China’s statements to Taiwan are leading interest from tense domestic politics to foreign politics. Military developments in China and Russia are progressing rapidly. South Korea is approaching North Korea and is putting the alliance with the US and Japan to a tough test. It is uncertain what position(s) the US is taking.
Finishing the first phase of island construction and diversionary maneuvers
China’s fortress working in the South China Sea is in its final stages. Thus, China can gradually increase political and military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s provocative statements in early January 2019 caused concern and resistance. Xi ordered the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for war in the face of unprecedented risks and challenges. But it could also be concluded that China’s domestic politics are in trouble, and that the Chinese government is trying to channel the internal pressure built up by the people and military discontent. The gap in China’s population is getting wider and wider because of the hukou-systems (rural and urban registered population). The rural population is allowed to work in the city but is excluded from various urban social benefits. The Chinese Communist Party (CP) must raise the prosperity level of the people because the approx. 700 million rural-registered people carry the great risk of a mass uprising. The prosperity of urban-registered people has also been boosted by economic growth but is now experiencing difficulties due to the weak economy. Furthermore, many of the approximately 57 million former soldiers who were dismissed by Xi Jinping’s government to rapidly reduce the army are dissatisfied with their pensions and demonstrate, what could also raise fears for the future for soldiers on active duty. Moreover, the one-child policy – although abolished in 2016 – may continue to affect the ageing of the society. Because of the poor treatment of minorities in the country, the US wants to put pressure on China. U.S. President Trump signed a new law in December 2018 regarding travel permits to Tibet. Chinese who prevent the entry of Americans into Tibet are also prohibited from entering the United States.
Technical development in China
China reportedly successfully tested the Chinese version of the mega-bomb (the mother of all bombs). The use of electromagnetic railguns on warships will also soon be possible. In addition, the development in outer space is striking. The own satellite navigation system allows independence from the US GPS. The construction of a manned lunar and space station is the next goal. Technological developments and the accompanying military strengthening of China are increasingly approaching US levels.
The Chinese “Made in China 2025” plan is the first interim goal of the master plan until 2049 to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of present-day China. With this plan, China wants to reach the top industrial position. Given the trade disputes with the US, China most likely has to slow down the plan to accommodate the US call for a correction of China’s trade practices (e.g., subsidies and intellectual property theft).
Taiwan as China’s essential core interest
Taiwan’s next presidential election is expected to be held in 2020. Incumbent President Tsai-Ing-Wen resigned as party leader in 2018 due to a massive defeat in local and regional elections. China has thus gained momentum and is forcing Taiwan to enter into a dialogue to substantiate ‘one country, two systems’, with the use of force not excluded, according to Xi. But the reasons for Tsai’s defeat in the 2018 elections were domestic political problems and the ruling party’s wrong election strategy. Xi’s announcement in early January 2019 has been rather worrying for the Taiwanese, as political developments in Hong Kong show the ever-increasing influence of communist China. Taiwan’s reintegration into the Chinese state by 2020 is highly unlikely, as China does not want to take any risks until the trade disputes with the US have been solved.
The US and its alliance, and Russia’s new weapons systems
Relations between Japan and South Korea are deteriorating. In late December 2018, a South Korean warship with an active radar lock-on was reportedly targeting a Japanese naval surveillance aircraft within the Japanese EEZ. The South Korean warship may have shielded North Korean shipments of goods despite international sanctions. It is not yet clear whether it was a single action. South Korea also questioned the 1965 treaty between the two countries. South Korea’s 2018 defense White Paper no longer calls North Korea an enemy. The views of both US allies differ not only politically but also militarily.
Although the denuclearization of North Korea is not visibly moving forward, the South Korean president continues to approach North Korea. In the New Year’s speech of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the majority of the talk was about economic development. As a result of the sanctions, domestic developments could be encouraged, which would also benefit from a slowdown or temporary stop of missile and nuclear tests. In the short term, North Korea could boost its economy, but the longer the sanctions last, the more difficult it will be in the long run.
During North Korean leader Kim’s visit to China in January 2019, it is believed that the next steps concerning the US have been discussed. China wants to use North Korea because of the economic conflicts with the US, but the extent to which Xi has influence over North Korea can be questioned because Xi’s position itself appears uncertain. The 4th plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which implements the resolutions of the party congress and leads the entire party work, was expected in autumn 2018. To date (as of mid-January 2019), however, the plenary session has not taken place yet. According to rumors, President Xi wants to avoid harsh criticism because of the trade conflict with the US and the poor economy.
Meanwhile, Russia is striving to develop new weapons. The Avangard hypersonic missile system, which will be put into operation this year, makes the current missile defense system obsolete. The Peresvet laser system, which can be used against drones, missiles and warplanes, is already in operation. To contain China, Japan is likely to make concessions to Russia on the Kuril question. Both countries are reportedly seeking a peace agreement by autumn 2021, but the resolution of the island conflict must be completed first. A discussion on the cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between the US and Russia would be desirable in the sense that a new agreement would also affect countries such as China.
Trump’s policy includes the withdrawal of the U.S. military from various regions. Merkel and Macron mentioned a defense alliance for Europe alongside NATO. Cooperation between Australia, India, Japan and the ASEAN littoral countries is strengthened in addition to the alliance with the USA in the western Pacific region. An increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific region by England and France is also expected.
The artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea now seem to be a fact. The trade conflicts between the US and China are likely to continue for some time, and the US economic situation is also unclear. China, on the other hand, must treat the approximately 700 million rurally registered people with great caution in order to keep their dissatisfaction under control. The resignation of US Secretary of Defense Mattis at the end of December 2018 caused concern in Asia because he was seen as a guarantor of peace. North Korea will critically review the next US steps, but as long as the sanctions remain in place, it needs help from South Korea. Apparently, the majority of South Korean politicians desire unconditional unification with North Korea.
 South China Morning Post: Chinese President Xi Jining gives army its first order of 2019: be ready for battle, January 5, 2019.