Xi Jinping battles for credibility ahead of 20th Communist Party congress

Special to WorldTribune.com

Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, August 5, 2022

Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s internal civil war against his party rivals in the build-up to the XXth CPC National Congress — now likely to occur in November 2022 — took on new dimensions with the visit to Taipei on Aug. 2-3, 2022, of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The strong reaction by Xi’s officials to the visit indicated the level of uncertainty which the Xi camp was apparently feeling about the bid by Xi to be re-elected for an unprecedented third term as General Secretary of the Party.

Xi Jinping, right, and Premier Li Keqiang, left, with members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee in Septemer 2021. / Video Image

His bid had, a year earlier, been seen as a certainty by many observers, but domestic chaos, mainly over economic issues — the PRC is in major decline — empowered Xi’s less maoist opponents within the CPC.

It cannot be stressed how precarious and important this current “civil war” for dominance of the CPC is to both Xi Jinping, to the Chinese population, and to the long-term strategic posture of mainland China, even to the extent of whether it creates a tipping point in the survival of the Communist Party. It is, at the very least until the National Congress, an extremely unstable situation, and Xi, increasingly embattled, could be willing to take major risks to secure his party leadership.

Rep. Pelosi’s Taipei visit, leading a Congressional delegation, was a direct challenge to Xi, who had increasingly been attempting to constrain U.S. support for, and contact with, the Taiwanese Government in Taipei. Xi and his officials had been warning of “dire consequences” for pursuing relations with Taiwan even at levels which had been normal a few decades earlier. Xi Jinping’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy” since 2012 has been aimed at gradually removing all normal international contacts and relations with Taiwan.

Xi promised, as Pelosi’s aircraft was en route to Taipei, that “those who play with fire will eventually get burned”, ignoring the irony that Xi himself could well be burned by the visit, given that he had placed himself in a position of attempting (and failing) to force the cancelation of the Pelosi visit through coercive bombast. He had even supported PRC media statements that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would be within its rights to “shoot down” Mrs Pelosi’s U.S. Air Force Boeing 757 aircraft.

Xi’s threats certainly influenced many in Washington, DC, with President Joe Biden (like Ms Pelosi, a Democrat), Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and even Republican officials saying that the visit was unnecessarily provocative of the Xi Administration. That hesitant response was seen as encouragement for the Xi team to step up its pressures. However, it failed to take account of the fact that Biden could not dictate terms to Speaker Pelosi.

Speaker Pelosi had her own reasons for making the visit, even going against her President, and when it was clear that the visit would proceed, the Biden Administration failed to take the opportunity to present a unified front against Xi. The U.S. did respond by positioning two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and many other assets close to Taiwan to show support for the visit, but Xi clearly succeeded in dividing Washington on the desirability of the Pelosi visit.

So Xi’s heavy threat scenario highlighted the lack of unity within even the ruling Democratic Administration in the U.S., and that was seen as a small victory of the Xi group. Ultimately, however, Xi’s bluff was called when the visit went ahead and Beijing was then forced to “make good” on its threats.

Initial responses included life-fire exercises by the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command near northeastern and southwestern Taiwan on Aug. 4, 2022, just after Speaker Pelosi had left Taipei for Seoul, South Korea. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) on about Aug. 1, 2022, also put its two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, to sea from their respective ports in Qingdao and Sanya. The live-fire exercises, which had clearly been prepared over recent months (ie: not specifically in response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit), included firing live missiles into the sea adjacent to the Republic of China’s (ie: Taiwan-owned) islands of Kinmen, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, in the Taiwan Strait, just off the mainland Chinese Fujian province.

Speaker Pelosi’s was the first visit to Taipei, capital of the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan), by a U.S. House Speaker — the third ranking official in the U.S. — since the visit there by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich 25 years earlier.

Meanwhile, PRC and U.S. set-piece escalations began around the visit. The U.S.’s USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group had been operating in the South China Sea, and was moved to the Philippines Sea off the East coast of Luzon in the Philippines, south of Taiwan, while the USS Tripoli was South of Okinawa and could be covered by aircraft stationed at U.S. bases on Okinawa as well as by her own air complement. The amphibious assault ship USS America — based in Sasebo, Japan — was believed readying for sea.

So why did Speaker Pelosi take this opportunity to visit Taipei?

  1. Mrs. Pelosi had consistently, throughout her political career and particularly since taking command of the House of Representatives Democrats in 2003, shown strong support for Taiwan.
  2. Pelosi, 82, has been ambiguous as to whether she would run again for Congress in the November 2022 mid-term elections, but, given the likelihood that the Democratic Party would not win a majority of House seats at the election, her career as Speaker of the House was almost guaranteed to be over. If she was ever to make an important stand to cap her career, this would be it.
  3. Pelosi’s reputation had been severely mauled during 2022 by allegations that she and her investor husband, Paul Pelosi, Sr., had engaged in insider trading by the commercial use of information acquired from her Congressional role. The charges, while vehemently denied, had nonetheless damaged her credibility as Mrs Pelosi ran for what might be her final term in Congress. At the same time, Paul Pelosi emerged into the limelight by being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol after his Porsche crashed in Northern California in June 2022. To put it mildly, Mrs Pelosi wanted to focus on issues of greater substance in the run-up to the mid-terms and her probable retirement as Speaker.
  4. There has been widespread concern in both the Democratic and Republican leaderships in Washington, DC, that the Biden Administration had been distracting serious strategic attention from the Indo-Pacific, in favor of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. This had already emboldened the PRC leadership during 2022, while also seriously draining US military operational ordnance stocks. A major statement needed to be made to stop what was being seen as a Beijing juggernaut in the Indo-Pacific, and an unchallenged move by Xi Jinping to oppose his anti-maoist rivals within the CPC. What was significant was that the Biden White House — often accused of being compromised by, or favorable to, the Xi Administration — was unwilling to support any bold moves to slow Xi’s progress. Moreover, the Biden White House attempted to stop the Pelosi visit.

The PLA confirmed that a total of 11 Dongfeng (DF) (East Wind) ballistic missiles were fired to the waters north, south, and east of the island between 13.56 hrs and 16.00 hrs local on Aug. 4, 2022. The live-fire exercises terminated without any provocative moves, but there were questions as to whether further operations were planned.

Certainly Xi’s “honor had not been satisfied”, given that neither Taiwan nor the U.S. had “paid a price” for the Pelosi visit. Given the proximity to the Fujian coastline, it is probable that the DF’s fired were probably older Dongfeng 15 (CSS-6), short-range, solid-fuel ballistic missiles, of the type fired into ROC waters during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.

If, indeed, “honor has not been satisfied” as far as Xi is concerned — in other words, if he still feels that the Pelosi visit has humiliated him and that the PRC has been impotent to respond — there may be a temptation by Beijing to see whether an actual seizure could be achieved of some ROC-controlled islands: Kinmen (Quemoy) at the higher-risk end of the spectrum, along with the Matsu group further north and close to the mainland and the Penghu group (closer to Taiwan itself); or possibly islands with the ROC’s smaller holdings in the South China Sea.

CPC officials confirmed on Aug. 4, 2022, that further punitive actions would be taken by the PRC against the U.S. for the Pelosi visit.

Possibly, too, the PLA could be induced to a much safer demonstration of capability by firing newer DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (with maneuverable re-entry vehicles: MaRVs), which would demonstrate capabilities against U.S. carriers; or longer-range ballistic missiles such as the Dongfeng DF-26C IRBM with a possible hypersonic glide warhead dropped into the Pacific close to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Xi minimizes his loss of face if the US Administration under Joe Biden continues to appear divided and conciliatory, and this would be critical to his race toward the XXth Party Congress. The U.S. faces increased risk (as does Taiwan) if it shows a united and implacable front against Xi. But, arguably, the U.S., its allies, and Taiwan have no option but to do that. Vacillation and differences in Washington caused Xi to escalate short-term retaliatory actions after the Pelosi visit, but a strong approach to Beijing at this point would enable Xi’s rivals within the CPC to possibly control him.

The question, though, is whether Washington and its allies want Xi Jinping to consolidate his power in November 2022, leading to the further economic maoism and continued collapse of the PRC economy, or whether they want Xi’s “moderate” rivals to triumph, possibly extending the viability of the communist Government of mainland China.