One of the hottest topics in the US foreign policy community is: Will China invade Taiwan? The answer is simple: No. China won’t need to invade Taiwan. China is playing a much more sophisticated, long-term game.
Beijing does not need to incur the criticism, boycotts and sanctions that an invasion would doubtlessly trigger. But China’s long-term strategy to dominate the Western Pacific and, eventually, to emerge as the leading global power is very much on track.
As distinguished academic experts explain in “China’s Grand Strategy: A Roadmap To Global Power?” Beijing’s strategists do not think they need to fight major military battles; they believe their economic, financial and technological prowess will gradually overwhelm opponents.
Taiwan’s precarious position at the front line of CCP intimidation was put to the test recently as its lawmakers were urged to prioritize human rights and stand against Beijing’s tyranny in Xinjiang.
In its first international public hearing on Uyghur issues, legislators gathered online with US congressmen, journalists, human rights activists, and Xinjiang internment camp survivors to consolidate consensus and formulate a way forward for its government.
Set up jointly by the Taiwan Parliamentary Human Rights Commission and the Taiwan Parliamentary Group for Uyghurs, organizers urged their government to “stand out, condemn human rights persecution, and support Uyghurs and survivors.”
One day in the late 1990s, I had the good fortuneto witness an extraordinary dialogue in Beijing. A group of students from Tsinghua University, China’s Harvard, was exchanging views with some very senior American businessmen.
At one point one of the Americans asked the students about their ambitions for their country. Without hesitation, unemotionally and in perfect English, a student responded that he wanted China to be “the most powerful country in the world.”
And what, the American continued, equally unemotionally, “would you have your country do with its power?” That question left the students tongue-tied.
It was, perhaps, an unfair follow-up. These were students, after all, not statesmen. They weren’t responsible for their country’s policies. They would have had no occasion to think about the uses of power. Power is good for its own sake, isn’t it? Besides, back then China was a long way from being the world’s most powerful country.
It’s closer today. Some think it’s basically there. In a Pew Research poll of people in 14 developed countries last year, 48% said China is the world’s dominant economic power. Dominant economic power is not exactly the same as world’s most powerful country, but it’s close. Only 35% picked the United States.If not the most powerful country in the world, China is certainly a contender for that title. So the question is worth asking again: “As a great power, if not the greatest, what uses will China make of its power?”
In centuries past great powers colonized and governed other lands. After World War II the Soviet Union installed governments of its choosing in Eastern Europe and sent in troops to squash revolutions against those governments. There’s no reason to think China will follow either of these precedents.
China is, to be sure, fiercely protective of its own territorial integrity. Were Taiwan to declare itself independent, no one can doubt China would invade its “renegade province.” Some fear it might invade even if Taiwan doesn’t declare independence.
Although it’s wrong to talk of a US-China Cold War – the two countries trade with and invest in each other as well as compete – that doesn’t preclude a hot war over Taiwan. The US could find itself forced to defend Taiwan if China invades.
China does not, however, seem to have territorial ambitions beyond its historical borders. Nor is it like the post-World War II Soviet Union, which was both ideologically committed to spreading Communism to other countries and fearful of having hostile neighbors on its western frontier.
If China has an ideological commitment, that commitment is as much to spreading autocracy as a form of government as to communism. China gladly works with autocratic governments, even particularly nasty ones like Myanmar’s after that country’s recent military coup. China doesn’t seem interested in installing such governments, however.
None of this means superpower China is without ambitions. It is, for example, trying to use the United Nations to reshape cyberspace. It has teamed up with Russia in several efforts to impose new cyberspace rules. “It’s breathtaking, really,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “The nations that have subverted the Internet most aggressively now want to police it, setting their own standards.”
In a world with a dominant China, then, information and ideas would not flow as freely.
The world will certainly have to get used to a great power with a thin skin. When China’s rulers have leverage, they punish criticism. When Australia’s prime minister called for an independent investigation of the origins of the coronavirus last year, China responded by throwing up barriers to Australian exports.
And China is working to increase the leverage it has over other countries. If its 2025 industrial strategy is successful, it will increase the world’s reliance on China for key high-tech products and materials.
If its digital yuan takes hold, more of the world’s trade will be conducted in a currency China controls. Its Belt and Road Initiative also has a leverage-increasing tendency.
It’s too early to predict that China will intervene militarily abroad when it perceives its interests threatened. History suggests that’s what great powers do.
The United States did, in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. Will China’s concern about Uighur terrorists in Xinjiang province stop at the border, for example? Or if Uighur terrorists started to cause real trouble in China, could we see China’s military chase them into Central Asia?
In a recent speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a vision of a China interested only in peace and international cooperation. He promised China will never seek hegemony. He pledged not to interfere in other countries’ affairs. He criticized unnamed countries for “bossing others around.”
He meant the United States, of course. China’s complaint is that the US tries to impose its values – human rights, for example – on the world.
Whatever Xi says, it’s hard to believe that if China were the world’s most powerful country it wouldn’t try to export its values. Great powers have been known to do that. It’s fine to preach peace and non-interference but the world will judge China on what it does, not on what Xi says.
As an American, I naturally prefer my country’s values. I am not anti-Chinese. I have tremendous respect for what China has accomplished. Having lived in Hong Kong for nine years and traveled to the mainland frequently, I know and like many Chinese people.
Still, I think the world would be a less happy place if the values of today’s Chinese regime were to win out.
Blocking China’s rise is unrealistic; too many countries have deep economic ties with it to recruit a containment brigade. War would be disastrous – for China, the US and the world.
But if China’s rise seems inevitable, America’s decline isn’t. One of the keys to keeping the peace in the future will be curing China’s rulers of the dangerous misunderstanding that it is.
The world has two great powers, China and the United States, and is likely to have two for some time. What China would do if it were the world’s dominant power is still a theoretical question.
Talk of war has become louder in recent days, but the “drumbeat” has been heard for some time now as China’s military capabilities have grown. China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving.Scholars such as Brendan Taylor, associate professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, have identified four flashpointsfor a possible conflict with China, including Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, but conventional war is not likely at this stage.
The armistice between North and South Korea has held for nearly 70 years. The Covid-19 pandemic has severely constrained North Korea’s economy and its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles has ceased, for now. China has a stake in keeping Kim Jong Un’s regime in power in the North, but the prospects of reverting to a hot war have flowed and ebbed.
Just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensified its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands.
The United States has assured Japan the islands fall under their mutual defense security guarantee. But a confrontation with China could test US backing and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontation elsewhere.
Similarly, China’s industrial-scale island-building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastructure. This will enable the Chinese to consolidate their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine-dash line, its vast claim over most of the sea.
In 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s claims to the waters in a case brought by the Philippines. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has ignored the tribunal’s ruling and continued to intrude on islands claimed by both the Philippines and Indonesia.
Taiwan presents the US and its allies with a conundrum. It is a liberal open democracy and the world’s leading computer-chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategists refer to as the “first island chain” stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south. Its strategic significance is profound.
So far, ambiguity has served US interests well, providing some assurance to Taiwan while discouraging the People’s Republic of China from invading.
This guarantee has been important for Japan, as well. With its pacifist constitution, and occasional concern over US commitment to its defense, Japan would be closely watching how the US approaches its Taiwan policy.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words. And China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into open warfare, refusing to present a “nail” to a US “hammer.” This is for good reason. If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land borders with 14 countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.
Then there are the economic concerns. China has significant Japanese, US and European industrial investments, and is also overwhelmingly dependent on energy and goods passing through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific region’s jugular vein.
This reliance on the Malacca Strait – referred to by one analyst as the “Malacca dilemma” – helps explain why China has invested so much capital in its Belt and Road Initiative and studiously avoided open conflict, at least until it is more self-reliant. To avoid outright war, China evidently reckons it is better to operate a paramilitary force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.
It also recently passed a new law allowing its coast guard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law – again in violation of the UNCLOS.
Under its ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) obligations, the US could call on Australia for military support to defend Taiwan. The mutual assistance provisions are not automatically invoked, but the implications of Canberra standing on the sidelines would be profound.
Rather than rely solely on the US, Australia should bolster its own defense capabilities. At the same time, it should collaborate more with regional partners across Southeast Asia and beyond, particularly Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea, to deter further belligerence and mitigate the risk of tensions escalating into open war.
China will not attack Taiwan in the immediate future, but it could in the coming decade when Beijing is more ready for a war, according to an ex-prime minister of Australia.
“There is a lot of wild talk about an impending military crisis over Taiwan … but at this stage, I do not see the evidence of an immediate crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” former premier Kevin Rudd said in an online panel discussion at the Alpha Summit organized by the CFA Institute.
“I don’t think the Chinese are ready for such conflict at this stage, purely from a military calculus,” Rudd said. “It’s more probable that we’re going to face real difficulties in the Taiwan question towards the end of this decade when China calculates that the balance of power is going to be more decisively in its court.”
He said there was a risk of military conflict between China and Taiwan in the medium term, but not immediately.
While Rudd spoke, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet on deployed its Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur in what it said was a “routine Taiwan Strait transit.”
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
A spokesman for China’s Eastern Theater Command condemned the US vessel’s passage. “The US actions send the wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces, deliberately disrupting the regional situation and endangering peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Chinese military aircraft made a record 380 trespasses into the island’s “defense zone” during 2020, a spokesperson for the Taiwanese Defense Ministry revealed.
Defense Ministry’s Shih Shun-wen said the Chinese incursions, which were conducted by bombers, jets and surveillance aircraft, happened in the southwest of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over at least 110 days.
Analysts believe the main objective of these incursions was to conduct “real-life” military scenarios in preparation for actual “combat”against Taiwan.
Shih agrees, adding that the Chinese aircraft aimed “to test our military’s response, to exert pressure on our aerial defense, and to squeeze the aerial space for our activities.”
China has conducted such incursions in Taiwanese airspace in previous years, but not nearly so many. In 2016, for example, it held six long-distance training missions around Taiwan, and 20 in 2017. The surge this year suggests an intensified desire by the Chinese to “antagonize”the Taiwanese.
Beyond airspace violations, China’s navy has also been skirting dangerously close to Taiwan’s waters. Few weeks ago, China deployed its newest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, accompanied by four warships, through the sensitive Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese Navy had to conduct 1,223 missions to intercept Chinese vessels in 2020. That’s 400 more than the previous year.
China has said such trips are “routine.” But their timing often indicates otherwise. Last year, for example, some incursions came during Taiwan visits by high-level United States officials. Taiwan split from China in 1949 after a civil war saw the defeated nationalist forces driven from the mainland by the brutal Communist regime of Mao Zedong.
Ever since, China has considered Taiwan a “breakaway”province and has vowed to put it under Beijing’s power by any means necessary. But U.S. political support of Taiwan, as well as weapons sales and security assurances, has so far prevented China from using “force” to conquer the island.
The Chinese are incensed by U.S. officials’ visits to Taiwan, and they are demonstrating their ire with these maritime incursions.
Examining both the sea and air trespasses, the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a military think tank, said tensions between Taiwan and China are “now at their highest since the mid-1990s.”
Taiwan has lived under the “threat of invasion” by mainland China for decades. It still relies on the U.S. to keep from being assimilated into China, but in recent decades, America’s commitment to the cause has come into question.
In 1998, at the urging of Chinese officials, former U.S. President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to publicly “oppose” Taiwanese independence. China has been boldly applying more and more pressure ever since—especially in recent times.
The people of Taiwan fear for their future. They feel betrayed. China has dramatically increased its “aggression” toward Taiwan. No one should “fail to see that Taiwan is destined to become a part of mainland China.”
Perhaps the U.S. will make another weapons deal with Taiwan as it did late last year. It might even send more officials on high-level visits.
But it is clear that Beijing has an unwavering “determination” to reclaim Taiwan.
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