Analysis from China Understander – A tiny island could test Xi’s attack on Taiwan

Analysis from China Understander: Xi could test attack on Taiwan on a tiny island

Not only since the Ukraine war has the world been concerned about Beijing and the aggression against the island of Taiwan. China’s Xi Jinping could try the small Taiwanese island of Kinmen to see how far he can lean towards Taiwan.

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At least since the visit of US politician Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August, the world has been wondering whether and, if so, when China’s ruler Xi Jinping will attack the neighboring island democracy. The ruler insists on his position that Taiwan is a “breakaway province” of the People’s Republic. Since the founding of the communist state in 1949, Beijing has not ruled a single day over Taiwan.

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Beijing wants to rule the island for two reasons: on the one hand, the power clique is afraid that the exemplary democracy (ranked 8th internationally and 1st in Asia) will offer the Chinese an alternative to the corrupt rule of the CP, on the other hand, they want it Xi to absorb the whole western Pacific, which cannot be achieved without Taiwan.

Xi Jinping Planning Aggressive War?

Fears that Beijing would go to war after Ms Pelosi’s departure were thankfully unfounded. The United States showed its readiness to defend Taiwan when it sent two warships through international waters, the Taiwan Straits, that have democracy and dictatorship from each other.

Beijing has not reacted to this, which suggests that there should be no war of aggression for the time being. Xi observes with concern that Putin’s blitzkrieg in Ukraine has failed. When the two met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the Kremlin ruler had to make a report and thus react to “questions and concerns” from China, as Putin himself said.

Saber rattling around the Taiwanese island of Kinmen

But Xi Jinping has leaned so far out of the window with his threatening gestures against Taiwan, that fighter jets enter the country’s airspace every day or cross the unofficial water border between the two, that he now credits his compatriots, who are plagued by numerous crises, as success in the fight against the “renegade province” protected by his nemesis America. In view of this muddled situation, the small island of Kinmen could become Xi’s lifeline.

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The islet is only two kilometers off the Chinese mainland, but belongs to Taiwan. Besides Kinmen, there are three other Taiwanese islands, Liechuy, Tatan and Ertan, which are also held by Taiwan. There is a garrison on Kinmen, and the atmosphere is tense. During Pelosi’s visit, Beijing provoked the soldiers stationed there by flying drones over them. They were blinded by the Taiwanese army so they couldn’t take pictures of the terrain. One of them was shot down on September 1 – a novelty in the history between the two nations, which has not been short of dicey situations.

China maintains military threats

Since Xi Jinping has aspired to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan in his lifetime, but cannot currently guarantee success militarily, a new strategy for the ruler could be to conquer Kinmen and/or the other three small islands. He could then sell that as a success in the People’s Republic. Since Kinmen is defended by the Taiwanese army, even such a prank would demand blood on both sides. In any case, China is already rattling its saber: After Nancy Pelosi’s visit, tanks were brought up on the beach across the way.

Kinmen has long been a bone of contention between China and Taiwan

Older Taiwanese on Kinmen remember times when the island was under constant fire from the People’s Republic. That was in the two decades following the end of the civil war in 1949, which Mao Zedong won. The political leadership of the Republic of China, which was only founded in 1911, had to flee from the Maoists and withdrew to Taiwan. The small offshore islands served as a buffer between the territory of the new People’s Republic and what remained of the Republic of China. Taipei will certainly not give up these islands without a fight. However, Xi Jinping is likely to speculate that Tsai Ing-wen’s government will not receive any international support if “only” the small islands are attacked.

Xi wants to show strength without losing face

Ruler Xi could certainly sell this small conquest as a success because, like on Kinmen, even older Chinese remember that attempts have been made to conquer the islets since Mao. Should that succeed now, it would be credited to their national pride. At the same time, Beijing has hit a hard nut to crack on these islands. Success is not guaranteed here either. A risk that Xi must now weigh.

About the guest author

Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian is currently working on a project on “digital cosmopolitanism” at the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford and the Faculty of Philosophy at New York University.

Alexander Görlach was a Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in England. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. The following titles by him have recently been published: “Red Alert: Why China’s aggressive foreign policy in the western Pacific is leading to a global war” (Hoffmann & Campe, 2022), “Focus on Hong Kong: Why the future of the free world will be decided in China” (Hoffmann & Campe, 2020), “Democracy – 100 pages” (Reclam, 2021) and “Homo Empathicus: Of Scapegoats, Populists and Saving Democracy” (Herder, 2019).

From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Berlin.

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