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Threatening Taiwan Gets China More Than Invading It Would

The language of force has let Beijing limit and use the island.

By , a historian based in Washington, D.C.
People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots march after performing a flight demonstration program at the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, in southern China's Guangdong province, on Sept. 28.
People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots march after performing a flight demonstration program at the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, in southern China's Guangdong province, on Sept. 28. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

When responding to threats against Taiwan, U.S. leaders generally assume that Chinese leaders actually want to annex the island—as a recent report by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded. And Beijing has expressed numerous times that it considers any means justified in taking Taiwan. But over the last few decades, threatening Taiwan has been advantageous for China, often gotten it what it wanted, and has been more fruitful—and far less costly—than seizing the island by force would have been.

In March 2000, I walked along a normally busy street in Taipei as dusk deepened into night, unaware that lights were flickering off in office buildings, shops emptying, and the crowd far thinner than usual. A man striding across my path paused and then pointed to the serene sky and asked why I wasn’t more anxious when China might attack at any moment. His words stick with me less than the concern that wrinkled his face. I didn’t share his fear. As the daughter of an Air Force pilot, I was confident in the U.S. military’s preparedness, partnerships, and force strength and in its deterrence power. But for him, and many others, the threat was still very real — and that's useful for Beijing.

While ruling Taiwan may be China’s intention in the long run, there are multiple reasons why invasion and occupation would not be in Beijing’s actual interests, even if successful. First, while threats of force are undefined under international law, the use of force is easier to determine. Even though China could veto actions by the U.N. Security Council, individual states could employ other forms of retaliation, such as sanctions, the further erosion of diplomatic ties, and shifting partnerships to other locations. Full-scale action against Taiwan is expensive, especially with Western allied military forces in the region; maintaining an occupation would be even more so.

When responding to threats against Taiwan, U.S. leaders generally assume that Chinese leaders actually want to annex the island—as a recent report by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded. And Beijing has expressed numerous times that it considers any means justified in taking Taiwan. But over the last few decades, threatening Taiwan has been advantageous for China, often gotten it what it wanted, and has been more fruitful—and far less costly—than seizing the island by force would have been.

In March 2000, I walked along a normally busy street in Taipei as dusk deepened into night, unaware that lights were flickering off in office buildings, shops emptying, and the crowd far thinner than usual. A man striding across my path paused and then pointed to the serene sky and asked why I wasn’t more anxious when China might attack at any moment. His words stick with me less than the concern that wrinkled his face. I didn’t share his fear. As the daughter of an Air Force pilot, I was confident in the U.S. military’s preparedness, partnerships, and force strength and in its deterrence power. But for him, and many others, the threat was still very real — and that’s useful for Beijing.

While ruling Taiwan may be China’s intention in the long run, there are multiple reasons why invasion and occupation would not be in Beijing’s actual interests, even if successful. First, while threats of force are undefined under international law, the use of force is easier to determine. Even though China could veto actions by the U.N. Security Council, individual states could employ other forms of retaliation, such as sanctions, the further erosion of diplomatic ties, and shifting partnerships to other locations. Full-scale action against Taiwan is expensive, especially with Western allied military forces in the region; maintaining an occupation would be even more so.

In contrast, by issuing warnings, flying some airplanes, splashing a couple of missiles into the water, and recording videos for social media, China has leveraged outsized influence. China’s threats against Taiwan influence elections, policy, trade, and which flags are flown on the island. By demonstrating China’s willingness to take extreme measures over small moves from the other side, these threats also play a part in what to name entities, which corporations thrive, when assembly parts arrive in California ports, how movies get made in Hollywood, and which basketball players meet North Korean dictators. Chinese threats against Taiwan influence other engagements that do not seem related because there is the looming possibility of an invasion should the international community not appease Beijing.

Yet the changing dynamic of U.S.-China relations could mean that these threats no longer elicit the same advantages or have the same efficacy—causing a dangerous shift in a long-established pattern.

Chinese threats against Taiwan take a roughly three-part sequence. They include a communication of purpose, a verbal and written potential consequence, and some physical manifestation of a capability to carry it out. These threats can be staged with incredibly few resources and are ambiguous enough to avoid regulation under international law.

The recent history of cross-strait threats demonstrates their efficacy—and their limits. Beijing began a renewed push for what it calls “reunification” in 1995-96, coinciding with the run-up to Taiwan’s first democratic election. In October 1995, China conducted air and sea exercises. Fighter planes and helicopters made flyovers, navy vessels launched rockets and missiles, and a nuclear submarine practiced maneuvers in the East China Sea. In November, China established a “war zone” based in Nanjing with specific directions to develop war plans to attack Taiwan. New rounds of military exercises came during Taiwan’s elections in March 1996.

The United States sent the 7th Fleet to observe the exercises. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution to resist any “resort to force or other forms of coercion,” citing the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher condemned China’s actions as “risky” and said they could lead to “grave consequences.” U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton commented that the congressional resolution pushed U.S. policy toward a “commitment to defend Taiwan.” The U.S. fleet included a carrier that stored about 75 warplanes, four destroyers, a guided missile frigate, a guided missile cruiser, and three nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), far behind the United States technologically at the time, would have been hard-pressed to follow through on a threat. No fighting took place. Although Beijing seemed unpredictable at the time, in hindsight China most likely never intended to fight. China’s goal to modernize and build its economy took precedence over devoting resources to take Taiwan by force. Beijing even suppressed anti-Taiwan student demonstrations at several universities. And PLA maneuvers ended abruptly two days after the election.

Four years later, in March 2000, when I encountered the man on the street, the sense of threat felt by many Taiwanese was also legitimate. A month earlier, on Feb. 21, Chinese officials had issued a lengthy policy paper warning the country would use force if Taiwan did not engage in talks to reunify. Outgoing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had defied the Chinese Communist Party’s official position the previous summer by suggesting that Taiwan engage with China as a separate state. By February, elections loomed, and only one of the two major parties in Taiwan supported moving in the direction of reunification.

On March 18, the wrong candidate won, for China’s purpose, from the Democratic Progressive Party. Chen Shui-bian and his vice presidential running mate, Annette Lu, only eked out a victory by moderating their party’s more radical stances on Taiwan’s independence and due to President Lee’s influence in splitting the Kuomintang’s vote. Chen and Lu even went on to win a second term. Twenty years on, China still hasn’t gone beyond threats, coercion, and diplomatic temper tantrums. Nothing has been fired at Taipei.

Yet the threat itself is the point. The threat traps Taiwan in a permanent ambiguity, blocking it from ever actually declaring independence and leaving it excluded from international bodies and activities. The threat caused Chen and Lu to restrain their own party. Threats without ultimate action allowed China to maintain a useful relationship with Taiwan throughout the 1980s to 2000s, when Taiwanese money poured into and helped kick-start the Chinese economy, without giving up its claim.

But as threats against Taiwan lose their efficacy as the United States strengthens its commitments and its military presence, China faces a new dilemma. The Taiwanese grow bolder in their defiance of Beijing, especially after watching the handling of Hong Kong. Economic penalties are forcing Taiwan to look outside China for investment opportunities. China’s domestic politics are pushing ever more aggressive attitudes toward Taiwan and reinforcing the looming possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping sees reunification as his main political legacy.

At the same time, China has also seen crashing popularity numbers worldwide and sharp pushback, reputationally and diplomatically, from aggressive moves in the South China Sea and the obliteration of legal freedoms in Hong Kong. Taking over Taiwan would mean paying an even harsher price. It’s possible that Chinese leaders are conscious of that.

And ironically, China could get most of what it actually benefits from in Taiwan by allowing its independence. It would have a reliable and close trading partner with a thriving economy, a neighbor that shares cultural origins and is sympathetic to the idea of Chinese having a bigger voice in the world, and a cultural partner that understands soft power and influence in a way that Beijing doesn’t. But that’s a political impossibility in China. Instead, the language of force—spoken but not yet used—will remain the mainstay.

A.A. Bastian is a historian based in Washington, D.C.

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