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So interesting how an existential threat — near-term: Russia/Ukraine; longer-term: China/Taiwan — helps focus the national mind.

The Biden Administration announced on Tuesday that, in rapid-fire sequence following the launch of the multi-lateral Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in Tokyo last week, the U.S. Government is making a decisive step, through Executive Action, in the direction of a bilateral U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The economic logic in support of a U.S.-Taiwan FTA was evident 20 years ago. Here, dusted off, are two publications which make that point:

Now, finally, U.S. domestic political logic is swinging in line with the geoeconomic imperatives. If it comes to pass, it will have been worth the wait.

Over 10 years, Xi Jinping has methodically amassed power. Beginning with an unprecedented consolidation of military support, Xi then launched his ‘Tigers and Flies’ campaign, sidelining his political rivals along with officials accused of corruption. Over many years he patiently laid the groundwork to elevate Xi Jinping Thought to match the official stature of Mao Zedong Thought, and edge out Deng Xiaoping Thought, in the CCP’s ideological pantheon. He then overturned international commitments regarding Hong Kong, and brought that free-wheeling and Westernized city to heel with the introduction of a new security law. At the last 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi tossed aside Deng’s “hide-and-abide” (韜光養晦、有所作為) approach to international relations and gave a triumphalist speech, announcing that China had not only arrived on the world stage but that it deserved central position on that stage. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, Xi used sharp-elbow tactics to block scientific investigation into its origins in China and ordered sweeping zero-Covid lockdowns to highlight his government’s ability to take more effective action than was possible for democratic governments in the US and the West.  The Winter Olympics were meant to be Xi’s star-turn to demonstrate — more to the Chinese people than to international audiences (many of whom undertook diplomatic boycotts of the Games because of oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other issues) — that he was a flawless and unrivalled champion.  He even went so far as to claim that the authoritarian system he presided over represented a superior form of democracy to Western liberal democracy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China

Along this path to unrivalled power in China, Xi first jettisoned the system of collective rule by the Standing Committee of the Politburo which Deng had put in place to guard against recurrence of unbridled rule by any one individual, epitomized by the last years of Mao’s rule.  Longer term, Xi’s aim in amassing power has been to discard the limit of a president to two five-year terms, another safeguard Deng put in place and which he himself observed.

The announcement of leadership for the next five-year term will happen at the CCP’s 20th Party Congress in Beijing this autumn. At that meeting, Xi is widely expected to be named for a precedent-shattering third term. This will mark a historic high-point for Xi. His systematic consolidation of power has been designed, in part, to create an air of inevitability about this outcome. While his selection is still overwhelmingly likely, a number of significant fissures have appeared in recent weeks which crack this façade of total control.

ZERO-COVID

While undoubtedly successful in limiting the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, Xi’s Zero-Covid policy has created a raft of problems for China more recently, most notably during the highly-transmissible omicron phase. While incidences of infection, hospitalization and death have been dropping worldwide, they have been surging in China, with the number of confirmed cases more than quadrupling from mid-February to mid-March of this year. Elderly citizens are especially at risk due to their low rates of vaccination and hospitals have already become overwhelmed, due in part to the low number of hospital beds on a per capita basis in China. While it can be argued that the Zero-Covid policy ‘bought time’ for the development of vaccines, Xi’s championing of the locally developed Sinovac vaccine and his refusal to permit the use of more clinically-effective vaccines developed in the West, has blunted that advantage somewhat since the Sinovac vaccine is notably less effective against the omicron variant. The Zero-Covid policy has also meant that there is practically zero immunity in the Chinese population as a result of exposure to the virus as it becomes endemic worldwide. If SARS-COV-2 can be compared to a flame, China’s population is like a vast field of tinder. Finally, the economic and social costs have become glaringly apparent with the lockdown of an entire province, Jilin, in the northeast and the of Shenzhen and Dongguan – China’s two largest manufacturing hubs for information and communications technology (ICT) — in the south.

While Xi will, with considerable justification, continue to claim credit for his “triumph” over the coronavirus, China is by no means out of the pandemic woods and the setbacks of the last month make his strident claims ring more hollow, both internationally and domestically.

REAL ESTATE

In September last year, Chinese real-estate development firms began to feel the severe discomfort of a massive hang-over following years of real-estate speculation partying.  The problems were most evident in real-estate giant Evergrande but soon spread to a host of other significant players in the field such as Fantasia, Modern Land, China Property Group and Xinyuan Real Estate Group.  At the institutional level, the problems hitting the $5 trillion sector were the result of a unique PRC nexus of aggressive real estate development, lax banking, and local government incentive structures.  More simply, the problems resulted from “unrestrained borrowing, expansion as an end-in-itself, and corruption.”  

While the PRC Government claimed this week that the real-estate free-fall has been “stabilized,” pricing data from real estate developers across the country continue to show sharp deterioration. Also this week, Evergrande announced a further delay in sharing its plan for restructuring and for paying back bonds and other financial obligations.  The government has strong reason to put on a brave face while throwing up a curtain of opacity around the problem.  Property-related industries account for more than 30% of China’s economic output.  Continued problems in the sector could drag China’s growth below the optimistic, post-pandemic official target of 5% growth, a minimum level which must be maintained in the years ahead for China to escape the ‘middle income trap.’ More immediately, it risks alienating an important swath of the urban public, 80% of whose household wealth is tied up in real estate and who see their property values plummeting. (A particularly aggrieved segment of this population are buyers who have paid up front to the developers, as is common in China, for a property not yet built and for which construction has halted indefinitely while values continue to slide).

While Xi has voiced loud promises to not let the bottom fall out of this sector and to support homeowners currently caught in the fallout, there is little evidence on the ground of these promises translating into reality.  Meanwhile, the situation risks alienating the public and sowing dissent among officials.

‘COMMON PROSPERITY’

As measured by the Gini coefficient, China ranked fourth in the world in 2022 for greatest wealth disparity and inequality (after South Africa, Namibia and Sri Lanka). While Deng Xiaoping had announced famously in the late 1980s that “to get rich is glorious” and to “let some get rich first,” the extreme degree of inequality persisting in China four decades later is a source of growing social and political concern. The heady days of 10% growth have long ago disappeared and Chinese who thought they would be boarding on a later rail-car in the national train of prosperity now worry that the train may have departed, stranding them on the platform.

To counter this source of social unease, Xi unveiled with great fanfare in 2021 a policy of ‘Common Prosperity.” Writ large, this policy was meant to cement Xi’s place — side-by-side with Mao and with Deng slightly in the background – in China’s pantheon of modern heroes.  In this telling, Mao was the one who roused China to throw off its ‘Sick Man of Asia’ bondage to foreign imperialists and to stand up. Deng contrived a transitional stage of capitalist-style wealth-creation for enough Chinese that China could attain wealth and power (富权). It was left to Xi to complete this project of national rejuvenation, by reinstituting a Marxist “Common Prosperity’ for all Chinese and returning China to the center of the world stage.

Without getting into either the ideological weeds (such as Xi’s ‘Dual Circulation’ strategy) or deep into the tangle of economic measures (e.g., restrictions on overseas listings by Chinese companies, user-data and other controls put on Chinese Big Tech firms, clampdown on student test-prep and video game commercial sectors, etc) which Xi embraced in 2021 to advance his Common Prosperity agenda, the general effect was felt quickly and keenly in the form of abrupt economic slowdown. In the first quarter of this year, the Common Prosperity program has been ‘walked back’ by numerous party officials who have emphasized that it represents a historic project more than an immediate project. Premier Li Keqiang, in his lengthy speech to 3,000 deputies at the opening of the National People’s Congress earlier in the month, mentioned Common Prosperity only one time. For educated Chinese — who have been skillfully parsing official pronouncements closely ever since the Cultural Revolution for clues about where the country is headed — this lack of visibility and endorsement for Xi Jinping’s signature program represents a remarkable degree of push-back for Xi by top-level leaders.

UKRAINE

Chris Buckley’s report in last Friday’s New York Times traces the contours of what is potentially the most damaging crack to appear in Xi’s carefully-crafted, monolithic façade of power and control.  The article details the war of words that has erupted on the Chinese internet following the warning delivered by a respected scholar and politically-connected insider, Hu Wei, to the effect that China “risked becoming a pariah if it didn’t denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” As was covered in last week’s post and as continues to play out this week, Chinese officials have contorted themselves by claiming to be neutral and wanting peace while following Putin’s lead in not calling the ‘special military operation’ either a war or an invasion, in not objecting to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in amplifying Kremlin disinformation about U.S. bio-military labs in Ukraine. 

As argued last week, this has the potential to grow into a strategic blunder for China with significant geopolitical fall-out. It may affect not only Xi’s ambitions to retake Taiwan – the last territorial piece in his China Rejuvenation plan – but to bear long term costs for China as a rising power in the Indo-Pacific region and for its standing in the world at large.

None of this is to suggest that Xi will not get his third term as President this fall. It is only to say that the carefully-cultivated blooms of infallibility and inevitability are now off the XJP rose.

Xi has been in power for less than half of Putin’s tenure (18 years as President and 4 years as the power behind the throne for Medvedev) but there are doubtless people in Zhongnanhai wondering to themselves, post-Putin’s invasion, whether Deng didn’t get it right with his moves to limit the untrammeled exercise of power by an individual leader.

On February 4th, at the conclusion of their day-long summit in Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping declared that the friendship between Russia and China “has no limits.” That same day, the Beijing Winter Olympics officially began, ending a little more than two weeks later on February 20th. On February 24th, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

There has been extensive analysis of the three major miscalculations Putin has made up to this point: (1) his overestimation of the readiness and effectiveness of his military machine; (2) his underestimation of the resilience and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people; and (3) the speed and scale with which NATO and EU countries, along with many others, have come together to sanction Russia and to support Ukraine (in all ways short of direct military involvement on, or in the air above, Ukrainian territory). It is too early to tell whether a fourth major miscalculation may have to do with Putin’s misplaced faith in the degree of economic, financial and trade support which China would provide Russia to backfill against these sanctions).

But what about Xi Jinping? What is his calculus for advancing (his interpretation of) China’s interests through this crisis? And what miscalculations has he appeared to have made so far?

Xi’s first miscalculation was immediate and damaging. He is known to have had some discussion with Putin on Feb. 4th about the imminent “special operation” in Ukraine. It is not clear whether Putin lied to him or Xi simply failed to ask the right questions to take Putin’s measure. In either case, Xi Jinping is known to have been caught by surprise and ‘perturbed’ by the scale, duration and ruthlessness of Putin’s “special operation.” As described in my February 4th post “Four Seismic U.S.-China-Russia Shifts,” Putin’s move forced Xi, unexpectedly and very publicly, to choose between his new-found friendship without limits and adherence to China’s mantra-like stated policy of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, as enunciated in 1954 in Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (and championed explicitly with regard to Ukraine’s territorial integrity following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014)

Evidence of Xi’s miscalculation of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine became apparent in the initially hesitant and fence-sitting response by the PRC officials during the first two weeks of the crisis. On the one hand, Chinese officials refused to refer to the invasion publicly with any term other than Putin’s Orwellian “special operation” terminology; pivoted reliably to blaming the crisis on NATO rather than Russia aggression; blocked a series of actions from being taken against Russia in the U.N. Security Council; amplified Russian disinformation about the U.S. operating bio-military labs in Ukraine (a play out of the FSK, formerly KGB, playbook which suggests that Putin is contemplating the use of bio- or chemical weapons and is ready to throw sand in the world’s eyes by blaming the U.S. and/or NATO for their eventual use); and has even embedded Chinese journalists with Russian military units on the ground in Ukraine. On the other, China says its the friend of both Ukraine and Russia; talks about the need for the cessation of violence; offers publicly to mediate between the two sides while not actually taking any steps toward a mediation effort); and repeats the mantra of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as if Putin’s actions in Ukraine were taking place in some parallel universe.

There have been other related miscalculatiions. For instance, the PRC Government has been repeatedly caught off balance by the Biden Administration’s aggressive use of classified U.S. intelligence findings, with his Administration quickly de-classifying key reports and pushing the information out into the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. This began with President Biden’s sharing in real-time with the world the U.S. intelligence community’s pre-invasion assessments that Putin had made the decision to invade. This very public use of previously hush-hush intelligence findings marks a clear break from past White House precedent and has also been aimed at China in recent weeks: first, in divulging the fact that Xi Jinping had prior knowledge of the invasion from his Feb. 4th meeting with Putin and that Xi had, in fact, asked Putin to hold off on initiating that military operation until after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics; and, second, in disclosing publicly on the eve of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s March 14th meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi the fact that Beijing had received requests from Moscow for military and economic assistance to aid its war effort. These and other revelations have punctured China’s contrived public posture and shown that, behind the peaceful resolution rhetoric and thin veil of neutrality in the conflict, the reality is that China is not sitting on the fence but has indeed been coming down on Russia’s side.

The initial confusion in China’s response and now the growing evidence of China’s support, up to a point, for Russia were probably to be expected : under-the-table support for Putin was inevitable given the top-down nature of Chinese government decision-making and the personal investment which Xi had made in Putin and Russia just weeks earlier. Just as powerfully through, China wants to keep some fig-leaf semblance of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence policy because its repudiation would roil China’s international relations, among others, with its Belt & Road Initiative partner countries. Equally, it does not want to run afoul of the trip wire of U.S.-led financial and economic sanctions by aiding Russia overtly with military aid, financial relief or with trade in sanctioned commodities like microchips, especially following the stern warning delivered by Secretary Blinken earlier this week.

Over the last week, there are signs that the Beijing leadership is trying to “elevate” its initial indecision and aloofness into what it believes can be a long-term winning strategy for coming out ahead of the West when flames die out and the dust settles from the Ukraine conflagration. The Zhongnanhai thesis is that it is not worldwide supporters of post-WWII liberal democracy that are rallying to support Ukraine as much as it is a “civilizational” struggle between a Russian identity promulgated by Putin and a Western identity and set of values represented primarily by the U.S. and Europe. The thinking goes that, if China stands back from this clash, it can pick up the pieces and emerge stronger than either of the two depleted civilizational antagonists. This accords with Xi Jinping’s decade-long championing of the rejuvenation, and even superiority, of Han identity and the Chinese model. In Xi’s thinking, this policy of studious and disciplined aloofness — limited to cheering on Russia with “dog-whistle” encouragement and forms of back-channel support it can get away with while seizing opportunities to denigrate the West to his domestic audience and to countries in Central Asia, the Pacific, and Africa — has two clear advantages: (1) it avoids any risk for Xi in decisively backing ‘a loser’ in Putin, an outcome already sealed in his international pariah status and increasingly likely on the battlefield even if Kiev is taken and the war shifts to an insurgency; and (2) it gives Xi space to attend to the many immediate challenges facing him in the run-up to the critical Party Congress this fall where he is bidding for a third, controversial term as President. Those challenges include: a sharp fall-off in economic performance (brought on in part by excesses of his own Common Prosperity policy introduced over the past year; rapidly rising Covid case-counts and lock-downs in Shenzhen and Donguan in the south, in Shanghai and in Jilin to the northeast; and the recent hardening of attitudes toward China throughout much of the world as ably analyzed by Elizabeth Economy in The World According to China and in her Jan/Feb 2022 article in Foreign Affairs.

The jury is out but I submit that this policy of official aloofness may well prove to be Xi Jinping’s biggest and longest-lasting miscalculation with regard to Ukraine. Xi may think in ethno-nationalist terms, but much of the world’s response is underpinned by non-Western allies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore who have benefitted from, and are committed to upholding, the post-WWII order based on national sovereignity and the rule of law. In fact, it is Taiwan which represents and symbolizes the fullest repudiation of Xi’s thesis. Absent some mis-adventure by North Korea (which is a disturbing possibility) or a premature move by Xi to extinguish the symbol Taiwan represents (which I consider very unlikely in the near-term), Xi’s official ‘aloofness’ and sub-rosa support for Putin will be remembered by the world in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. There are times when a person, or a nation, must choose sides. Not choosing sides in such situations is, in fact, a choice that is noticed and remembered. Pretending not to choose sides while actually backing the ‘wrong side’ is morally repugnant. There is not a middle way.

On June 8th, the Biden Administration announced immediate actions it was taking to address near-term vulnerabilities in four critical supply chains as identified by a 100-day America’s Supply Chains assessment initiated in late February.  The four critical supply chains included in this announcement are: semiconductor manufacturing and advanced packaging; large capacity batteries, like those for electric vehicles; critical minerals and materials (so-called “rare earths”) used in smart phones, electric vehicles, wind turbines and other advanced technologies; and pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) used in vaccines and other applications.

Today’s post takes an initial high-level view of the critical supply chain for semiconductor manufacturing and examines the shifting fault-line of vulnerability.  Subsequent posts in the Global TECHtonics series will take a much closer look at these and related issues.


Photo: barks/Adobe Stock

What is the Fault-line?

The semiconductor supply chain fault-line runs directly under Taiwan, whose chip foundries produce 92% of the world’s most advanced microchips (which have transistors less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair).  The small island is caught between the tectonic forces of the China market (which accounts for 53% of global semiconductor consumption and the U.S. market (which accounts for the vast majority of the advanced designs on which Taiwan chip production is based).  In addition to these market forces, political dynamics add to the stresses along this fault-line.  While China claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, the U.S. has been serving as the guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence since 1949. In more recent years, the Trump Administration’s “Tariff War” against China has given impetus to a process of technology “de-coupling” which is forcing Taiwan companies – especially its preeminent foundry manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) – to choose between the fast-growing China market (34% revenue growth since 2014) and its slower growing (4% growth) but highly strategic U.S. customers, including the U.S. military. The fact, for instance, that 14 of TSMC’s 17 foundries worldwide (and all of its foundries capable of higher-end production above the 16 nanometer level) are located in Taiwan at a distance of just 90 miles from the PRC mainland adds to the tectonic friction.

What is the Trend-line?

Subsequent posts in the Global TECHtonic series (approximately two per month) will examine a broad range of dynamics in detail to include the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global microchip supply chains, specific dynamics within microchip subproduct categories (logic chips, analog chips, memory chips, etc), TSMC’s strategic response to the increasing global pressure and detailed analysis of trends within the U.S. semiconductor industry.  Today’s post will limit itself to two broad brush-strokes to suggest the general trend-line: (1) the twenty-year trend-line since 2001 and (2) the one-year trend-line since 2020.

  • The accession of China and Taiwan to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 led to hopes that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) supply chain tensions might start easing but, from 2008 at least, the opposite has proved true.  Following the Global Financial Crisis, market forces and competitive tensions increased pressures on ICT supply chains markedly and these pressures further accelerated starting in 2012 following the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2012.  (Readers interested in a deeper understanding of the ICT supply chain dynamics covering the period 2001-2008 can refer to Congressional Commission testimony I provided during the 107th, 108th and 109th Sessions of Congress as well as to my article in the edited volume Economic Integration, Democratization and National Security in East Asia (Peter Chow, Elgar Publishing) and my article in The Journal of Contemporary China (Volume 13, Number 40, 2006).
  • The past year has shown some notable shifts along this fault-line. In Taiwan, policies instituted by President Tsai Ing-wen have led to a small shift in Taiwan’s trading dependence on China and to larger shifts in the pattern of outbound and inbound investment involving China.  Specifically, the Tsai Administration’s New Southbound Policy has shifted a small portion of Taiwan’s trade in consumer electronics away from China in favor of Southeast Asian markets.  More notably, the “Invest Taiwan” program has exceeded its targets and much of the reinvestment in Taiwan comes as a result of production being repatriated from the mainland. As for outbound investment from Taiwan in ICT sectors, recent trends favor the U.S. as a destination rather than China.  In March 2020, TSMC announced that it would be building a $12 billion microchip production plant in Arizona.  Meanwhile, tighter regulations by Taiwan’s Investment Commission has led to a 60% drop in outbound investment to the mainland since 2018.

It is for these and other reasons that the New York Times recently proclaimed “pound for pound, Taiwan is the most important place in the world.”  The Strait of Hormuz may have been the world’s most dangerous fault-line in the 20th century oil economy.  In the 21st century, the tectonic pressures of the global economy now converge on the Strait of Taiwan.

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