio Television Hong Kong China Team Deputy Leader
“SinoInsider always publishes interesting and provocative work on Chinese elite politics. It is very worthwhile to follow the work of SinoInsider to get their take on factional struggles in particular.”
Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics, Queen Mary University of London
“[SinoInsider has] been very useful in my class on American foreign policy because it contradicts the widely accepted argument that the U.S. should work cooperatively with China. And the whole point of the course is to expose students to conflicting approaches to contemporary major problems.”
Roy Licklider, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“As a China-based journalist, SinoInsider is to me a very reliable source of information to understand deeply how the CCP works and learn more about the factional struggle and challenges that Xi Jinping may face. ”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“SinoInsider offers an interesting perspective on the Sino-U.S. trade war and North Korea. Their predictions are often accurate, which is definitely very helpful.”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“I have found SinoInsider to provide much greater depth and breadth of coverage with regard to developments in China. The subtlety of the descriptions of China's policy/political processes is absent from traditional media channels.”
John Lipsky, Peter G. Peterson Distinguished Scholar, Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
“My teaching at Cambridge and policy analysis for the UK audience have been informed by insights from your analyzes. ”
Dr Kun-Chin Lin, University Lecturer in Politics,
Deputy Director of the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University
" SinoInsider's in-depth and nuanced analysis of Party dynamics is an excellent template to train future Sinologists with a clear understanding that what happens in the Party matters."
Stephen Nagy, Senior Associate Professor, International Christian University
“ I find Sinoinsider particularly helpful in instructing students about the complexities of Chinese politics and what elite competition means for the future of the US-China relationship.”
Howard Sanborn, Professor, Virginia Military Institute
“SinoInsider has been one of my most useful (and enjoyable) resources”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Professor Ming and his team’s analyses of current affairs are very far-sighted and directionally accurate. In the present media environment where it is harder to distinguish between real and fake information, SinoInsider’s professional perspectives are much needed to make sense of a perilous and unpredictable world. ”
Liu Cheng-chuan, Professor Emeritus, National Chiayi University