Forecasting politics, especially international politics, is often guesswork. There are moments, however, when the haze momentarily settles and we get a reasonable indicator of which way winds are blowing and where pressure is building (or ebbing). With respect to leadership politics in China, two such moments are before us.
The first will materialize tomorrow with the inauguration of Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ying-wen. Tsai’s inauguration will be an awkward for China’s leaders. As the standard bearer for the DPP opposition, Mrs. Tsai represents the independence-leaning end of Taiwan’s political spectrum—a topic China’s authoritarian leaders consider tantamount to an act of war. Though Mrs. Tsai has promised to be less caustic when it comes to relations with the Mainland, at least less so than her disgraced DPP predecessor, ex-president Chen Shui-bien (2000-2008), bets are she will nonetheless raise the Taiwan independence issue in her inauguration speech. Although Mrs. Tsai has promised not to cross any `red lines’ concerning sovereignty, her speech will be anything but an appeal for the status quo on Taiwan-China relations. For that reason, the pressure will be on Beijing over how to respond.
There are some who fear that Beijing will respond, as it often has, by throwing a tantrum. This is unlikely. Out of the many foreign policy issues that China often fumbles, Taiwan is the one that they have gotten a pretty good handle of, if for no other reason than having screwed up so many times before. The most notable example being in 1996 when Beijing’s reckless response to then-President Lee Teng-hui’s comments on independence only helped catapult the issue in public discourse and likely sowed the seeds for DPP victory in the 2000 presidential election.
The current administration has been far more cautious, offering the olive branch to Taiwan and its leaders on more than one occasion. The most notable example being when Chinese President Xi-Jinping shook hands with the now outgoing Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), in Singapore last November. Similar decorum is unlikely to be in store over the next four years, but it is also unlikely that Beijing will act aggressively. China’s leaders already have a brewing mess to manage in Hong Kong, which will be holding its first popular election for Chief Executive next year. Any intolerance Beijing shows towards Taiwan will likely translate into more anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong. More than likely, Beijing will try to downplay Taiwan’s inauguration through a mix of censorship and denial.
It is precisely this unwillingness to bite back which will leave the leadership, especially Xi, vulnerable to criticism. Both nationalists and everyone else who is unhappy with his rule will have an opportunity to leverage the occasion and poke jabs at Xi for being too soft on Taiwan. Each criticism that makes it out onto the public realm, before it is inevitable censored, will be yet another indicator that the core leader has vocal enemies and serious kinks in his armor.
The second indicator—the UN Tribunal’s impending decision on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS)—will arrive soon thereafter (most likely in the next two weeks). The claim is rooted in vague historical and somewhat less vague but-equally contentious cartographic documents and, according to most experts, is in violation of UNCLOS—the de-jure international law of the seas to which China is a treaty member. Accordingly, most expect that the judgement will not be in China’s favor. Indeed, China’s diplomats are already hedging their bets, having gone on record saying that they do not and will not accept the legitimacy of the tribunal or its judgement while at the same time sending more ships, planes and singers into the contested waters.
But even if Beijing has determined to reject the legitimacy of the tribunal, it still has to decide whether or not to abide by the ruling or pull out of UNCLOS. This choice does not come lightly or without significant costs. If Beijing decides to denounce the ruling and pull out of UNCLOS, then it will lose out on legal rights protected under UNCLOS. This includes the 12 nautical mile exclusive economic rights China hopes to enjoy around the new islands it is reclaiming.
This may not mean much in realpolitik currency. China could substitute UNCLOS with its hefty and growing hard power. But doing so will make China’s maritime investments and prospects that much riskier and costlier for the future. For one, rather than reclaiming tiny pockets of sand, China’s young and inexperienced navy will have to control the entire span of its claims. Moreover, even if Beijing rejects UNCLOS, its exit from the treaty will be prolonged—one year to be exact, according to statutory limits within the treaty. Again this may not mean much in terms of hard politics, but it will leave China open to more legal cases against it and more embarrassing decisions to follow.
The safer bet is that China will reluctantly accept the tribunal’s decision, while pursuing its current policy of putting facts on the ground, i.e., the reclaimed islands. Indeed, the original case brought to the UN by the Philippines concerned precisely this policy, which the Philippines see as violating its own legal claims under UNCLOS. The decision not to adjudicate the legality of China’s island projects and focus rather on its broader claim reflects the UN’s inability to stop China’s actions as well as a desire to put the ball in China’s court, so to speak. Put another way, the UN seems to be betting on China’s cool-headedness, which will put only philosophical constraints on Chinese expansion in the region but go a long way in reinforcing a pattern in which China strains but ultimately acquiesces to the norms and laws of international etiquette.
The tough part will be selling such an approach back home. Since 2009, and especially over the last year, China has been pushing an increasingly aggressive and nationalistic rhetoric over the SCS; so much so that they may have backed themselves up in a corner. Indeed, a survey of nearly three thousand Chinese citizens, conducted last March, suggests that Chinese public opinion is overwhelmingly of the mind that, when it comes to the SCS, “might makes right” and no negative fallout is risky enough to demand caution. Indeed, over sixty percent of respondents thought that China should use its military force to assert territorial claims in the SCS. This preference was shared by young and old, educated and not so educated.
As with a potentially weak response to the Taiwan issue, a reserved reaction to the UN ruling will likely trigger scathing criticism in China. And again, it will most likely be targeted at Mr. Xi Jinping. In the UNCLOS case, public pressure may just be too hard to bear, pushing the leadership to opt for a painful pullout from UNCLOS. Assuming it does not, the amount of criticism that gets past China’s information control monitors will be another indicator of just how vulnerable China’s leaders really are. Should China’s leaders act aggressively on both matters, we would be pretty confident in assuming that they are both extremely vulnerable and dangerous.