By INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Having secured a fresh mandate from the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jin Ping is expected to take an increasingly militaristic posture in its disputes in a misguided attempt to demonstrate the country’s supposed military might.

This will likely see an escalation in tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea as plays up nationalistic sentiments with an eye on cementing his legacy while seeking to intimidate the West, according Collins Chong Yew Keat a foreign affairs analyst with University of Malaya.

While Xi will focus on Taiwan in the near term, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who have claims in the South China Sea will also come under increasing pressure as China sees the area as vital for securing its “southern flank”.

“Moves against Taiwan will inevitably see moves against the South China Sea area. This represents part of China’s southern flank which it must secure to prevent threats to  its operations against Taiwan. It is likely that the West would seek to resupply or at least seek to disrupt China’s operations from or through the area.

“China would likely see Australia, New Zealand and perhaps certain ASEAN states as posing a threat to its regional hegemonic intention by the actions of these states to solidify their Western military package through AUKUS and deepening support for American containment capacity through providing greater military access and support of bases to sustain hard power countermeasures. Beijing will need to strengthen its conventional second strike capacities against this reinforcement of Western support   and by increasing its militarisation of the Sea, it would seek to block such moves while also securing the area for its own military use,” he said

Chong said Xi would pursue a three-pronged strategy moving forward: playing the victim card by claiming that China is being unfairly targeted by the West, expanding its grayzone warfare including its espionage, influence and information operations and building up its military forces including expanding its nuclear arsenal and its area denial capabilities.

China is also operating part of its ballistic missile submarine fleet, whose missiles are tipped with nuclear weapons, in the South China Sea area. In 2019 a Jin Class ballistic missile submarine was said to have been operating near the Paracel Islands, having surfaced suddenly much to the shock of fishermen nearby.

China is expanding its submarine base on the edge of the South China Sea, with imagery of the Yulin naval base on the southern tip of China’s Hainan Island showing the structure for two new piers under construction, adding to the four existing piers at the site.

This runs contrary to ASEAN’s stated commitment to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a region free of nuclear weapons, with members signing the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) in 1995.

Stacking the party deck

Chong said Xi, having secured a historic third term as the Chinese Communist Party’s leader, cementing his place as the nation’s most influential ruler since Mao Zedong and stacking the party’s top echelons with his underlings will feel secure enough to make his move.

“The only path that is viable both for China’s internal audience approval and in sending a deterrent and deviant message to the West – is through strategic clarity and relentless build-up of military and hard power self-reliance and capacity,” he said adding that Xi is already pivoting from the soft power expansion and strategic patience during Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin’s era to his own vision of hard power clarity and ideological prominence.

“It reveals the CCP’s underlying sense of insecurity and also Xi’s own personal insecurity, where he will increase suppression of internal deviant tendencies through continuing to spend more on internal security calculus", he added. On the global front, intensity of scope and depth of Beijing's covert activities and influence seeking measures in key states, especially in critical targets including the US and other Western will expand. Parallel to that effort will be the continuous concerted spectrum of activities through digital and cyber manoeuvres as well as increased usage of  economic coercion as its foreign policy tool and card in maintaining the trappings of the nations that are tied by their trade dependence on China.

“All these secondary strategic measures will be maintained, but the core focus will be on amplifying Beijing's hard power capabilities for the purpose of Taiwan unification and maintaining its regional hegemonic status through a forceful, clear and direct showcase of Beijing's intent and power capacity, serving as both a warning and a deterrence to regional states to refrain from meddling and in providing direct support to the US when an all out conflict breaks out," he added.

Surrounding himself with loyalists and yes-men could also see Xi become increasingly unrestrained, with nobody left in the top levels of the party to challenge his decisions, especially decisions which could lead to conflict, whether external or internal.

“Elites and state media have defined it as “safeguarding the party leadership, China’s socialist system, and the authority of the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.”
Xi’s pursuit of absolute loyalty to him, and no room for deviant alignment or factions – this is the era of an unrivalled leadership.

“There is no more adherence to previous conventional norms or rules, now is the era of Xi’s maximum grip on power – with no grooming of successors,” he added.

Xi running against the clock

Chong also spotlighted that Xi and the CCP, contrary to common misconceptions, does not have as much time as most believe it has. Rather than being given the luxury of playing a long game and that Xi is in fact working to speed things up.

China faces a range of economic and demographic problems resulting from its misguided social engineering policies that have resulted in falling birthrates and a vast ageing population, with elderly parents relying on the support of a single child due to its “one-child policy”.

As part of its 2049 initiative, the CCP has push the notion that it will reunify with Taiwan by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which is worrying given its recent belligerent moves around the island nation, effectively “blockading” it in the aftermath of US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit.

Considering these factors chiefly Xi’s desire for a legacy to rival Mao, with Taiwan as its centrepiece, the likelihood of a miscalculation has grown exponentially Chong surmised.

“Xi realises that to achieve that ambition by 2049, current level of capacity readiness is still way behind the West – where the slowing growth and internal demographic and economic challenges threaten to derail that goal,” he said.

“Xi knows that the US will have the upper hand in the waiting game. China will lose its current power advantage and momentum of power build-up once the next decade passes, so this is the right timing (to act on Taiwan),” he added.