top of page
  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Year-End Review on China’s Threat to Global Security

As we move into the new year, it is important to reflect on the world’s international security environment in 2023 The Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community is a yearly intelligence report that outlines the most important national security threats to the United States each year. Reviewing the main points of this document and recounting China’s actions will better prepare us for security challenges in 2024.  

A Peaceful Era? 

The Biden-Xi meeting alongside November’s APEC summit in San Francisco yielded surprising results. The meeting focused on improving bilateral communication and collaboration on transnational issues. Its positive tone was surprising to China watchers, as it comes amid US-China security, economic, and technological competition, leading observers to wonder if the meeting marks a shift in Chinese political behavior. The 2023 Annual Threat Assessment gives a good understanding of China’s long-term political vision. This vision includes  maintaining efforts to make China East Asia’s preeminent power, pressing Taiwan on unification, and undercutting US influence, all while supporting its own authoritarian system. These goals have been decades in the making and will not easily be traded for more favorable relations with the United States. The Assessment lays this out clearly, by stating…

“At the same time, China’s leaders probably will seek opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when they believe it suits their interests.”

…and suit their interests it does. While neither side wants a war over Taiwan, China has a lot to lose. State-centered economic policies to reduce dependence on foreign technology, speed up military modernization, enforce Covid-19 lockdowns, and crackdown on dissent have undermined private sector growth and inhibited growth for household incomes. Combined with high corporate debt, economic inequality, an aging population, and lower workforce participation, China’s economy is fragile and would not survive the stresses of a wartime scenario. Additionally, the death of former Premier Li Keqiang on October 27, 2023 put immediate political pressure on Xi Jinping. Li was seen as an economic reformer within the Chinese Communist Party, and his death symbolizes the end of an era of relative openness and economic growth. Although Li was buried with full honors, his funeral was intentionally kept small to prevent public resentment over China’s political situation or from turning him into a symbol of solidarity. In this same line of thinking, it made political sense, not just economic sense, for Xi Jinping to signal his openness to the United States by meeting with President Biden.  

China’s Tone on Taiwan

China’s stance on Taiwan is complex and has evolved over time. The Chinese Communist Party officially adheres to the “One China” policy, which asserts that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of China’s territory. The One China policy is not concerning on its own, but it has been coupled with the threat of force by the PLA to forcibly take the island. In recent years, China has become increasingly assertive in its pursuit of reunification with Taiwan.As predicted by the 2023 Threat Assessment, China has increased pressure on Taiwan in 2023 in several ways, including increased military activity around the island, with PLA Air Force incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and across the median line. China has also been putting diplomatic pressure on other countries to sever formal and informal ties with Taiwan. The CCP has used economic coercion against Taiwan, which includes politically motivated import restrictions and limited access to its market. Now, with Taiwan’s upcoming 2024 Presidential elections, China has increased information warfare to sow discord among the Taiwanese population. Beijing cannot easily shift away from these pressure campaigns, despite Xi Jinping’s change in rhetoric. While meeting with President Biden, Xi stated that China does not have imminent plans to invade Taiwan, but did reiterate Beijing’s intention to unify Taiwan with the mainland. A hopeful observer of the Biden-Xi meeting would assume that less aggressive rhetoric would lead to the cessation of hostilities toward Taiwan. However, one must remember that the Chinese Communist Party has not renounced the use of force as an option to unify Taiwan under its rule. Aggressive behavior toward Taiwan is only Beijing’s expression of its underlying desire to position itself to take Taiwan by force in the future. 

Prolonged Conflict in the South China Sea

As it has with Taiwan, China has been using coordinated, whole-of-government action to demonstrate its strength to compel neighboring states to make political concessions, particularly in the South China Sea. China has claimed the vast majority of the South China Sea, with its claims overlapping those of neighboring countries. China has also been the most aggressive claimant, with the country using its navy, coast guard, and non-state actors to intimidate, harass, and harm government and civilian vessels of other claimants. The 2023 Annual Threat Assessment accurately articulated this behavior in February of this year, stating:

"In the South China Sea, Beijing will continue to use growing numbers of air, naval, coast guard, and militia forces to intimidate rival claimants to attempt to signal that China has effective control over contested areas. Similarly, China is pressuring Japan over contested areas in the East China Sea."

Language in the document illustrates that China’s actions are directed at multiple countries in the region. Questions over whether the United States and China can coexist as two world powers tend to leave out the fate of China’s neighbors who bear the brunt of harassment. On September 19, 2023, Xi Jinping emphasized his desire for peaceful co-existence with the United States,

"Looking to the future, China and the United States, as two major countries, bear more important responsibilities for world peace, stability and development.""They should and must achieve mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation."

Xi Jinping’s own words imply a duty on both sides to maintain peace and stability. However, while his diplomatic rhetoric has changed with his meeting with President Biden, China’s actions and underlying motivations have not. The Annual Threat Assessment looks at trends in China’s behavior and political motivations to give us a prediction on how the CCP will exercise its power. While this intelligence assessment report was written about threats expected in 2023, it provides important insights into China’s long-term ambitions, security dynamics, actor behavior, and policy implications for 2024. 

This article was previously published on The News Lens on December 25, 2023.


bottom of page