Taiwan sees China's Xi as too focused on party reshuffle for attack on island

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term as Communist Party leader in the second half of the year. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - Taiwan believes Xi Jinping is too focused on a key party meeting to extend his tenure as China's leader to take military action now, regardless of what happens between Russia and Ukraine, according to two senior officials involved in security issues in Taipei.

The Taiwanese government has assessed the current risk of a Chinese attack to be low, even if the US were to be distracted by a war in Eastern Europe, according to the officials, who asked not to be named because they weren't authorised to discuss security matters publicly.

Communist Party leaders were prioritising domestic stability ahead of a twice-a-decade congress and wouldn't take any action that could jeopardise Mr Xi's efforts to secure a third term, the officials said. Moreover, the People's Liberation Army still lacks the capabilities needed to guarantee the success of any attack on Taiwan, the officials said.

Still, China could exploit a shift in global attention toward Ukraine to ramp up military exercises or other efforts to influence political opinion on the island, they said.

Taiwan and Ukraine share similar security concerns, with larger, nuclear-armed neighbours seeking greater influence over their territory and no formal US alliance.

The Biden administration believes that China has been gauging the US response to the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border as a proxy for how America would deal with more aggressive action by Beijing against Taiwan, Bloomberg News reported last week.

During a swing through the Pacific that included joint statements of concern about Taiwan with key regional allies, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "others are looking to all of us to see how we respond" in Eastern Europe.

Russia has denied any plans for an attack and on Tuesday (Feb 15) announced a partial pullback of troops massed near the border, although President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the US hasn't seen evidence on that on the ground.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has appointed a task force to monitor the Ukraine situation and evaluate its security impact on the democratically ruled island, which is claimed by Beijing but receives military support from the US.

While Mr Biden has ruled out sending troops to the Ukraine, he has said he would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.

"We will be on high alert and watch out for anyone using this opportunity to make trouble," Cabinet spokesman Lo Ping-cheng said on Tuesday in response to a question about the significance of the Ukraine crisis to Taipei. "Taiwan has always been on high alert, but will be especially so when the situation in other nations is severe."

In October, Mr Xi reaffirmed Beijing's desire to unify Taiwan and the mainland by peaceful means, although he warned that those "who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end".

Beijing has blamed the tensions on Ms Tsai's refusal to continue her predecessor's policy of regarding both sides as part of "one China".

Beijing and Moscow have sought to bolster ties amid their shared tensions with Washington. Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed his support for Beijing's claim over Taiwan during a meeting with Mr Xi earlier this month.

On Wednesday China's foreign ministry accused the US of "playing up the threat of warfare and creating an air of tension" around Ukraine, while Mr Xi urged all parties to seek a political solution through dialogue during a call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

The Ukraine crisis comes at a sensitive time for Mr Xi, who is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term as Communist Party leader in the second half of the year. In a sign of the event's supreme political importance, several Chinese government agencies have declared maintaining a stable environment for the party congress a top priority for 2022.

One of the senior officials in Taipei cautioned that it was difficult to predict decision-making in a political system dominated by one man. Such leaders may make sudden and seemingly irrational decisions to consolidate power or influence, the official said.

General Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of US Pacific Air Forces, told a media round table on Wednesday in Singapore that he was concerned China would try "to take advantage" of tensions over Ukraine. "It wouldn't be surprising if they tried something that would maybe be provocative and see how the international community reacts," he said.

Chinese warplanes made some 960 forays into Taiwan's air-defence identification zone last year, compared with about 380 sorties the prior year, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data from the Ministry of National Defence in Taipei. Last month, China flew more than 140 sorties into Taiwan's ADIZ, on pace to eclipse last year's total.

Speculation that the Ukraine crisis shows the US's reluctance to send troops overseas could feed Chinese "cognitive warfare" efforts against Taiwan, the other senior Taiwanese official said.

Taiwan believes its strategic importance to the US is greater than Ukraine's, due to its strategic location and vital chip industry, the official said.

"Taiwan-China has its own dynamics. The relationship between the two countries is not going to be fundamentally changed by what is happening between Russia and Ukraine today," said Ms Kolas Yotaka, a spokesman for Taiwan's presidential office. "The international community must continue to work for the peaceful resolution of the current crisis, against unprovoked aggression."

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