In the speech marking the 40th anniversary of a call from Beijing to end cross-strait military confrontation, the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message to Taiwan is clear: peaceful reunification or use of force. While most political observers largely focused on China’s reluctance to give up military option to bring what it called a breakaway province back to the motherland and turned to the theory of diversionary war to explain China’s propensity to military action, few were discussing China’s preferred “peaceful” resolution and why it’s worth a try for China.
Based on diversionary theory, given Xi’s currently vulnerable position within the party amid protracted trade war with the U.S. and economic slowdown, he may urgently want a political achievement (even through military means) to divert public attention from internal economic malaise to external issues and thus rally public support and boost national solidarity. Nonetheless, historical evidence reveals that whereas diversionary use of force might produce desired results, it led to unsought repercussions on most occasions. This point may help explain why “peaceful reunification” is a better and safer option.
For China, Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea might be a perfect example to follow in its dealing with what it calls “Taiwan issue”. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, deterred the West’s moves to expand towards its doorstep and solidified public support for Putin’s leadership. In response to Russia’s belligerent action, the West swiftly imposed economic sanction that, together with dropping oil prices, plunged Russia’s economy into recession. However, the economic troubles sent approval rating of President Vladimir Putin to a record high level of 89% in July, 2014. Meanwhile, 66% of the Russians believed that the economic sanctions were intended to weaken Russia and undercut its global influence; and 87% supported Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Therefore, although Russia’s incorporation of Crimea is motivated more by geopolitical and security consideration, the effects were similar to other diversionary foreign policies, for Putin had successfully elevated public support for the regime.
Nonetheless, it should sound an alarm to China that most attempts to distract public attention from internal troubles through belligerent foreign policies were taken as painful lessons as opposed to treasures. The Franco-Prussian War is one of those cases. In 1870, the French Emperor Napoleon III was conjured by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck into declaring war on Prussia, which led to captivation of the emperor, defeat of France and the collapse of his empire. As the bellicose foreign policy of the French Second Empire coincided with widespread discontent, upward surge in strikes and radicalized workers’ movements during 1860s as the result of Emperor’s drastic shift from authoritarian control to liberal social policy, French historians contended that Napoleon III was pressed by public opinion and became increasingly dependent on adventurous foreign policy to shore up support at home and desperately wanted military victory to resolve domestic issues.
The 1904 Russo-Japanese War would be another perfect example that diversionary military action, if poorly-managed, may backfire. Before the war, the Russian Tsar Nicolas II was convinced by his ministers that a military victory could help alleviate growing public hostility towards the Tsarist rule and boost patriotism and national pride. However, the humiliating defeat of the Russian Empire by Japan frustrated the already disaffected Russians and thus further added fuel to the 1905 Revolution which cornered the Tsar to introduce constitutional reform. Some historian even argued that Russia’s defeat in Russo-Japanese War was directly related to another defeat in the World War I (1914-1918) which caused the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution and the downfall of the Romanov autocracy.
Since the anecdotal evidence of history supports mixed results, if not negative, of diversionary foreign policies, resorting to military action to solve “Taiwan issue” is a “make-or-break” game for China. For President Xi, a victorious takeover of Taiwan would definitely help bolster public support and solidify his position in power because national pride from reunification through military victory may trump any pain and misery from economic troubles. However, a failed attempt may suggest otherwise. Because it’s much easier to stimulate nationalism than to put it down, an embarrassing defeat may arouse prevalent frustration that coupled with discontent with economic problems, may produce something similar to what the Second French Empire and Tsarist Russia experienced. This will be devastating not only for the leader but also for the regime and the entire Chinese population. It’s for this reason that President Xi didn’t highlight “military option” in his speech and instead, stressed “we are willing to strive for peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts as peaceful reunification is in the best interests of compatriots across the Strait as well as the Chinese nation”.
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Keyu Chen served as financial translator for Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He holds M.A. in international journalism and communication from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He’s interested in political communication, comparative politics and international relations.