Many prominent analysts believe that a crisis over the island is brewing and that the chances of war are highly likely.
‘China considers establishing full control over Taiwan to be its number one priority”, said Admiral John Aquilno during a Congressional hearing in March confirming him as the next commander of US forces in the Pacific. “We ought to be prepared today as in my opinion this problem is much closer to us than most think.” Retired General H.R. McMaster agrees. “Taiwan is the most significant flashpoint now that could lead to a large scale war”, said the former US National Security Adviser last month.
For the past four decades, the United States has played a critical role in deterring China from using force against Taiwan, as Beijing cannot be sure that the US would stand aside in the face of Chinese aggression. Similarly, the US has deterred Taiwan from seeking formal independence, as Taipei cannot be certain that the US would come to its defence should it provoke a Chinese assault. Taiwan has long been the most volatile issue between the US and China and both sides have avoided war by leaving unsettled the question of who actually owns the island.
So, is this “constructive ambiguity”, as President Joe Biden likes to call it, finally coming to an end? Is an increasingly more assertive President Xi Jinping about to pursue his aim to retake what he views as his country’s lost territory? Standing in his way are the US Pacific Fleet and Taiwanese voters who have twice elected a leader who rejects the claim that both sides are part of “one China”.
But why is Taiwan so important to Beijing? You have to go back to 1895 and the humiliating defeat of China’s Qing dynasty in losing Taiwan to Japan to understand why reunification of the island with mainland China has been a rallying cry for generations of Chinese. The current tensions date back to the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when American ally Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists abandoned the mainland to Mao Zedong’s Communists and established the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. Washington recognised Chiang as China’s rightful leader until former President Richard Nixon in 1979 established formal diplomatic relations with the communist government in Beijing. It was in the spirit of China “becoming one of us”, that Washington recognised the People’s Republic (PRC) as the sole legal government of China, without clarifying its position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Constructive ambiguity was born and Taiwan gradually transformed itself into a de facto independent democracy without formally declaring independence.
Since then, Taiwan has become one of the world’s most successful societies. A flourishing democracy governed by the rule of law, it holds fair and free elections, protects the political and human rights of its citizens, has an unfettered and competitive media, endorses religious diversity, and is a responsible international actor. Compare all this with the autocratic and shameful PRC, and it will be obvious why the population of 23 million are so reluctant to back re-unification. The figures speak for themselves. Last year, following the presidential elections which recorded an impressive 75% voter turnout, a survey revealed that 79.7% of those polled said that democracy was the best system of government for Taiwan.
With a high-tech (Taiwan dominates the world’s market in microchip technology) and sophisticated business culture, Taiwan became Asia’s top-performing economy in 2020, outgrowing the PRC for the first time. It came as strong global demand for the island’s tech exports outweighed the modest hit from Covid-19 (911 confirmed infections and 8 deaths to date), producing a 2.98% growth, by comparison with PRC’s 2.58%.
So it’s not surprising that a vibrant and wealthy society, with a GDP per capita almost three times that of the PRC is unenthusiastic about re-joining the mainland. Until recently, the former ruling party, the Kuomintang favoured closer ties with Beijing and eventual reunification, but China’s recent brutal actions in Hong Kong gave the Taiwanese a glimpse of their possible future. In his 2019 New Year’s Day message, Xi Jinping demanded that Taiwan look to the “one country two systems” approach as a model for future relations, but after the recent brutal crackdown in Hong Kong and Xi’s ratting on its “two systems” treaty, the Taiwanese people gave a resounding “No thanks”. In any case, young people in Taiwan have no emotional attachment to the past and want to preserve the only way of life they have known.
Without any possibility of a willing Taiwan re-joining the mainland, the only option left for Beijing to achieve its aim is to take the island by military force. Even Deng Xiaoping, Xi’s less aggressive predecessor, said in 1984 “If the problem (of Taiwan) cannot be solved by peaceful means, then it must be solved by force.” So is Xi making preparations for military action?
You might think so from the amount of Chinese military activity in the region. Last year, 380 incursions by Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace were recorded. Only last week, more than 20 Chinese military aircraft, some nuclear capable, conducted exercises simulating an operation against US warships off the island’s coast. Two months earlier, Chinese fighter jets and bombers had simulated missile attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, spending two days flying in and out of Taiwan’s air-defence zone, just days after Joe Biden was inaugurated as US President.
And it’s not just in the air. A year ago, China sailed one of its two aircraft carriers (two more, both nuclear powered, are being built) in a show of force through the Taiwan Straits, one of the world’s most heavily militarised areas. China’s naval forces have hugely increased over the past decade, even overtaking the US. For the past five years the country produced five times as many ships per year as the US Navy. The Chinese navy is now projected to have more than 550 ships and submarines by 2030, while the US navy struggles to figure out how to get 350. Many of the ships being built by Beijing are amphibious warfare vessels, which coupled with an expanding marine corps, would play a critical role in any possible invasion of Taiwan.
But would it actually be in Beijing’s interests to carry out a full invasion? Although possible, this option would involve enormous risks, not just to Taiwan but also to China, whose image around the world would suffer a catastrophic decline. The United States would also face the dilemma of whether to intervene, potentially sparking a war between two superpowers. China will probably judge that the costs of violent confrontation of this kind would be too high, compared to the benefits, leaving an invasion as a last resort.
A more likely scenario would be China’s use of military power to control access to the island by air and sea, effectively affirming sovereign control over Taiwan, while allowing the people to run their own affairs. With the US sending large amounts of weapon systems to Taiwan which theoretically could be used against China, Beijing could argue that this action is simply analogous to the United States’ action against Cuba in 1962. The groundwork for this “quarantine” scenario was laid in January this year when China passed a new law allowing its coastguard ships to use “all necessary means” against foreign vessels, and to board and inspect such vessels in waters claimed by Beijing.
A third scenario is that China demonstrates its power and intentions by invading one or more of the many offshore islands controlled by Taiwan—the “Crimea” option. This could be Taiping Island in the Spratly group, or the Pratas islands (also called Dongsha) closer to China and Taiwan, or perhaps the Penghu Islands (also called the Pescadores) nearer Taiwan. Right off-shore of mainland China are Kinmen and Matsu islands, both with significant populations of thousands of people, which would be the simplest to invade. Beijing could be tempted to gamble that the Taiwanese defenders of these islands would not fight and simply capitulate, making this option a low risk activity. But what would China have achieved in this scenario? Rather than settling the underlying issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty, they might have only aggravated it.
So how likely is it that China will use any of these scenarios against Taiwan? Many prominent analysts believe that a crisis over the island is brewing and that the chances of war are highly likely. The commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, told a Senate committee this year that he expects action in the next six years or sooner. However, other experts believe that Beijing will only apply pressure on Taiwan just below the threshold of triggering military response from the US, but sufficient to convince the population of Taiwan that they have no choice but to be part of China.
All eyes are on two dates when Jinping could decide to make a move on Taiwan: 1 July this year, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party; and the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress in October 2022, key to confirming Xi’s extended position as the Chinese leader for a third term. Although Xi Jinping looks reasonably secure, he has plenty of enemies. More than one million party members have been incarcerated or punished by Xi’s extra-judicial anti-corruption campaign. Top party officials always play cards close to their chests, but it is thought that not all are happy with Xi’s performance. Will he decide to increase his popularity at home and secure a third term by emulating Putin’s “Crimea” approach? Just as Putin revived his flagging popularity by a military venture abroad, so Xi Jinping could secure his future by using military force to achieve China’s cherished aim of bringing Taiwan back into the fold. Will he therefore decide that it is time to start making use of the military capacity China has spent more than two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars building? We may soon find out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.