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Why Russia’s Instability Could Throw Off Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Invasion Timeline

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Image CreditGuardian News/YouTube

Fighting the wrong war at the wrong time may end up costing Xi’s control of power rather than achieving historic glory for himself and China.

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Russia was apparently on the brink of civil war last weekend as the Wagner Group, a paramilitary force, marched toward Moscow.

A bloody showdown between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin — and between Russia’s military and the mercenaries — was eventually avoided after Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator and Putin ally, reportedly brokered a truce. This dramatic event will affect not only Putin and Russia but also some of Putin’s allies, especially China.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced their alliance “without limit” by issuing a defiant joint statement before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Xi and Putin found a kindred spirit in each other: Both are hostile to liberal democratic values. Both rule their nations with iron fists and have no problem exporting their weapons and surveillance technologies to support other oppressive regimes. Both like to present themselves domestically and internationally as strongmen and unapologetic nationalists. And both justify their territorial expansion through military conquest as necessary to return their nations to historic glories. Putin insists Ukraine has always been part of Russia, and Xi claims Taiwan is a province of China.

After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Chinese government chose to support Putin rather than join the West in condemning him. China has been helping Russia skirt Western economic sanctions by increasing energy and agricultural imports from Russia. Although Xi promised that China would not send weapons to Russia, The New York Times reported last week that China did send “smokeless powder — enough propellant to collectively make at least 80 million rounds of ammunition” to Russia on two unreported occasions last year.

By sustaining Putin economically and militarily, Xi clearly is counting on the Russians to keep the West, primarily the United States, occupied. The war in Ukraine will drain U.S. military resources while China is gearing up for its “reunification” with Taiwan. It is not a coincidence that after Russia invaded Ukraine, China stepped up its military preparations for a Taiwan invasion, and the Chinese military has increased both the frequency and intensity of its harassment of Taiwan’s defenses.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that Beijing was “determined to pursue reunification” with Taiwan “on a much faster timeline” than previously contemplated. Early this year, Gen. Mike Minihan, a four-star Air Force general of Air Mobility Command, predicted the U.S. would be at war with China in 2025 over Taiwan.

Xi might have initially regarded the Russia-Ukraine War as a strategic window to speed up his conquest of Taiwan. Yet, the Wagner group debacle in Russia last weekend might compel Xi to reconsider his timing of the Taiwan campaign.

The Wagner group’s mutiny and Putin’s flip-flop messaging about whether Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has committed any crime shattered Putin’s strong-man image. It exposed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened Putin and Russia’s military. Even some Russian elites agreed that Putin looked weaker after the Wagner rebellion and that Russia might be ready for a “big change” in its top leadership.

The event in Russia will likely affect Xi in several ways. The longer the Russia-Ukraine War drags on, the weaker Putin and Russia get, and the more foolish and riskier Xi’s “no limits” alliance with Putin seems.

As Wall Street Journal columnist Gerard Baker wrote, “It is clearer than ever that Xi Jinping has shackled himself to a twitching corpse, one booby-trapped with nuclear weapons but a dead weight all the same.” Xi must be concerned that his alliance with Putin is becoming a liability that his domestic political rivals may exploit while raising doubts about his leadership even among his allies.

The Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine probably also prompted Xi to be concerned about the Chinese military’s readiness. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hasn’t been battle-tested for over four decades. The last time the PLA fought a major war was against Vietnam in 1979, and the PLA was humiliated by its much smaller rival.

Suppose the PLA’s invasion of Taiwan turns into a protracted war like the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In that case, Xi has every reason to be concerned that his image as a strong man will be shattered and his control of the government and the military may be weakened, just like what has happened to Putin. A prolonged war over Taiwan may become an opening for either Xi’s allies to turn on him or emboldened political rivals who seek to replace him.

Xi is known to be more obsessed with political stability than anything else. Stability for Xi means he is in firm control of the country and his rule is unchallenged. In the name of maintaining stability, Xi has devoted enormous resources, including building a mass surveillance state, to “stamp out the smallest inklings of political discontent,” according to Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese human rights activist who is an exile in the U.S.

Xi is unlikely to give up “reuniting” with Taiwan because he regards such reunification as one of his legacy projects. Last weekend’s failed Wagner rebellion in Russia, however, may have compelled him to reconsider his timing. Xi understands that if he rushes into war against Taiwan (and possibly Taiwan’s allies, such as the United States) and cannot win quickly, he may trigger instability in China, and his rivals will no doubt exploit his political vulnerability.

The history of the Chinese Communist Party is full of bloody inner-party power struggles. Fighting the wrong war at the wrong time may end up costing Xi’s control of power rather than achieving historic glory for himself and China.


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