Later this week the Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold the 19th Party Congress, a major political event that happens just once every five years. Domestic issues will take center stage at the Party Congress, and China watchers will watch closely for news on the composition of a new Politburo Standing Committee, the likely inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought into the CPC’s constitution, and the future of economic development.
International relations will take a back seat to internal issues during the 19th Party Congress, but it will not disappear from the agenda entirely. Three important issue areas to follow are the progress of China’s military reforms, Taiwan, and North Korea. All three could come up during the congress, and all have important implications for U.S. strategy in East Asia and the U.S.-China relationship.
Xi Jinping kicked off a massive reform of the Chinese military in late 2015 by cutting 300,000 personnel from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and changing its command and control system. Additional notable reforms over the past two years include changing from military regions to theater commands, the creation of a Strategic Support Force for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, and the growing prominence of the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy relative to the army. The overarching goal of Xi’s military reforms is to turn the PLA into a lean, mean fighting machine capable of winning wars on the modern battlefield.
Some general information about military reform should be mentioned in the work report produced at the beginning of the 19th Party Congress, but before the report is released congress-watchers should pay attention to promotions and demotions within the PLA and Central Military Commission (CMC). In the weeks and months leading up to the Party Congress, Xi removed several high-ranking PLA generals from their posts and replaced them with new commanders. Changes to the CMC could include a reduction in the number of individuals on the commission and new members that are loyal to Xi and want to improve the PLA’s joint warfare capabilities.
The PLA reforms have two important and competing implications for the United States. On the one hand, once the reforms are completed and internalized the PLA should be a much more effective fighting force, which in turn raises the costs of U.S. military commitments in East Asia. On the other hand, these reforms are a massive and difficult undertaking that will take many years to fully implement. American policymakers should not inflate the threat posed by China in the short term, but it would be unwise to ignore the long-term political implications of a more capable PLA.
Relations across the Taiwan Strait have been relatively stable since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan in January 2016. China is steadily applying pressure on Taiwan in response to Tsai’s “incomplete answer” on the 1992 Consensus, but the pressure has not been unusually onerous and it has not significantly escalated since Tsai’s election almost two years ago. Taiwan will be mentioned in the 19th Party Congress’s work report, but this will likely amount to a restatement of long-held CPC positions on eventual reunification and opposition to Taiwanese independence. The work report’s language could end up being more aggressive and it deserves close observation, but Taiwan is a relatively low priority for the Chinese leadership at the moment.
If the Party Congress produces a “steady as she goes” approach to Taiwan, it would behoove the United States to avoid taking high-profile actions that would damage the US-China relationship. One example of a counterproductive U.S. action is language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act allowing U.S. Navy ships to make port calls in Taiwan. Advocates for the port calls, which haven’t happened in Taiwan since 1979, argue that the action is essential for shoring up the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and preventing China from coercing Taiwan. However, Beijing will likely see this break with decades of past practice as a major event that worsens U.S.-China relations.
There are better ways to preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait than adopting a high-profile, precedence-breaking policy of restarting U.S. Navy port calls. For example, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan may lead to angry Chinese press statements, but because they are a continuation of long-standing U.S. policy they reinforce the status quo. Restarting port calls to Taiwan would be a high-profile departure from past U.S. policy, which represents a break in status quo behavior that is worse for the U.S.-China relationship than continuing arms sales.
The final major international relations issue that may come up at the 19th Party Congress is the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. The growing tension between the United States and North Korea is China’s most pressing foreign policy problem. A war would prompt a massive influx of refugees into China and have serious implications for the security order in East Asia. Moreover, the Trump administration appears convinced that China needs to do more to pressure North Korea and has levied secondary sanctions against Chinese companies to convince Beijing to do more.
While North Korea looms large for China, it probably won’t get much attention in the 19th Party Congress’s work report. Domestic issues will take precedence at the Party Congress, and while military reforms and cross-strait relations have international implications the CPC views both as domestic concerns. However, a dramatic action by Pyongyang during the Party Congress, such as an ICBM test or an above-ground nuclear detonation, could prompt the CPC to issue a statement on North Korea.
Discussion on the North Korea problem will probably happen during the Party Congress, but absent a significant escalation on the peninsula North Korea will likely not be featured prominently in the official documents produced by the congress. Instead, Xi and the Chinese leadership will likely wait until Trump’s visit to Asia in early November to issue any adjustments to China’s policy toward North Korea.