Commentary: China’s mixed messaging on Taiwan
China is upping its defence spending but talking peace on Taiwan. The messaging may look somewhat confusing, but it makes perfect sense to Beijing, says Christian Le Miere.
LONDON: Beijing struck a defiant tone this week at its annual "two sessions". Beijing struck a conciliatory tone this week at its annual "two sessions".
The messages conveyed this week at the meetings of China's legislature and top political advisory body have been somewhat confusing. China both stated its intent to disproportionately raise its military spending and sharply critiqued the United States, but also pointed out the importance of peaceful measures to improve relations with Taiwan.
The messaging underlines the difference between the harsh reality of China’s long-term foreign policy goals and its short-term need to mollify its neighbours.
UPPING DEFENCE SPENDING
The first sign of an assertive China during this politically important week came with the announcement of the new defence budget. In a draft budget released on Sunday (Mar 5), it was revealed that Beijing intends to increase defence spending by 7.2 per cent this year, slightly higher than last year’s increase of 7.1 per cent and the fastest increase since 2019.
The budget would take defence spending to 1.55 trillion yuan (US$224 billion). This does not account for all Chinese defence expenditure, which is likely to be about US$310 billion. This far outpaces any other European or Asian power - Japan’s budget this year is US$52 billion - but it still pales in comparison to the US. This year, the US is set to spend US$817 billion on defence.
Importantly though, China’s defence expenditure is outpacing its general government spending. The total budget for the government will increase by only 5.7 per cent this year, indicating that Beijing is prioritising defence over other areas of spending. Justifying the increase, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, Wang Chao, said the spending was “needed for meeting complex security challenges”.
Those complex security challenges were explained in simple terms by President Xi Jinping and Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang over the next few days at the meetings.
Xi noted, in unusually pointed language, that “Western countries, led by the US, are implementing all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us”. Qin, meanwhile, claimed that “If the US doesn’t hit the brakes … there will surely be conflict and confrontation”.
CONCILIATORY TAIWAN TALK
Yet, these messages were undercut somewhat by outgoing Premier Li Keqiang’s own words. In his annual government work report - the final one he will deliver - Li emphasised the need for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, and suggested that China should seek to build “economic and cultural exchanges” and pursue “policies that contribute to the well-being of our Taiwan compatriots”.
The language struck a decidedly conciliatory tone and raised the question - if China is seeking peaceful solutions to the Taiwan issue, why then is it raising its defence budget disproportionately?
Beijing has for decades noted that Taiwan is its primary defence policy goal and has deliberately not renounced the possibility of the use of force to achieve it. It is therefore a little confusing to be arming oneself more rapidly while also claiming to be a bringer of peace.
The truth is that China must prepare for conflict, but cannot fight yet.
Beijing sees the US reacting to its newfound power and assertiveness with greater deployments in the region, strengthening alliances and offering stronger rhetorical support to Taiwan. It has also seen the war in Ukraine unfold, with a seemingly larger and more powerful country brought to a grinding halt by a smaller, more nimble and determined neighbour supported by the West.
Given these factors, and the fact that China is just emerging from three years of zero-COVID policies, lockdowns and economic dislocation, Beijing is unlikely to feel confident that it would win any conflict in the near term over Taiwan. If Russia has struggled to supply its forces in Ukraine, fighting a land war with an adjacent border, imagine the logistical challenge of invading an island 100km off your shore.
It makes little sense, therefore, for Beijing to rattle its sabre over Taiwan in the short term.
Such rhetoric will only encourage further reaction from Taipei and Washington in bolstering the island’s defences.
It will also likely only alienate Taiwan’s population further. Better for Beijing to downplay the possibility of conflict in the short term, biding its time in the hope that its relative power will only increase.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and the founder and manging director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London.