China’s Provocations Around Taiwan Aren’t a Crisis

Despite alarm bells in Washington, the risk of action is low.

Female soldiers wearing face masks stand in formation on a U.S.-made M110A2 self-propelled howitzer during Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to a military base in Tainan on April 9.
Female soldiers wearing face masks stand in formation on a U.S.-made M110A2 self-propelled howitzer during Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to a military base in Tainan on April 9. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

A growing chorus of commentators and experts are warning that China is exploiting the pandemic to advance its interests in the Western Pacific. With Washington distracted and the U.S. military handicapped due to COVID-19 infections, some observers believe that China may see no better opportunity to use force to unify Taiwan with the mainland. Yet, even if Beijing were to interpret the distraction and chaos wrought by the novel coronavirus as a uniquely advantageous moment, a Chinese military strike on Taiwan at this moment is unlikely.

A recent uptick in military provocations has fueled suspicion that China is preparing to attack the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) have conducted as many as 10 transits and military exercises near Taiwan since mid-January, including multiple deliberate incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. In November 2016, China began sending PLAAF sorties to circumnavigate the island and in March 2019, two PLAAF J-11 fighters deliberately crossed the centerline of the Taiwan Strait for the first time in 20 years. On two occasions this year, dozens of PLAAF aircraft crossed the centerline. This past March witnessed multiple PLAAF aircraft taking part in a rare nighttime drill above waters southwest of Taiwan. On April 9, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and five warships crossed the Miyako Strait between Taiwan and Japan.

This growing assertiveness has raised alarm bells in Washington. In one recent example, a report released on May 12 by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission contends that with “the world distracted by COVID-19” China has “intensified its multi-faceted pressure campaign against Taiwan.”

There is certainly evidence that some in China are pushing for the use of force. During a Georgetown University webinar on April 16, one of China’s top experts on the United States, Wang Jisi, warned that hawkish voices in China have suggested that “U.S. preoccupation in the election year and over the pandemic provides a good opportunity to solve the Taiwan issue by forceful means.” Wang also noted that some Chinese are proposing that China “amend the anti-secession law to make room for us to move on to the military solution to the Taiwan issue.” China’s Anti-Secession Law entered force in 2005 and formalizes the policy that “non-peaceful means” can be used to forestall “Taiwan independence.” Wang’s comments imply that there is a push internally to revise the law to justify an attack for situations beyond those the law currently outlines, which include Taiwan’s secession from China or the exhaustion of possibilities for peaceful reunification.

A survey of recently published open-source Chinese writings provides additional clarity on Wang Jisi’s warning. In early April, Wang Yunfei, a Chinese naval expert and retired PLA naval officer , published a popular article (soon taken offline) on in which he contends that now is the time for military action against Taiwan.[1] Wang furthermore suggests that the mainland “can use this chance to test the United States’ bottom line on the cross-strait situation.” Calls for military action have also come from the official WeChat account of the Eastern Theater Command (ETC). A series of articles calling for China to prepare for war were posted by the ETC in mid-April and contributed to the “Eastern Theater Command” tag trending on Weibo.

Even some legal commentators have joined the mix. Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University, published an article on May 7 on nationalist site declaring that political and social developments in Taiwan have made peaceful reunification impossible. He asserts that the 2005 Anti-Secession Law provides the necessary legal authority to resolve the issue by force.

Other Chinese voices offer more temperate views. A few days after Wang Yunfei’s article was taken down, Yang Chengjun, a retired missile technology and nuclear strategy expert formerly with the PLA Rocket Force, expressed a more moderate view in an article on a website managed by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). Lending credence to the notion that there is a push to seize the opportunity presented by the pandemic to attack Taiwan, Yang argued explicitly that the outbreak should not be viewed as an enabler of unification through the use of force. A similarly cautious tone was echoed by retired air force Maj. Gen. Qiao Liang in an interview in Bauhinia Magazine on May 1 (and later reported by the South China Morning Post on May 4). Although Qiao is generally considered to hold hawkish views, he warned that taking Taiwan by force would be “too costly” and would “jeopardize China’s goal of national rejuvenation.”

Public advocacy against using force is further evidence that there are influential proponents within China pressing Beijing to strike Taiwan now—but also that the debate has not got to a point where standing against an invasion is too risky to be done publicly. At a minimum, it is obvious that there is a debate underway, although it is difficult to know precisely what is being discussed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues. There is ample indication that Beijing is concerned Taiwan will benefit from the pandemic. In a statement on Feb. 14, TAO spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang criticized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities in Taiwan, saying “their real intention is to seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic.” This same accusation has appeared in at least seven statements by the TAO since Ma’s comments. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying reiterated similar rebukes on April 9 and May 6, respectively.

The Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly feels insecure in the face of global criticism of its lack of transparency during the early days of the outbreak and its efforts to quash investigation into the origins of COVID-19. This pushback is happening at a time when the United States and other countries are praising Taiwan for its exemplary performance in curbing the outbreak and keeping the island’s death count low. Several members of the global community are now pushing for Taiwan’s observer status to the World Health Assembly to be reinstated.

China will seek to head off any erosion of its sovereignty claim over Taiwan or deterioration in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, but that does not mean Beijing is poised to use outright force as a means to those ends. While there is no denying there has been an increase in Chinese pressure against Taiwan since the beginning of the pandemic, there is also no known evidence to suggest that Xi has fundamentally altered his strategic calculus.

Since coming to power in the fall of 2012, Xi, like his predecessors, has consistently signaled that reunifying Taiwan with mainland China is inexorable. In a speech delivered on Jan. 2, 2019, the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi declared that “our country must be reunified, and will surely be reunified.” He reiterated that reunification is “critical to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era,” a statement he first made in his political report to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.

Xi has twice maintained that political differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait “should not be passed down generation after generation.” These statements indicate that Xi has the ambition to set in motion an irreversible trend toward reunification and wants to make progress toward this goal during his term in office. They do not, however, demonstrate that unifying the country is such an urgent priority that other interests should be put at risk. Although Xi has adopted tougher tactics, he has adhered to the guideline of pursuing “the peaceful development of cross-strait relations,” which he inherited from his predecessor Hu Jintao. Moreover, Xi has resisted pressure from various constituencies, including retired military commanders, to conclude that time is no longer in China’s favor and that Beijing’s policy is a failure.

Even if Xi did wish to reconsider his position, he would still face the hard reality that a strike against Taiwan would compromise China’s other ambitions. Using the PLA to force unification would likely precipitate a U.S.-China military confrontation that could escalate into a broader conflict. Even if confrontation remained limited, an anti-China coalition might coalesce as countries across the Indo-Pacific recalculate their strategic thinking to account for a deterioration of the status quo. This would severely damage China’s international relations, thereby jeopardizing the technology transfers that undergird Made in China 2025 and threatening the partnerships needed to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Military action against Taiwan could embolden proponents of greater independence for Hong Kong, creating further challenges for the Chinese Communist Party. An all-out invasion of Taiwan might bog down the PLA in a counterinsurgency effort that lasts for years, which could compromise the military’s modernization efforts, drain precious resources from the Chinese economy, and lead to dissatisfaction at home as the body bags come home, many of them likely to be their parents’ only sons.

Beijing must also consider the possibility that an effort to seize Taiwan fails. Such an eventuality could lead countries to see the PLA as a “paper tiger.” It might even force the Communist Party to acknowledge an inability to defend Chinese sovereignty, potentially dealing a crippling blow to its legitimacy.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has done little, if anything, to lessen these risks. Furthermore, the only real casus belli is Taiwan’s separation from the mainland, but China does not need to preemptively use force to prevent that outcome. As Shelley Rigger has noted, Beijing has already effectively deterred Taipei from declaring de jure independence. Even if a future leader of Taiwan took the gamble, it is highly unlikely that any country in the world would recognize the island’s independent status, including the United States.

Of course, a low level of risk is not the same as zero risk. China could very well miscalculate or misinterpret the intentions of other players. Therefore, the United States must ensure that it continues to signal its resolve to deter aggressive behavior in the Indo-Pacific, especially as it relates to the possibility of force being used to determine Taiwan’s future. Recent maneuvers—including a B-52 training exercise off the coast of Taiwan in February and two transits of the Taiwan Strait by the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry in April—suggest that the United States is doing just that. Communications through military-to-military channels between the United States and China also remain an effective means of signaling and should continue to be used. The United States should remain alert, but a cross-strait crisis is not at hand.

Bonnie S. Glaser is senior advisor for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow with the China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab at CSIS.