Beijing seems inclined to place the blame mostly on Taiwan, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissing the Trump-Tsai conversation as a “little trick” played by Taiwan. China may seek to apply coercive economic measures to Taiwan to “punish” Tsai and her administration; such a move would doubtless outrage Taiwanese. China’s attempts to play the barefaced bully have historically backfired, pushing Taiwan farther away from Beijing’s desired goal of unification rather than bringing it closer. That was the case in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to prevent the re-election of Taiwanese nativist president Lee Teng-hui; Lee won in a landslide. Likewise, Beijing’s attempts to freeze out the only previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, forced Chen to make an abrupt about-face; he went from advocating liberalized cross-strait economic ties in his first term to pursuing a referendum on Taiwan’s UN membership in his second.
Cross-strait ties were already at their frostiest in eight years; this phone call to Trump ups the ante at a sensitive time for China, which will soon undergo its own leadership transition. In fall 2017, the Communist Party holds its 19th Congress. This gathering, held once every five years, will extol the achievements of the Xi Jinping-led government, cement his approach in party doctrine, and reshuffle the top echelons of leadership. While Xi will stay on, five of those on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee are due for retirement. There are also persistent rumors that current No. 2, Premier Li Keqiang, could see himself officially replaced, forced to play scapegoat for slowing economic growth.
What this means is that domestic political wrangling is at its peak in China at the moment. In such times, Beijing would keenly prefer a quiet external environment; that’s likely a large contributing factor to the current calm in the South China Sea. However, should a crisis emerge — such as, say, a paradigm shift in the US-Taiwan relationship — China’s current leaders will feel immense pressure to respond swiftly and harshly.
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