一箭双雕：one arrow, two hawks. This idiom, analogous to the Western “kill two birds with one stone,” appears frequently in Chinese politics, most recently in Xi Jinping’s recent financial sector purge: a move to simultaneously eliminate corruption while silencing political opposition. Xi’s China faces two massive targets gatekeeping its road to “great-power” status, which it has given itself until 2049 to attain: departure from an unsustainable zero COVID policy and reunification with Taiwan. If Xi Jinping really wants to earn the resurrected title of Party Chairman, he can prove it by felling both targets with one carefully aimed shot.
The first target has plagued the Communist Party since its inception in 1949: Mao gave his new regime a century to retake Taiwan, and that charge remains unfulfilled. An unprecedented, unrivaled “great-power” China — as the Chinese Dream goes — necessitates a clear, incontrovertible definition of self. The new “modern socialist nation,” the first in the history of the world, cannot step into its new shoes with the pronouncement of “separatism” lingering right off its shores, inflamed by the world’s dominant hegemon, the United States. Continuing to entertain what China deems a “breakaway province” means cementing a century-long rejection of its territorial integrity—hardly the behavior of a “great power.”
But when evaluating how China can accomplish grand objectives like this, many tend to focus solely on the means by which it can do so. China possesses the means to invade Taiwan. Most defense officials and military experts agree that China could invade now, albeit with an indeterminate price. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (the largest navy in the world by number of vessels) commands over 300,000 personnel, 2 aircraft carriers, 51 destroyers, and 79 submarines. Hence, facing an America distracted by internal division, global disengagement, and a potential European war with Russia, Xi is blessed with strong odds. What he lacks is a manner of capturing Taiwan without facing international alienation and devastating punishment.
China’s second target, the eventual dismantling of its zero-COVID policy, proves even harder to attain, yet even more necessary to secure the nation’s continued growth. For a government which has worked for over two years to eradicate the virus–devoting more resources and attention to this task than any other on the planet–abandoning this mindset is no easy task. Xi has even declared this great struggle a “people’s war”. Inviting the virus, then, amounts to surrender.
For just as with Taiwan, China also has the means to eventually forsake its zero-COVID strategy: though its vaccines are largely ineffective, it administered over two billion doses in merely nine months. Such a feat it could presumably replicate with a more effective shot. It constructed an entirely new hospital in just ten days and has been steadily bolstering its deficient healthcare services. It has already purchased Pfizer’s Paxlovid drug and it possesses more than enough money and favor to secure at least two billion doses of an effective mRNA vaccine. China can take as long as it needs to prepare its population for the onslaught of COVID, and, if it opens after implementing these measures, it may not see deaths or hospitalizations exceeding the worst end of a particularly bad year of influenza.
But it won’t. Because what China lacks is a manner of ending zero-COVID that neither triggers pandemonium in a populace shell trained to fear the appearance of a single case, nor leaves the West the opportunity to expose China’s failed gambit — for taking far too long to recognize the success and inevitability of the Western post-vaccination strategy. Facing castigation not only for starting the pandemic but also for failing to escape from it, Xi’s China risks a chorus of ridicule, to which a nation constantly reminded of its “century of humiliation” will not respond well. Xi, the driver of China’s rejuvenation, cannot accept such shame.
But abandoning zero-COVID remains, nevertheless, imperative. Incessant lockdowns threaten the integrity of global supply chains and encourage corporations to look elsewhere. Though high foreign direct investment in China endures, the impossibility of business travel makes forging new relationships and importing innovation more difficult — critical for a nation whose indigenous innovation is not yet self-reliant. Travel restrictions make exchange of citizens and diplomats sparse, leaving China further isolated in a Pacific climate that demands alliances. Most importantly, zero COVID hampers economic growth, China’s most powerful engine for rejuvenation: the IMF already downgraded this year’s GDP growth target by a full percentage point. An eternal zero-COVID China forces an exchange of “great power” status for “great pariah” damnation.
Most importantly, a zero-COVID China cannot invade Taiwan. Barely able to host the Beijing Olympics without viral spillover, China can hardly shuttle half a million soldiers to and from the island without instigating a massive outbreak. Hong Kong’s dramatic surge paints a vivid preview of the potential nightmare in a state without mass inoculation by an effective vaccine. Moreover, a heavily immunized Taiwan faces every incentive to deliberately spread COVID to China, destabilizing its aggressor as a last resort of staving off subjugation. Maintaining zero-COVID policies ad infinitum bars China from reunification, and, hence, from ascendancy to great-power status.
That is, China declared an unwinnable war for which it will accept no terms of surrender, either to the virus itself or to a world that has moved on to other contests.
So, it must change the war. It will employ the art of distraction to shift the front from the “dissident virus” to the “dissident province.” Preparation for battle will take the form of properly vaccinating the Chinese people and bolstering healthcare for the fight with COVID: except the spotlight will shift to Taiwan, when the opportunity for war arises. War with Taiwan will give China the opportunity to simply stop counting COVID cases and its properly immunized population will dispel fears of mass hospitalizations. China will surrender nothing and distract the populace with a far grander campaign. Reports of the infrequent COVID case or two roil Chinese media because they can. Glaringly apparent are ripples in a tranquil pond; in a tumultuous sea, they are invisible.
The simultaneous timing remains essential to success. Delaying an invasion of Taiwan until long after the end of the pandemic will see an aged Xi Jinping who risks deferring the fulfillment of Chairman Mao’s hundred-year goal to another hand. For China’s aspiring next “Chairman,” ceding this opportunity seems to cede his place in history, keeping him forever in the shadow of his predecessor.
Likewise, invading Taiwan in the next 1-5 years but after opening up ensures instability not once but twice. China will fall victim to homegrown hysteria amidst millions of COVID positives from which China has prepared no distraction and face embarrassment for copying the Western post-vaccination success story, The dust will settle, only to be shaken anew.
一箭双雕. Simultaneity ensures the best success. Two hawks for the price of one. And one arrow spared.
The absence of any exit path from China’s zero-COVID policy offers a painful but remarkably efficient opportunity to weather two transitions with one fell swoop. China will bite the bullet that follows an invasion of Taiwan. It will stage the conflict of the century precisely when the previous act needs to end.
Most of the world will be cheering when once again the gates of China open to foreigners. Families will be reunited, tourism will bring back its billions in revenue, and millions trapped in the cross-Pacific divide will be able to resume their pre-pandemic livelihoods. China’s economic engine will boom again, and so will the world’s.
But preparations for re-engagement with a post-COVID world will, more sinisterly, also mean preparation for a post-COVID united China.
Amidst this euphoria, Taiwan should shudder.
Andrew DeWeese is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in Classics and Global Affairs. His research interests lie in US-China great power competition and the Roman and Athenian empires. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.