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Interview: Military drills show 'boorish' and 'bullying' China

Former senior diplomat Richard Armitage says bullying Taiwan is one of Xi Jinping's 'series of errors.'

By Rita Cheng for RFA Mandarin 2022.08.22 -- Richard Armitage served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and Pacific Affairs and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Ronald Reagan Administration, and deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. The veteran Asia watcher spoke to Rita Cheng of RF Mandarin about the tension in the Taiwan Strait after a China responded to a visit to the island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi early this month with massive war games and missile tests.

RFA: What are your thoughts about recent visits to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior U.S. lawmakers?

Armitage: Generally I prefer substance over symbolism, but I do realize that symbolism is important too. It's important for the people of Taiwan. So in that regard, I think that the trip is well worthwhile and it'll be even better if now the administration and Mr. Biden redoubled their efforts to provide meaningful defensive equipment quickly. And I'm talking about things like mobile air defense, sea mines, things of that nature. So we can have both the substance and the symbolism, which can, I think, prove to the people of Taiwan that we're serious.

RFA: Why does symbolism matter to both Taiwan and United States?

Armitage: The symbolic matters because it shows to the region where the United States and the U.S. Congress, the people who are elected by our people to represent them, stand on the issue of Taiwan's ability to determine their own future. So that's a good lesson for people in Taiwan. It's a good lesson for all our friends in the region.

RFA: Among the older U.S. friends in region, China also staged military drills around the Yellow and Bohai seas, which definitely had an effect on South Korea, the Americans as well. What is your reading of the message that the Chinese trying to send to Japan and South Korea?

Armitage: American football players get a playbook. It's a book that has all the different plays to run. China has a playbook, too, but it's only got one play and that's militarily bullying people. And so that's what China is trying to do with their recent exercise, the second exercise that military exercises around Taiwan. Now, what is the result of all this? The result is to show everyone in the region, Japan or Australia, how China plays ball. And they play it just by being boorish, by being bullying, and depending only on national military power.

RFA: Some people are saying that we are in the fourth crisis on the Taiwan Strait. So what are your takeaways in terms of the ongoing situation?

Armitage: Some people would say that it's been a crisis since 1979, when the United States severed official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. So whether it's the forth or whatever, every day is a crisis of some sort. But this is the life that Taiwan and Taiwanese have lived under since coming ashore in Taiwan in 1949. And as such, I think the people of Taiwan and what we've seen from opinion polls in Taiwan, Taiwanese now are really in a great majority, saying they have unique Taiwanese identity. Now there are a minority who say they're Chinese. This is what has been brought about by the various crises.

RFA: Compared to the crisis of 1995 and 1996, China, the United States and even Taiwan are totally different countries now. Xi Jinping believes the East is rising and the West is falling, declining. How does the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress impact Xi Jinping's decisions on things like military drills?

Armitage: First of all, as we do understand, Xi Jinping is trying to have a third term, which is unprecedented in China. And I suspect that this does not please everyone at the party congress, first of all. Second, Xi Jinping can believe anything he wants about China rising and the West falling. Fact of the matter is, he's having to wrestle right now with an economy which is negative. He's having to wrestle with COVID, which is causing shutdowns all over China. He's having to wrestle with climate change. The Yangtze River, which is just about out of water, unbearable heat in some parts of China. I don't suspect that Xi Jinping is going to fail to get a third term, but I suspect he's going to find it a little more difficult than he thought.

RFA: He has enough troubles already...

Armitage: Over the last two terms of his presidency, he has made himself the central authority on everything. So if anything goes wrong, he has no one else to blame but himself. So the American vernacular term is he's got no one else to 'throw under the bus.' He has to blame himself. So I think we should not impute to President Xi omniscience, being omniscient, being well-informed on everything. He's made a series of errors. And I would say that his bullying behavior, particularly against Taiwan, is another error that he's made.

RFA: China also just issued its latest white paper on Taiwan. And, of course, that, like you say, the majority of the Taiwanese people want a separate identity. However, Xi seems like he still believes that he can achieve his goal of national rejuvenation ad the Chinese Dream. How should the United States and Taiwan read the latest white paper on Taiwan?

Armitage: I saw the latest white paper on Taiwan. It has very few surprises. It has some different language about occupying Taiwan, but beyond that, not much. I think what Xi Jinping and that play are trying to do is to back Joe Biden, or (Taiwan President) Dr. Tsai (Ing-wen) into a corner. Responding looks weak to Beijing. If he if he doesn't respond, they also looks weak in Washington. So it almost forces Biden to have to have a response. I would say the same (about) Dr. Tsai. They're trying to back her into a corner. And the first corner is 'no independence.' But I don't think that's at the top of her mind. She wants to have a Taiwan, which has 23-plus million people, able to make up their own minds about their future. I think that's first on her agenda. But I see this whole white paper as an exercise in what we would call psyops: psychological operations.

RFA: It seems like another area in which these psyops probably will fail is U.S.-China relations. From your point of view, how has Xi's personality influenced China's relations with not just the United States and the rest of the world?

Armitage: Before the first presidency of Xi Jinping, there were many stories around that Xi Jinping would be quite moderate because his father had actually been rusticated ... reeducated and punished and all of that. In fact, President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore told me exactly that he was sure that he would be moderate now. I think Xi learned a different lesson. And the lesson was more along the lines of Mao Zedong: Never give an inch. Never back down. Don't let anyone see you sweat. So I think that's part of the personality that came out. I've often said that when Dr. Tsai Ing-wen gets up in the morning or Joe Biden gets up in the morning, they've got a lot of problems to deal with. That's true. But when Xi Jinping gets up in the morning, he's got a lot of problems to deal with, not the least of which is how unhappy his countrymen and -women are.

RFA: Having seen the Soviet Union fall, Xi Jinping is very worried about a cultural revolution happening in China. So do you have any suggestions for him?

Armitage: It's not me to give him advice, but I if he were here or if he were to listen to this broadcast, I would say he should not make the mistake of thinking that just having a strong military or, for that matter, a good economy, is sufficient to make a nation a great power. My advice to Xi Jinping would be to, first of all, look carefully at Ukraine, because, as you know, he's apparently on the wrong side of that issue. And second, don't make the mistake of thinking that simple military might makes a nation a great power. If he thought that military might or just the economy made him a great power, then he made a big mistake.

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