Domestic political compulsions might force Chinese President Xi Jinping to indulge in some increasingly belligerent steps, including some “adventurism’ on Taiwan “in the next three to five years,” believes Kalpit A Mankikar, Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a specialist on China’s domestic politics. Noting that most policies coming out of China since Xi was elected for an unprecedented third term in March 2023 had a 30 to 35 year timeline, he said it was clear that Xi was planning for the long haul, and to “justify that continuance, he has to deliver on Taiwan.”
“Look at the recent purges that are happening within the Communist system, the resonance of Xi’s anti-corruption rhetoric…” where he insists corruption cannot be allowed to dent the People’s Liberation Army, he said. “The whole idea is to instill a certain discipline there so that it becomes an army that is fit to fight a war.” After launching a massive drive to modernise the PLA, Xi has been touring all the military bases in the country asking his commanders asking them to be “ready for war.”
China has also become more aggressive and militaristic. Xi, who’s one of the strongest leaders to emerge in China, and often compared to Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, has been consistently pledging to his coterie that “I am here, and I can deliver on Taiwan,” said Mankikar. “And he needs to do this before his fourth term.”
The Chinese President had turned the South China Sea into China’s lake by launching a massive reclamation drive and staking claim to almost all its waters. And these reclaimed regions were quickly militarised despite pious promises not to, said Mankikar. Dismissing theories that Xi would focus more on China’s economic troubles than fight a war over Taiwan in the short term at least, Mankikar said the Chinese Communist Party “is not a rational actor.”
Asked whether China’s domestic issues and the face-off with the US over the South China Seas and the Indo-Pacific meant Xi was likely to be less adventurous along India’s border, Mankikar’s response was very clear. “Let’s remember China’s behaviour is not predictable. China has been an unpredictable actor in history, and not much has changed.” Therefore, “Under no situation can we afford to let our guard down.”
Mankikar, who was invited as an observer for the Presidential elections in Taiwan on 13 January 2024, felt that the average Taiwanese voter, while obviously anxious about the escalating threats from China, was more worried about ‘bread and butter’ issues like well-paying jobs and housing. Watch the full interview to get more insightful details about the current situation in the South China Sea, and what it means for the region and the rest of the world.