As head of Beijing’s strategic nuclear forces and its fastest rising general, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe had a reputation for “doing more and saying less”. It was a methodical, determined approach that made him a clear favourite of President Xi Jinping, placing him at the heart of China’s remarkable military revolution and its efforts to dominate the region.
Last weekend, however, in his first major international appearance, General Wei chose to say a lot. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore – arguably Asia’s premier diplomatic gathering – he was the highest-profile guest alongside US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Wei’s speech and the subsequent question and answer session, however, were unexpectedly aggressive, even by China’s recent standards. He focussed on two topics in particular: threatening Taiwan and defending the massacre of protesters in a Beijing square 30 years ago.
That may have been a mistake – particularly when it comes to Taiwan.
Instead of intimidating China’s potential enemies, Wei instead unified and motivated them – particularly empowering Taiwan’s current government, which faces elections next year and has been desperate to persuade its population of the growing threat from China.
Wei’s comments were swiftly repeated and exploited by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who had been facing a strong challenge from pro-Beijing businessman Han Kuo-yu. The anniversary of the 1989 Beijing crackdown was marked in Taiwan with mass vigils and protests, and government assertions that the island would not abandon democracy or join the mainland without a fight.
China and President Xi have made no secret of their ambition to bring the island back under mainland Chinese rule within a generation, and until the recent rise in military tensions produced by Chinese posturing, that was widely expected to happen. Beijing had invested heavily in its relationship with the opposition Kuomintang party, originally founded by the Chinese Nationalists who fled to the island after losing China’s civil war but now unambiguously pro-Beijing.
Kuomintang candidate Han – arguably Beijing’s best chance in years of nudging the island to peaceful reunification – was forced this week to recommit himself to Taiwanese independence and human rights. Perhaps even more significantly, General Wei’s words – and the consternation they produced amongst China’s potential foes – will be potent fodder for the Taiwanese military as it attempts to persuade a generation of peace-loving island residents that they may need to be prepared to fight for their freedom from a powerful neighbour that would crush their individual rights.
Given its physical proximity to China and Beijing’s rapidly growing military power, Taiwan has only ever truly had two ways to deter invasion. One is to rely on allies, principally the United States, to make it clear that they would respond in the event of an attack. The second – and only – option if foreign states look the other way, is to make sure it is sufficiently well defended, particularly in its highly populated cities, to guarantee inflicting massive casualties on invading Chinese troops.
The bottom line may well be that Wei has inadvertently accelerated those preparations. If China does ever contemplate an invasion of Taiwan, he may have made it harder – as well as putting the final nail in the coffin of any peaceful reunification hopes.
That 1989 crackdown, Wei said, was the “correct” decision, also defending the mass internment of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in camps in China’s Xinjiang province. He said China would take military action “at all costs” against any foreign powers that tried to split Taiwan from China, warning that Beijing reserves the right to recover the island by force.
Wei’s decision to openly justify the killings of Chinese students and others in 1989 was an unusual step. More normally, China tries to stifle such discussion – perhaps a sign of how terrified those in authorities truly were by those protests, which some of the time suspected would bring down the Party as communism unravelled in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Xi is unlikely to thank his protégé for issuing such a high profile international reminder. While the anniversary has seen mass commemorations in Hong Kong, it has gone unmarked in China – indeed, mere mention has been highly censored.
Under pressure from China’s government, financial information provider Refinitiv removed from its Eikon terminal Reuters news stories related to the 1989 crackdown. Reuters continued to cover the anniversary elsewhere.
Already the architect of many of Xi’s military reforms, General Wei – who took his current role last year – looks set to become ever more important to China and the world – although at only a year younger than President Xi, he would make an unlikely successor. Under his watch, Beijing is believed to be roughly doubling its nuclear arsenal, dramatically increasing its military footprint around the world and pushing back its regional rivals.
Wei might wish to be more careful, though. Because statements like that in Singapore can have unintended consequences, and if China genuinely wishes to dominate its region it will need to make rather fewer missteps.