Argument

China Is Still Wary of Invading Taiwan

Despite a faltering United States, Beijing is unlikely to cross the Taiwan Strait during the pandemic.

Members of a special squad of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy 7th Escort Task Force take part in a joint drill with the Tanzanian marine corps at a Navy base in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on March 29, 2011.
Members of a special squad of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy 7th Escort Task Force take part in a joint drill with the Tanzanian marine corps at a Navy base in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on March 29, 2011. Xinhua/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

U.S.-China relations have never been worse. Verbal sparring between a Trump administration determined to find someone to blame for the pandemic and China’s aggressive diplomats pushing conspiracy theories has exacerbated tensions and overshadowed previous pandemic cooperation, including donations of tons of equipment and antiviral medicines to Wuhan and Chinese exports of personal protective equipment to major U.S. cities. With bilateral trade crashing, diplomatic relations at their worst, and a politically divided United States fighting an epidemic, this seems like an opportune time for Chinese President Xi Jinping to achieve a critical element of his “China Dream” and call on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to force Taiwan to unify with the People’s Republic. But despite a recent outbreak of jingoistic language, the chances of China’s military crossing the Taiwan Strait to subdue the self-governing island still remain small.

China has flexed its military muscles on its periphery throughout the pandemic, flying fighters across the centerline of the strait and bomber encirclement missions around Taiwan. Maritime missions in the South China Sea have included deploying an aircraft carrier, a survey ship now operating in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, and coast guard vessels ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.

China’s threats directed at Taiwan go beyond demonstrations of military might. On Jan. 15, a spokesperson for the Beijing-run Taiwan Affairs Office noted that calls for “reunification by force” were growing on the mainland, and on April 15, the office published an article articulating China’s long-standing triggers for a military attack of Taiwan.

This bellicosity is worrying. Xi has given every indication that his grand vision, the China Dream, and his own place in history require China-sized accomplishments on par with the country’s great emperors—the first emperor’s unification of China, the Great Wall, Kangxi’s economic dominance, Qianlong’s conquering of China’s periphery, and Jiang Zemin’s reclaiming of Hong Kong. The Belt and Road Initiative’s messy legacy of debt-driven diplomacy and half-finished projects does not do his imperial legacy justice.

Taiwan, however, is not playing along with China’s plans, with all trends on the island pointing to political, social, and economic divergence from the mainland. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has just been elected to a second term and remains steadfastly committed to engaging the mainland from a position of equality without acknowledging China’s “One China” policy. Taiwan’s citizens themselves increasingly identify themselves as Taiwanese, rather than part of China. Taiwan’s businesses are joining their global counterparts in reducing their reliance on China by shifting production to cheaper Southeast Asia or back home to Taiwan itself. Taiwan is not going to unify with China of its own free will.

Twenty years of military buildup gives Xi a military option to solve a policy problem that his predecessors didn’t have. What had been impossible in the past is theoretically possible now.

The coronavirus has also driven the risk of miscalculation higher. It’s possible that China perceives the United States as weak and too inwardly focused to deal with a conflict in the Western Pacific, particularly as China congratulates itself for winning its own war against the coronavirus and the United States continues to flail. Widespread reporting of the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the decision to recall Guam-based B-52 bombers to the U.S. mainland, may cause Beijing to perceive U.S. military readiness for a conflict at a low point. Meanwhile, although the truth is hard to discern, the PLA has not admitted that a single case of COVID-19 affects its troops.

Yet despite the triumphal tone in public, China is far from ready to launch an invasion of Taiwan. 

China’s leaders are far from confident in the Communist Party’s ability to remain in power, to the point of paranoia, and continually emphasize the threats and risks that they face, both internally and externally. China’s top think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, reportedly advised party members in an internal report to prepare for armed conflict with the United States, which is driving global anti-China sentiment in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic to levels not seen since 1989. Initiating a war over Taiwan in the face of both internal and external threats is the greatest risk imaginable.

Regardless of these risks, invading Taiwan would not be a cakewalk. Taiwan has been upgrading and reforming its defense over the past decade, adopting an asymmetric strategy designed to capitalize on its strengths to counter PLA power projection capabilities. U.S. President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, and his administration’s steadfast support for Taiwan, makes it impossible for Xi to believe China’s hawks who claim that the United States is unwilling to brave the costs of coming to Taiwan’s defense. Japan’s steady turn away from China also raises doubt about whether it would sit out a Taiwan contingency.

An even bigger factor is the global economic impact of the pandemic and whether or not economic decline in China is long- or short-term and whether it causes persistently high unemployment, public dissatisfaction, and domestic unrest, which will focus the immediate attention of senior leaders in Beijing to these internal challenges. The uncertainty of the global economy, shifting trade and investment trends, and high debt-to-GDP ratios also argue against Beijing starting a potentially costly war.

I do not believe that Beijing will start a war with Taiwan to distract from domestic problems either, since it is unlikely that the Politburo will want to create major new risks on top of growing existing ones. There is no historical precedent for China starting external wars to distract from internal problems either, even though China has used force in the past against its neighbors India and Vietnam. Those conflicts were initiated to signal the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser extent, the United States), not to distract from internal challenges. China was enjoying the novelty of domestic stability with Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power and normalizing relations with the United States after a decade of turmoil during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong when it initiated its invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

In 1962, China calculated that the United States was distracted by the Cuban missile crisis and would not intervene on India’s side in its border conflict with China. Almost 60 years later, China’s critical calculation remains the disposition of the United States.

Retired PLA Air Force Maj. Gen. Qiao Liang recently argued that retaking Taiwan by force would prove too costly, “unless it’s almost certain that COVID-19 will lead to the collapse of the United States.” While retired generals may preach caution, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, the unit responsible for mounting a Taiwan invasion, last month published four saber-rattling articles on its Weibo account to mark “National Security Awareness Day,” quoting Mao’s famous 1949 essay denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle!”

Can we rule out that China will seek to unify Taiwan by force in the midst of the pandemic? No, but it is the job of military planners to prepare for such a contingency.

Only the reunification of Taiwan is a fitting accomplishment for Xi’s legacy. The anti-corruption campaign and the Belt and Road Initiative are significant, but their success alone would not guarantee Xi a spot in the pantheon of great Chinese leaders, nor would it protect him and his family from his successor’s own anti-corruption campaign, which undoubtedly will also be used for the next leader’s political gain. But the risks of achieving Taiwan reunification by force in the midst of an economic downturn and global pandemic are likely to be assessed as far too high.

Should Xi openly continue as China’s paramount leader following the 20th Party Congress in 2022, he’ll have five more years to achieve his China Dream. Of course, if conditions are not right during the 20th sitting of the Central Committee, at the age of 74 he could convince them that to achieve the China Dream he must remain in power at the 21st Party Congress—starting in 2027. Serving at the top of four Central Committees is not unprecedented. Mao served from the 7th until his death during the 10th. Perhaps Xi will also negotiate for a promotion and reintroduce Mao’s title of “chairman”—or perhaps he’ll wait to have the military victory that justifies it.

Drew Thompson is a former US Defence Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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