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How Much Time Does Taiwan Have?

Recent negotiations and elections may put off Chinese aggression.

By , an editor at the technology and information company Brightwire.
Supporters of Wayne Chiang, great-grandson of the late President Chiang Kai-shek from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), hold flags while listening to his election campaign in New Taipei City on Nov. 5.
Supporters of Wayne Chiang, great-grandson of the late President Chiang Kai-shek from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), hold flags while listening to his election campaign in New Taipei City on Nov. 5.
Supporters of Wayne Chiang, great-grandson of the late President Chiang Kai-shek from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), hold flags while listening to his election campaign in New Taipei City on Nov. 5. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

When senior Chinese and U.S. officials met from Dec. 11 to 12 in Hebei and agreed to “properly handle” the Taiwan question, analysts were quick to make comparisons between Russia’s horrifying invasion of Ukraine and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. China is now prepared to “gobble Taiwan,” one headline read. In a Hudson Institute talk last month, John Hemmings, senior director of Indo-Pacific foreign and security policy at Pacific Forum International, said Chinese President Xi Jinping “wants to unify Taiwan by force or by diplomacy, but he’s quite prepared and quite willing and seems to be even further preparing to do it by force.”

But U.S. President Joe Biden has been sending out a very different message after meeting with Xi last month in Bali, Indonesia. During their meeting, Xi stressed that the Taiwan question is “at the very core of China’s core interests [...] and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations,” calling it “China’s internal affair.” The message is clear: This is between us and Taiwan; stay out of it. But Biden left his meeting with Xi saying he did not feel there was an imminent threat to Taiwan.

According to Hudson Institute senior fellow Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, however, who spoke at the same event as Hemmings, such a remark “seems to really undermine what many of his most senior military officers have been saying publicly,” namely that China will be prepared to take Taiwan by force by 2027 “but could be even much sooner.” That said, there’s also a lot of skepticism concerning such claims, including from a top U.S. general and defense analysts.

When senior Chinese and U.S. officials met from Dec. 11 to 12 in Hebei and agreed to “properly handle” the Taiwan question, analysts were quick to make comparisons between Russia’s horrifying invasion of Ukraine and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. China is now prepared to “gobble Taiwan,” one headline read. In a Hudson Institute talk last month, John Hemmings, senior director of Indo-Pacific foreign and security policy at Pacific Forum International, said Chinese President Xi Jinping “wants to unify Taiwan by force or by diplomacy, but he’s quite prepared and quite willing and seems to be even further preparing to do it by force.”

But U.S. President Joe Biden has been sending out a very different message after meeting with Xi last month in Bali, Indonesia. During their meeting, Xi stressed that the Taiwan question is “at the very core of China’s core interests […] and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations,” calling it “China’s internal affair.” The message is clear: This is between us and Taiwan; stay out of it. But Biden left his meeting with Xi saying he did not feel there was an imminent threat to Taiwan.

According to Hudson Institute senior fellow Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, however, who spoke at the same event as Hemmings, such a remark “seems to really undermine what many of his most senior military officers have been saying publicly,” namely that China will be prepared to take Taiwan by force by 2027 “but could be even much sooner.” That said, there’s also a lot of skepticism concerning such claims, including from a top U.S. general and defense analysts.

There is reason to think the drums of war may be quiet for a while. The Hebei talks came after the Taiwanese local elections on Nov. 26, with a special election for one city  held on Dec. 18. The center-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won five of the 22 cities and counties in the first round, while most of the rest went to the Kuomintang (KMT) and its political allies. This was a catastrophic upset and the worst election loss in the DPP’s 36-year history. As a result, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as the head of the DPP, though she will remain in office until 2024.

But there is a silver lining here. The DPP is the party of Taiwanese nationalism, whereas the KMT, at least since Taiwan became a democracy, has been the party of appeasement and cross-strait talks when it comes to Beijing. Among the many reasons analysts have given for the disastrous DPP showing is that the party early on switched to mudslinging against the KMTand playing the fiercely anti-China song , “resist Beijing, protect Taiwan.” Given Beijing’s military intimidation tactics in recent years, which ramped up in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August, the DPP assumed this old tune would play well once again. The last day of Pelosi’s trip, for example, a total of 27 Chinese warplanes crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

But it turned out that while the threat from Beijing remains a priority for Taiwanese voters (only 1.3 percent support immediate unification), this year’s elections were instead dominated by a series of domestic political scandals. In addition, while support for unification remains low, Taiwanese do not live in constant fear of invasion. Just as South Koreans tend to be less worried about North Korean activity than people abroad, Taiwanese are often less in a panic about Beijing than, say, pundits in Washington.

Meanwhile, the pandemic dealt a nasty blow to incumbents worldwide, and the DPP was no exception. In the Taipei mayoral race, for example, DPP candidate and former Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who headed the central government’s COVID-19 efforts, also became the focus of criticism for anyone unhappy with Taiwan’s pandemic control policies. In the end, Chen lost to Wayne Chiang, the great-grandson of the late President Chiang Kai-shek.

This is why the recent elections could make a Chinese invasion less likely, at least for now. A sweeping KMT victory does not mean Taiwanese people are any more open to unification or any less likely to put up a show of courage that would make Ukrainians proud if Beijing should decide to invade—plus, a KMT win nudges the United States to think more seriously about such things and fully prepare for the possibility.

Despite all this, however, a KMT win can be presented, whether or not it’s true, as a sign of shifting public sentiment in Taiwan when it comes to the question of unification. An invasion would be incredibly costly, and not just in economic terms. The transport and supply logistics across the Taiwan Strait are daunting. Meanwhile, Taiwan is stockpiling anti-ship missiles. And according to some estimates, the invasion could require more than 1.2 million troops. It could be an even worse disaster for China than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned out to be.

Therefore, anything Beijing can use as an excuse to avoid such risk without losing face by giving up on Taiwan, which is a defining topic among Chinese nationalists, is a huge win. The elections are a powerful piece of propaganda that Beijing can use to argue that no immediate action is needed, allowing Xi to, as former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously said, hide his strength and bide his time. Beijing even may genuinely believe it can achieve some form of unification through political pressure, avoiding what would be a highly risky military venture. After all, China has been threatening an invasion of Taiwan for decades.

But this only buys a certain amount of time. If China’s domestic political crisis spirals, Xi could be convinced that making a move on Taiwan may provide a powerful distraction, not to mention a unifying force with the public back home. China will probably not be deterred from Taiwan, only delayed, but openings like this are rare and must be seized to negotiate any peace that can be agreed upon—if only to make time to prepare for worse possibilities.

David Volodzko is an editor at the technology and information company Brightwire.

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