Xi Doesn’t Need to Invade Taiwan Right Now
An uncertain U.S. presidency creates the risk of opportunism, but the dangers are too high for Beijing.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
As election officials across the United States were tallying votes Tuesday night, a Chinese Y-9 electronic warfare aircraft flew through the southwest quadrant of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). For the eleventh consecutive day and the 27th time since Oct. 1, Taiwan scrambled fighters and activated air defenses. With tensions already running high in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei now faces a new uncertainty: the prospect of a prolonged contest in the United States over the outcome of the American presidential election. Will Beijing try to take advantage of a distracted, divided America to impose its will on Taiwan?
There are reasons for concern. It has been a busy few months for People’s Liberation Army pilots stationed along China’s southeastern coastline. PLA aircraft have crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait—the tacitly accepted air boundary between Taiwan and China—at least three times since August. In September, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman openly disavowed that tacit understanding. “The so-called ‘median line,’” he said, “is non-existent.”
Far more prevalent, however, have been flights in Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone, many of them passing much closer to the Pratas (or Dongsha) islands, home to a Taiwanese coast guard installation, than to Taiwan proper. In recent months, flights near the islands have included bombers, fighters, and various patrol aircraft. Chinese forces conducted a major exercise in August that may have been a rehearsal for a landing there. On Oct. 15, Hong Kong flight authorities ordered a passenger plane heading to the islands to stay out of the surrounding airspace (the Pratas fall within Hong Kong’s flight information region).
Taiwanese officials and foreign observers are rightly concerned that China is preparing to make a move on Taiwan—if not an invasion, then perhaps an attempt to seize one of its offshore islands. A contested election outcome in the United States—Taiwan’s ultimate security guarantor—might provide the opportunity President Xi Jinping is looking for to snatch territory and deal a blow to American credibility in Asia.
But it might not. Chinese leaders have little reason to be confident that election uncertainty in the United States would translate to inaction on the global stage. The opposite could well be true. If legal battles drag on, President Donald Trump might welcome a confrontation with China, perhaps hopeful that courts would be more sympathetic to an incumbent president facing the prospect of or prosecuting a war. More fundamentally, Xi knows better than anyone that the American president can be unpredictable—recall the cruise missile strike on Syria while the two leaders shared “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake.” In present circumstances, that unpredictability should give Chinese leaders pause.
In any case, if and when Xi Jinping or one of his successors does move on Taiwan, domestic considerations are likely to be paramount. Annexing Taiwan would be the ultimate feather in Xi’s cap, securing for him a place in the pantheon of great Chinese communist leaders—after all, he would have accomplished a feat that remained out of reach for both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But now may not be the time to reach for that feather, even given a theoretically conducive international environment.
Despite early missteps, Beijing has succeeded in controlling the coronavirus. China may be the only major economy to register growth this year (though its data are suspect as always). In the coming weeks, Xi will likely declare victory in eliminating extreme poverty within China. Over the summer, Xi brought to heel the democracy movement in Hong Kong with the imposition of the National Security Law. And despite rumblings of dissatisfaction within the upper ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, last week’s meeting of the CCP Central Committee seemed to show “Helmsman” Xi firmly in control.
Surveying the domestic political landscape, Xi may be inclined to save a move on Taiwan until he really needs it—say, in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022, especially if he is facing resurgent internal challenges. A turn to aggression in the coming days or weeks would be highly risky—again, there’s no telling how Trump might respond—and could well weaken Xi at a time when his standing and control within the Party is relatively assured.
This is undoubtedly a dangerous moment. The Chinese threat to Taiwan has been growing more urgent for several years. Taiwan is now facing near-daily acts of military intimidation at a time when its one and only security partner is in a state of political disarray. Amidst that disarray, Trump’s unpredictability has been as discomfiting for Taipei as it is for Beijing.
For now, however, Taipei can take solace in the knowledge that Xi does not, at this moment, need to resort to a naked act of aggression. Taiwan should and will keep its guard up but can be confident it will weather the next two months. The next two years may be far more perilous.