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5th April 2024

Former Speaker of the House of Lords Baroness D’Souza on China: “The threat is real”

Baroness Frances D’Souza


There are three questions that come to mind in considering post-election Taiwan in a changing world.  These will focus on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in relation to the Indo Pacific Region but most especially, on Taiwan itself.

The questions are as follows:

What does China want?
How does it aim to achieve its goals?
Will it succeed?

As you will all know only too well, the West, by which I mean the UK, US and Europe, have consistently viewed the PRC through the prism of western democratic standards and an internationally accepted rules-based order. I’m not sure this is the most fruitful standard to analyse the PRC and its domestic and foreign policies if we want to understand China’s intentions.

Looking at the various statements issued by the increasingly powerful President Xi Jinping over the last decade and more, the PRC is almost entirely focused on a Sino-centric approach – meaning that every policy, both domestic and foreign, is designed only to benefit China. Thus, Xi believes that the existing world order is biased against China and would be greatly improved if it evolved to embrace Chinese leadership – which he, and the greater majority of the population, see as an inherent force for good.

This vision of China goes back to ancient history and aims to see China once again as the centre of civilisation, engaging with the world on its own terms, spreading knowledge and providing material benefit. Xi wishes to recreate the world order thereby righting an historic wrong and putting China’s interests and values above those of the rest of the world. The belief in the supremacy of Chinese systems and thought is in President Xi’s DNA and helps us to understand better, if not condone, some of the more aggressive actions of recent years. For example the ‘We Are One People’ mantra justifies the regime’s actions against the Uyghurs – with a complete disregard of the UN’s characterisation of forceful assimilation as a crime against humanity and possibly constituting genocide. This Sino-centric approach is presented to the world as altruistic, moral, and inclusive but is in fact self-centred, hierarchical, illiberal and coercive.

So, the prevailing philosophy is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and this ‘dream’ Xi has said will be achieved by 2050. Make China Great Again! The overriding condition for this rejuvenation is regime security, which Xi is taking to a new level, in order to formulate, implement and adjust Chinese foreign policy. Addressing new recruits to the People’s Liberation Army Xi has said their principal task is to enable China to ‘reclaim its place in the sun’, and this in turn entails recovering ‘lost territories’, establishing regional hegemony and furthering China’s global ambitions.

His global ambitions are considerable. Xi argues that all countries must respect different political systems and assert that democracies are not superior to authoritarian regimes and therefore have no right to criticise the latter, especially on human rights and governance. He also aims to deter, or even defeat, the pre-eminent economic position of the USA, which would in Xi’s view substantially alter the global balance of power and establish China’s standing as a superpower. Finally, he wishes to extend the ‘soft power’ of Belt and Road initiatives especially in poorer countries, to gain leverage and control in loan repayments.

Xi has spelt out and continues to refine an ideology to be accepted by the world. His pronouncements set out China’s direction of travel for the next decade and more, and is having a major impact on the world generally, but the Indo-Pacific region in particular.

Again, you will be familiar with what China wishes to achieve in the short term: connect more closely with adversarial regimes such as Russia and North Korea and play an increasingly influential leadership roles in multilateral forums such as the UN, CPTTP and ASEAN.

And then we come to Taiwan: in 2021 Xi said: ‘No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s powerful determination, will and ability to defend state sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ Recovery of Taiwan is vital for China’s geostrategic defence and offence but more than this, it is regarded as sacred territory, and this legitimises all the intimidation to which it is subjected by China.

Mechanisms include legal, political, and psychological warfare; endless cyber-attacks, military harassment and brinkmanship, aggressive attacks in the South China sea, economic espionage, and regular spreading of disinformation. They also include isolation of Taiwan on the international front, including threatening those countries which have hitherto enjoyed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The brutal National Security Law now being implemented in Hong Kong together with the astonishing offer of a bounty of $1 million for defectors, or promoters of freedom beyond Hong Kong, is a chilling reminder that the ‘one country, two systems’ promise is truly dead. In all these actions China is continuously testing the readiness of the International Community to hold it accountable to International Standards.

Given the CCP appears intent on taking over Taiwan, how real is the threat, what is being done, what does the new administration in Taipei have to offer and what must it avoid? Furthermore what is the wider impact in the region and what can be done?

The threat is real, and we are warned by serious China scholars that we should not take this lightly. Admiral Aquilino, head of the US Indo Pacific Command said at a Congressional hearing that in his view the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be able to attack Taiwan in 2027, even by force if necessary.

China not only has a far-reaching strategy but tactics to which President Xi requires conformity by every citizen. The problem is that neither the US nor the UK appear, as yet, to have a strategy but have instead what some have defined as a muddled and inconsistent approach. The US policy of strategic ambiguity virtually encourages the CPP to test the West’s resolve to strenuously oppose any armed threat aimed at Taiwan. There are very few clear red lines.

Is the future bleak for Taiwan and indeed for many other countries in the Indo-Pacific region? Would it be a good idea to wait until, as one expert has said, the Chinese Communist Party falls under the weight of its own internal contradictions? Another commentator writes that China faces a near-existential dilemma over its macroeconomic strategy due in large part to its over-reliance on property and infrastructure development. The accumulated debt by property developers and local government infrastructure expenditure has reached $2.5 trillion. It could take many decades to eliminate this debt. It is difficult to predict how the economy can improve dramatically in the next decade due to the possible over-production of manufactured electronic items flooding international markets. And, of course, China also faces the looming problem of an ageing population dependent on pensions, with an ever decreasing work-force.

Let me summarise, China is intent upon usurping the supremacy of the USA and will restructure its economic policies and military strategies to control the international shipping lanes to control, and therefore influence, trade, to their own advantage. It aims to subdue neighbouring states or, as in case of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, secure long leasehold on geostrategic territory. The economic about-turn as articulated by Premier Li Qiang focuses on economic growth underpinned by advanced manufacturing. In steering rapidly away from infrastructure development, the President has forbidden any public building in at least ten provinces. This will have consequences – particularly for employment. Let us not forget that the legitimacy and stability of the Chinese Communist Party is almost entirely dependent on a successful and growing economy.

Given the future dangers the country faces, I have to say that I would not relish being the new President of Taiwan. Nor am I in any position to suggest a way forward. However, I note that President Lai will have greater difficulty in getting innovative laws through the legislative Yuan – given the DPP’s loss of a majority. This will be especially the case for divisive issues such as defence spending and strategy, and likely to be exploited by the PRC.

I am perhaps better placed to suggest what a new government in the UK could do; in the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine, we have woken up to the real danger China poses in this region. The task is to make it abundantly clear that we will take action including public and frequent condemnation of ‘grey zone’ attacks, the imposition of Magnitsky sanctions against selected Chinese officials; reducing the number of Chinese students accepted for further study in the UK; strict prohibitions on the importation of any technology capable of surveillance including electronic cars and all cellular IOT modules; establish full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This would undoubtedly provoke retaliatory action from China, but would also signal to the world that the de facto independence of Taiwan must progress toward a de jure state.

Impose strict criminal sentences on any attempts to kidnap or harm in any way – Chinese citizens, whether from Hong Kong, or defectors. Finally, as we all know that co-ordinated action is more effective and thus the UK, in its international relations, must help to build a body of consensus among nations to resist Chinese encroachment on freedoms. There will be an economic cost to all trading partners but the cost of not taking multilateral action now will be far, far greater.

The overall message to the PRC must be first, that the world will not allow the Chinese destiny of territorial acquisition, the bullying and flouting of the existing rules-based order to prevail and that the consequences of gross intransigence will be severe. Second, a war between the West and China would be an unmitigated catastrophe affecting China as much as it would affect the entire world. This is the reason why China’s territorial ambitions must be confronted.


This is an edited version of a talk given at the Graduate Institute of Journalism, Taiwan, Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club in April 2024

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