Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home – just like Putin did with Crimea

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Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Alexei Druzhinin/TASS
Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Alexei Druzhinin/TASS

Taiwan may be one-third the area of England, but Chinese aggression over the lush, tropical island threatens to throw the world into disarray, risking a repeat of 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in a show of force under Vladimir Putin.

Much like Mr Putin, Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party leader, is betting swagger at this moment will play well at home, shoring up nationalist sentiments as he tries to keep tight hold of the reins for another five-year term - and likely even longer.

Mr Xi has spent his decade at the top consolidating power, jailing political rivals and dissidents. So orders from him – as chairman of the Central Military Commission – to buzz Taiwan with 150 warplanes in recent days come from a seat of strength.

Still, like Mr Putin in 2014, the Chinese leader has problems at home, and he could use a distraction. The Chinese economy is being squeezed by a growth transition, demographics concerns and of course, the unexpected challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.

Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Xinhua / AP/Wang Guosong
Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Xinhua / AP/Wang Guosong

Virtually nothing about Taiwan seems a threat to anyone - but thin-skinned China sees it differently. From where Mr Xi sits, renegades threaten party legitimacy and must be brought to heel; Hong Kong being a recent example.

For Beijing, invading Taiwan and taking the island of 23 million by force would be a major decision. If China were to do so, it would have to stay in the conflict until it emerged victorious — anything less would be embarrassing for Mr Xi, who has continually pledged “reunification.”

'Calling the West's bluff'

A flare-up over Taiwan could become a proxy for battle between China and the West — but it remains unclear whether other nations would indeed step in, or whether Mr Xi would end up calling their bluff as Mr Putin did in Ukraine more than seven years ago.

Perhaps the most alarming difference is Taiwan’s tenuous status on the world stage.

While nations approach Taiwan as an individual entity, most stop at formally recognising it as an independent state. The island doesn’t have many established diplomatic ties and isn’t a member of the UN, thanks to Beijing’s bullying.

But what that means is a move by China on Taiwan could be difficult to characterise as illegal under international law as its borders, though enforced by Taipei in a practical sense, are precarious in the political realm - unlike those of Ukraine.

While the world’s second-largest economy largely keeps chugging along, one of Mr Xi’s tasks pressing forward will be to ensure that remains the case. For decades, the ruling Communist Party has bet its nation of 1.4 billion people would forego individual freedoms in exchange for soaring prosperity.

Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe
Xi is using Taiwan to distract from struggles at home - just like Putin did with Crimea - Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

So increasing belligerence over Taiwan is low-hanging fruit: A nationalistic focal point for Mr Xi to rally the public around while it grapples with a couple of bumps at home – with the added bonus that it lets China take the West to task.

The same thinking belies skirmishes along the China-India border and creeping incursions in the South China Sea. All aim to burnish the Party’s credentials: after celebrating its centenary in July, Mr Xi is paving the way for the next 100 years.

Some China watchers have privately mused that Mr Xi wants to see his portrait replace Chairman Mao’s at Tiananmen Gate in the heart of Beijing.

Taiwan is not Crimea. While the former has said it will do everything it can to resist Chinese invasion, Russian troops got a red-carpet welcome when they took the Ukrainian peninsula, even if that sentiment has since faded.

But the effects for the authoritarian countries’ leaders could be similar. Mr Putin’s approval ratings soared to record highs after the annexation of Crimea, and he consolidated his grip on power for likely another decade.

What better way for Mr Xi to cement a place in history than to “take back” Taiwan?

Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this piece

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