Timing is everything … or is it location, location, location? For the House Select Committee, the deadline was fairly clear. It knew it had to conclude prior to the pro-January 6 party taking control of the chamber. Similarly, on the federal level, the Special Prosecutor knows he has a deadline of the presidential season and, of course, the possibility that the person he is indicting may soon be his boss. In the real world, people do not have all the time in the world, so the question then is what is the deadline for Xi to invade Taiwan?
One change which has or will soon happen is that India will surpass China as the most populous country in the world. It is doing so not because its rate of growth is greater but because China’s population is declining. Once a population decline begins, it is very difficult to reverse course. Traditionally, the most favored way is through immigration. Of course, there is no chance that China will open its doors to a wave of non-Chinese people. There also seems little likelihood that such a group seeking to emigrate to China even exists.
The elevation of India’s position does not mean the country suddenly has become a superpower. The change in standing is more symbolic than it is concrete. However, it does mean that India is more likely to take advantage to press its claims against China if the latter is distracted by an invasion against Taiwan. What better time to open a two-front war against China then when Xi is preoccupied with Taiwan? The United States also is working with India to switch to American weapons. Regardless of the exact details or timing, the longer Xi waits the weaker his position becomes.
With Russia, Xi’s cozying up to this once vaunted superpower may be an example of short-term gains at the expense of long term benefits. For the moment, China’s supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may seem to be a winning hand. Xi is joining with fellow autocrat Putin in a joint alliance against Western, specifically American, hegemony and leadership. Xi has no interest in the Nazi card which Putin keeps brandishing about, but he does see the advantages of a Russian victory in Ukraine.
In this regard, Xi, like so many others, may have succumbed to the image of Russian military might. Now that image has been exposed in a special military operation that has backfired. Ukraine has not fallen to Russia and there seems little likelihood that it is going to. Quite the contrary, it is Ukraine which is now on the offensive although the term used is counter-offensive. It is Russia which is struggling to maintain what it holds in the Ukraine. Although in the early stages, some predictions suggest Russia will be lucky to hold anything and will instead surrender huge numbers of people and areas of land.
Russia is even facing troubles back home. There are people who are fleeing further into Russia in the face of Ukrainian drone and land attacks. There has been a symbolic attack on the Kremlin itself which is hard to spin. There even has been a hack of a Russian TV station with the delivery of a non-Putin-originated “fake news.”
What started as a simply walkover that should have been concluded in days has become a Nazi-threat of World War II levels in Putin propaganda. As the condition continues to deteriorate, the idea of Putin being displaced becomes more and more believable.
Consider the three paths forward that Russia has.
1. The “Peter the Great” scenario where Putin and Russia have a divine mission to be at the center of the world. This approach seems very unlikely even if Putin manages to remain in power until he becomes weak and feeble.
2. Vassal of China – Already in the diplomatic arena, Russia is referred to as the “little brother” whereas China is the “big brother.” The world of diplomacy can be verbally harsh in piercing through the spin. Russia can huff and puff all it wants at Asian conferences but it cannot prevent the truth from being seen. The war in Ukraine has exposed the weakness of Russia.
The odds on Russia with or without Putin wanting to be a vassal of China are nil. At some point, Russia is going to confront its loss of prestige in the international arena. When it arrives at that point, it will reject the little brother scenario.
3. Partner of the West including the United States – This option already is partially underway. How many Russian-Americans are there? How many Russian-Chinese are there? How many Russian oligarchs set up shop in China? How many did so in the West? Finally, when Russians fled the country to avoid Putin’s war, how man fled to China and how many fled west?
The answers to these questions are clear. Russians have voted with their feet and their money and both to be part of the West when given the opportunity to do so. That desire will continue to be true even after the war with Ukraine ends and even if Putin remains in power. In the long run, the people of Russia like the people of the Baltic countries, Georgia, Belarus, and Iran all want to be part of the West even though they have not all succeeded so far. Most likely after this war is over, both Ukraine and the Russia people will signal their preference to be part of the West.
These decisions do not mean that the next day, American or NATO troops will be on the Russian-Chinese border. Perhaps it will only be Russian troops. Russian troops being rearmed and retrained by the United States into being a more effective fighting force. So it is quite reasonable to suppose that the longer Xi waits to invade Taiwan, the greater the chance of having to fight on multiple fronts.
Meanwhile at home, all is not well. The population is in decline. The population is aging in a country notorious for not having a safety net and for having fewer and fewer young people to support more and more old people.
The generation of “Wolf Warriors” is peaking. This high testosterone male cohort is gradually working its way through the demographic time line. Time is not on Xi’s side when it comes to be able to draw on an inexhaustible supply of Wolf Warriors to fight for the conquest of Taiwan. Again, it is not an immediate issue, but it is one that puts constraint on Xi’s actions.
In a few years, Xi will face another fake election. At that point he will be asked what he has accomplished in his current term. He will be asked if he has fulfilled the goals he has established for himself. Or will he be forced to punt? Will he have to kick the can into the next time period for the invasion of Taiwan?
In the meantime, other countries have caught onto to the Chinese imperial policy. They are not as willing to be little brothers to China. They are not as willing to be bullied as they once were. They see the true costs of their economic relationships with China. Now that the United States has stood up against Russia and actually pivoted towards Southeast Asia, they are more willing to join international groups for their own protection. Again time is not on Xi’s side.
China has worked very hard and very successfully to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. There are no physical reminders of the events surrounding that confrontation. There is nothing for tourists to see. No selfies to take. The memory lives on through the people who participated in it but they are now 34 years older and dying out. Hong Kong regularly celebrated the day until in the past few years, China squeezed out all public events. Refugees from China have kept the event alive in the China diaspora. In New York, a Tiananmen massacre museum has opened. In London, the emigrants from Hong Kong have kept the memory alive. And, of course, in Taiwan, the emigrants from China remember the event alongside the Taiwanese who already do.
So for now, China has been able to successfully suppress knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre from the general population. But how long can it continue to do so? How long before the Chinese people demand to know the truth?
There are many unknowns in the questions posed in this blog and in the trends identified here. What they have in common is that time is not on Xi’s side. There is no way to know what will happen when his current term in office ends and he has nothing to show for his openly expressed desire to occupy Taiwan, but certainly we would seem to be approaching the sweet spot for such an invasion before the call simply becomes hollow rhetoric.