June 18, 2018
- Tensions between China and Taiwan have reached a decade high, but Beijing is unlikely to take military action unless Taipei declares independence.
- The changing strategic picture in the region and increased tension between Washington and Beijing will only boost Taiwan’s importance in the coming decade.
- A younger, more independence-minded Taiwanese generation could clash with China’s goal of achieving national reunification.
- China has played a long game of carrot-and-stick with Taiwan, alternating between military threats and economic sweeteners, but the clock may be ticking down to a confrontation.
One of the biggest obstacles to China’s campaign for “national rejuvenation,” President Xi Jinping’s plan to guide the country to world prominence, lies across 180 kilometers (112 miles) of water on the island of Taiwan. The mainland’s drive to return China to a position of global strength — which it hopes to complete by 2049 — includes reunification with Taiwan. The remnants of the Nationalist Party that fled to the island during the civil war waged in China in the 1940s remain there, creating a situation that the conflict’s Communist victors cannot accept. While successive governments in Beijing have tried without success to reclaim or to reintegrate the island, they did prevent it from pulling away. Their efforts to draw Taiwan closer have yielded mixed results, but over the past few decades, Taiwanese nationalism has continued to rise. Today, with the island’s younger generations displaying an increasing desire for independence, the United States is showing signs of greater support for Taiwan. These factors have helped to push tensions across the Taiwan Strait to their highest point in a decade.
The Push and Pull Over Taiwan
Over the decades, Beijing has alternated between military intimidation and economic sweeteners to try to keep the government in Taipei in line. Recently, the mainland’s elevated military posture along with increasing diplomatic coercion and heated rhetoric about reunification have strained relations with Taiwan. A growing willingness by both Taipei and Washington to break cross-strait protocols has aggravated tensions. As it applies increasing strategic pressure on China, the United States has moved to increase official communication and defense cooperation with Taiwan while boosting arms sales to the island. The current U.S. administration is not the first to challenge the “One China” principle — mainland China’s view that it has sovereignty over Taiwan — but the changing balance of power between the mainland and island is heading into a pivotal period.
The growth in military and political might that has accompanied China’s economic rise has transformed the geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific while increasing Beijing’s willingness to assert its will on its periphery. For China, Taiwan is a last holdout to its long-awaited national reunification and a critical missing piece in its strategic attempts to break through the first chain of islands off East Asia’s coast. By securing Taiwan, China would gain a direct route into the wider Pacific unencumbered by geographic chokepoints, and it has shown a growing willingness to use its burgeoning power to achieve that objective.
The United States, in response, is increasingly pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness. It is challenging China’s economic rise with threats of punitive economic measures, but countering Beijing’s growing naval power may be more difficult. Taking on China’s maritime expansion will require greater U.S. naval engagement in the Indo-Pacific as well as closer collaboration with regional allies. Taiwan is a key cog in such a strategy, given its location along the first island chain as well as its potential role as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” within striking range of the mainland.
Rejuvenation and Reunification
During its history, China has ruled Taiwan indirectly for long spans. But the island has also been home to European and Japanese colonies. Today, Beijing remains resolute in achieving reunification. While it has historically been willing to bide its time in regards to Taiwan, its urgency to end the separation is growing.
Three trends are fueling this drive. First, China has a self-imposed deadline to “achieve national rejuvenation” by 2049 — the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China — and the country’s leaders may want to make tangible progress toward reunification with Taiwan sooner than later. With term limits on the Chinese presidency removed, Xi could attempt to address reunification during his tenure.
Second, previous attempts at unity have not borne fruit. After several failed tries over the past few decades, including conducting intimidating offshore missile exercises in 1995 and 1996, Beijing primarily has sought to use economic interdependence as a tool. China’s leaders had hoped that closer economic ties would convince the Taiwanese that their interests are interwoven with the mainland’s, decreasing the popular appeal of independence. But Taiwan’s generational change and a rapidly shifting strategic environment have upended that effort. Between the push for independence and the willingness of rivals to elevate the island’s stature, China’s ultimate concern is that Taiwan will only drift farther out away.
Finally, Beijing is increasingly concerned that the understanding of the “One China” policy — under which the United States recognizes Beijing as representing China — could be at risk. The United States could move closer to recognizing Taiwanese independence or could adopt a more assertive and visible military presence on the island. A direct U.S. military presence would not only greatly complicate China’s options on unity but also ensure that China would find itself at war with the United States if it tried to use its military to force reunification.
Between Two Giants: Taiwan’s Future
Taiwan’s path ahead is uncertain and risky. It sits between two giants locked in a great power competition, and its limited international clout and increasingly outmatched military puts it at a disadvantage. Washington’s attempts to elevate its ties with Taiwan and improve its military capabilities are certainly welcome in Taipei, especially because they allow the island to access military technology and equipment that previously had been denied. Still, U.S. guarantees for Taiwan remain ambiguous and untested.
Taiwan remains rightfully suspicious of the depth of U.S. commitment and aware that the United States could reverse course and bargain away their relationship as part of a grand settlement with China. Furthermore, Taipei is caught between the growing sentiment both within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and among the younger generations for independence and the deepening resolve in Beijing to prevent it. Taiwan’s freedom to maneuver is limited and at perpetual risk of spilling over into conflict. These conditions are forcing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to tread carefully, lest her country become embroiled in the broader U.S.-China confrontation.
And despite China’s increased urgency to act on reunification, the current level of its military capabilities still limits its options. Right now, any Chinese military operation against Taiwan, from a blockade to a direct amphibious assault, would be exceedingly difficult and risky, especially if the United States intervenes. Given the expectations that China’s military capabilities, particularly in comparison to Taiwan’s, will continue to increase, it would make more sense for China to wait for its armed forces to grow more powerful before even considering a military operation against Taiwan.
The tension between the wisdom of waiting and the urgency of acting is expected to weigh heavily on China in the years ahead. Still, absent a sudden and pivotal event such as a Taiwanese declaration of independence, it is unlikely that Beijing would resort to any military option before at least 2030, by which point Chinese military strength is forecast to have grown significantly. The only certainty is that reunification will remain a core objective for Beijing.