Pelosi visit: What is China thinking?

A lot of people have written a lot of words about Nancy Pelosi’s possible upcoming visit to Taiwan. Many of these are very smart and well-informed people whose opinions I respect tremendously. However, there is one question that keeps eating away at me that almost no one is talking about: Is Xi Jinping in trouble?

Almost all the commentary has looked at the situation from the American point of view. Very little has thought much about the Chinese point of view. A lot of analysts have noted that China will make several important decisions about its leadership over the next few months, so this is a particularly sensitive time. Several have worried that Xi would find a Pelosi visit humiliating and might feel the need to act rashly. However, I have only read one column going much deeper into internal Chinese politics than that. These analysts also seem almost universally to assume that a third term for Xi Jinping is a foregone conclusion. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t quite add up to me.

Disclaimer: I am not a China specialist. I don’t know what is going on inside China.

Let me lay out a few basic assumptions that shape my thinking.

First, I assume that domestic power is Xi Jinping’s (and every other major Chinese actor’s) top priority right now. You have to secure power first before you can do anything else.

Second, Nancy Pelosi’s visit is not inherently worthy of a crisis. Members of Congress visit Taiwan all the time, and Pelosi does not have the power to decide American foreign policy. Arguably, the visits of cabinet-level figures over the past few years have been more significant than this visit. China could, if it wanted to, follow the normal script of issuing indignant complaints that everyone ignores. Instead, China has chosen to escalate the tension around this particular visit. I reiterate, this is a CHOICE.

Third, several well-informed American voices have argued that China is making threats about using force that seem more credible than normal. In many versions, this involves threatening the military plane carrying Pelosi; in others, it involves holding live fire exercises, sending fighters deeper into Taiwan’s airspace, or just ambiguous dire consequences. I am not in any position to dispute them. I’ll assume that China has, indeed, staked out a fairly extreme position, and the US military is quite concerned about Pelosi’s physical safety.

Fourth, China’s goal is to prevent Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has now invested quite a bit of political capital telling its domestic audience that it will not tolerate this visit. Its ideal outcome is that she will back down and cancel the visit.

Fifth, the chances that Pelosi will cancel the visit in the face of public Chinese pressure are pretty low. Once the visit became public, canceling it would have been a humiliating option for Pelosi. It also would give Republicans a powerful weapon to hammer Democrats with. China could get its preferred outcome, but it is highly likely that it will not. This is a risky bet for Xi and China.

Where does that leave us? China would seem to be faced with the choice of backing down or carrying through with its threats against Pelosi’s plane. Those are terrible options for the PRC. Backing down would be humiliating, but engaging would probably be worse. Pelosi will be flying on an American military plane, so threatening or attacking that plane would be directly confronting the American military. For China, this would be just about the worst way to get into a war with the USA.

China might be preparing for a war to take Taiwan, and it might assume that it will inevitably get into a military conflict with the USA. However, they should probably prefer to choose an advantageous time and place for that. Forcing down Pelosi’s plane wouldn’t gain them any Taiwanese territory. Instead, it would probably galvanize American public opinion against China and for a rapid military buildup. It could create a huge backlash against Chinese manufactured goods that would inflict severe pain on an already weak Chinese economy. That is, it would probably force the USA to prepare more aggressively, making it less likely that China would win any future war. Moreover, Chinese strategy on Taiwan has been predicated on persuading the USA to stay out of any conflict, or, failing that, to take Taiwan quickly before the US military has time to mobilize. By directly attacking a US military plane, they would be cutting Taiwan out of the equation and forcing the US to get involved. In addition, attacking a non-threatening transport plane is a pretty good way to ensure that international opinion is firmly against you. Oh, and let’s not forget that any moves against Pelosi’s plane might not be successful. The American military has been alerted to the danger, and it has its own forces that it can use to protect her plane. There is a real possibility that China could create all that backlash AND find out that its military isn’t as strong as it had hoped.

In short, there are a lot of ways that this could go very badly for China.

Let’s go back to Xi Jinping. According to most analysts, Xi is firmly on course to secure a third term. There are complaints about the economy, the Covid response, and several other things, but most people don’t seem to think that anyone is ready to make a serious challenge to Xi’s power. If this is an accurate description, Xi’s strategy should be to hold everything steady. If nothing big changes, he will win. They should downplay Pelosi’s visit as unimportant and insignificant, while issuing all the standard complaints about Chinese sovereignty and Taiwan separatists. If there is nothing to see here, then there is no humiliation for Xi or China. Xi’s Taiwan strategy is still on track, and Xi marches inevitably toward a third term.

Yet what is happening with the Pelosi trip is just the opposite. China is actively creating/escalating an international crisis in which there is a high probability that it will not obtain a good outcome. Effectively, China could be inviting everyone to see Xi and the current government as weak and ineffective. This is precisely the sort of thing that could derail Xi’s pursuit of a third term. Why would Xi allow China to pursue a strategy that has the potential to remove him from power?

The only way China’s actions make sense to me is if everyone is wrong about Xi’s grip on power and Xi Jinping is in serious trouble. There are two versions of this story.

The first scenario is that Xi Jinping expects he will lose. In this version, opponents have taken advantage of all those complaints about the economy and the general direction of China to secretly put together a coalition broad enough to unseat Xi. Western scholars and journalists, who have largely been kept out of China for the past two years, have not picked up the scent of this rebellion, but Xi has. Moreover, it is so large and powerful that he can’t just purge his opponents. He has to persuade them. In this scenario, he needs a major victory to re-establish his prestige. Even though there is a high risk of failure over Pelosi’s trip, he feels he has to take this chance in order to maintain his grip on power.

In the second scenario, Xi is still on track to win, but there is a significant challenge and his grip on power is looser than most people think. In this scenario, Xi understands that risks involved in escalating the conflict over the Pelosi visit. However, Xi is not fully in control. His opponents, sensing an opportunity, have used their influence over the media and other institutions to escalate the tension and forced Xi to go along with them. Essentially, they are pushing him into a situation in which there is a high possibility that he will come out looking weak. It is possible they might be able to push Xi out of power, and a significant defeat in Taiwan policy might be the thing that secures that outcome.

Again, most analysts reassure us that Xi is firmly on track to secure a third term, so neither of these scenarios should be in play. However, China’s actions and statements about the Pelosi visit make a lot more sense if Xi is in trouble.

Alternatively, perhaps no one in China is actually that worked up about Pelosi’s visit, and the USA is just taking China’s standard (insincere) doomsday rhetoric seriously yet again. I don’t think it is that simple, but it is logically consistent.

Postscript: While I was writing this, Nancy Pelosi’s office issued a press statement saying that she is leading a delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. This doesn’t mean she is definitely not coming to Taiwan, but it seems more likely that she will not. China’s gamble might be paying off.

11 Responses to “Pelosi visit: What is China thinking?”

  1. Ching-Chih Lu Says:

    There may be more scenarios than the ones you pointed out. It is possible that Xi misunderstood the situation like Putin did with Ukraine. His inner circle might mislead him that the US is treating Russia as enemy no. 1 and won’t start a fight against China before the war in Ukraine is resolved.

    It is also possible that Xi believed he can toss a few missles on a remote island that won’t start an all out war but enough to show his determination to solve the Taiwan problem. Even if he launches those missiles in the Taiwan Straight, he can still claim a victory if they can actually explode. There are enough Taiwanese politicians willing to call Tsai’s foreign policy irresponsible when she does very little to get here.

  2. Sonny Says:

    Most Chinese do not understand the concept of separation of powers.

  3. Beef Says:

    Just discovered this site, and I am delighted. Your rigorous devotion to data and contextualizaría. Of current trends within the larger context of Taiwanese Democratic history are a Godsend to immigrants like me who have a lot of opinions, ideas and passion but not a lot of knowledge about the past 40+ years of Taiwanese Democratic politics. I plan to do a lot of digging through the backlog of posts, and just want to say thank you and keep up the good work.

  4. justrecently Says:

    Wouldn’t rule trouble for Xi out, but most of the top appears to be dominated by Xi and his old comrades by now, or has been since 2017 or so.
    I believe that Beijing has increased the dose of intimidation, and maybe the military drills are of some actual value on the learning curve.
    It may also serve the goal to make the world – and Taiwan – get used to the idea that “Taiwan will eventually be reunited with the motherland”, etc..
    Xi has a lot to lose, if he can’t safeguard the “shared development” that he has promised the Chinese, and given his cultic role as “the people’s leader” also means a lot of personal liability.
    That makes him a dangerous man, similar to Putin.
    But the danger lies ahead – somewhere after the 20th CPC national congress rather than now.

  5. justrecently Says:

    On a sidenote, Xi’s main trouble now is about fashion.

  6. joequant2013 Says:

    Also there was never any real chance that the PRC would shoot down Pelosi’s airplane, and Beijing was pretty aware that it was unlikely that Pelosi would back down.

    So I was expecting massive wargames in response to the Pelosi visit which was what happened. I do not expect the wargames to last long. One thing that I do believe is that Beijing has a decent grasp of Taiwan politics and they calculated that a short war game would not change the election results very much, but even if it did, that sending a message to Washington would be necessary for the hit.

    One thing that we learned from the Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui-Bian era is that a declaration of independence by Taiwan is not going to happen without the approval of Washington. The trouble is that Trump was the first President that would *not* oppose a declaration of independence, and people in Beijing are kind of suspicious of Biden’s intentions.

  7. joequant2013 Says:

    Xi Jinping is not in any particular trouble and people that do not look at Beijing ascribe too much actions to Xi.

    In fact when it comes to Taiwan, policy is done by consensus and who is the leader does not make that much of a difference. The same *was* true with US policy for every President other than Trump. Since Nixon, Taiwan policy has been pretty much the same for every President, and it was only Donald Trump that did something radically different.

    During the latter part of the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump looked like they were going to scrap “one China” and officially recognize Taiwan. Biden moved back to “one China” but then Pelosi started visiting.

    Over the last few months you have seem legislative delegations visit Taiwan, which leads to the worry that Taiwan is about to go independent by stealth. The other thing that worries PRC is what happens in 2024 when you have a new President in both Taipei and Washington.

    The big connection with Taiwan politics is that when Eric Chu went to Washington and then announced a pro-US policy that removed the 92 consensus, Beijing became extremely alarmed.

    As far as Taiwan politics, I do not think that Beijing has much of a problem with Tsai Ying-Wen, and I think Beijing’s preferred candidate at this point in 2024 is Ko Wen-Je who they know. The big worry is William Lai or Hou You-Yi whose views are unknown to just about anyone.

  8. joequant2013 Says:

    The assumption two is incorrect because at least in the minds of Beijing the Pelosi visit is something worthy of a crisis.

    The thing is that even though Biden (sincerely) tried to get Pelosi not to visit and subscribes to one China, this was not true of Trump and it may not be true of whoever is POTUS in 2024. There has been this pattern of trying to get more and more high level visits.

    Traditionally, Beijing has relied on Washington to keep Taiwan under control, but Trump showed that Beijing cannot rely on this, and if you had someone like Chen Shui-Bian as President in Taiwan and someone like Trump in Washington, then you have a disaster.

    I think the calculation is that if Beijing didnt draw the line with Pelosi (knowing that the visit would likely go ahead) then they would be in a much worse situation if “someone real” decided to visit. If the PRC goes ballistic with Pelosi this means that Trump will think twice if he decided to visit in 2026, whereas if you do nothing this might be taken as permission for the next POTUS to visit.

    As far as “what is the other side thinking” this is why it is good that people are talking with each other.

  9. joequant2013 Says:

    It is also likely that Xi and his bunch are looking at Taiwan poll numbers.

    One thing about the ESC polls is that you have large numbers of people that are in favor of status quo, that are in favor of “easy independence” but are opposed to “hard independence.” So the point of the exercises is to make it very clear to Taiwan that any independence is going to be “hard” rather than “easy.”

    Also there is no sign in any of the polls that I can see that the type of military exercises that the PRC are planning now are going to make anyone *more* likely to support immediate independence.

    • joequant2013 Says:

      Let me go point by point through the assumptions

      1) Taiwan overrides any domestic goal. Any situation in which Taiwan manages to declare independence will swamp any domestic goal by Xi.

      2) The Pelosi visit is worthy of a crisis because drawing the red line now when you have someone relatively junior visiting Taiwan is much less likely to lead to a war than if someone “real” visits. If you have a situation where the US Secretary of State or US Secretary of Defense visits Taiwan then acting at that point is going to likely lead to a major war. I think it is likely that the PRC realizes that it cant stop the Pelosi visit, but if the Pelosi visit goes through, they have set a red line for higher level visits.

      3) The threats are pretty serious.

      4) The goal is *not* to stop the Pelosi visit, because if Pelosi wants to go then there is nothing that Biden or the PRC can do to stop her. The goal is to stop or slow *future visits*. It is also to make it clear that the PRC is serious about going to war if independence happens. I dont think that it is necessary to make that demonstration to Taiwan (since people already know this), but there are some people in Washington and Tokyo that dont think that the PRC is serious.

      5) The odds of Pelosi backing down are low, but going ballistic greatly increases the costs for future visits.

      As far as Taiwan goes, oddly I do not think that the PRC is that upset at Tsai Ying-Wen, and the military tests are not going to have that much effect on the DPP. However, my suspicion is that Beijing is rather upset at Eric Chu after going to the Brookings Institution and taking a pro-US policy. The big effects on Taiwan are likely not going to be in the green camp, but I think the factional infighting in the KMT/TPP is going to be intense.

  10. justrecently Says:

    As far as I can tell, Washington and Tokyo are well aware that China is preparing a war. Most people I know & who are interested in China or Taiwan politics know that.
    However, that doesn’t depend on the question whether Taiwan “declares independence”. Beijing will find an excuse to start the war, sooner or later.

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