Although U.S. officials and the American news media have noted Beijing’s increasingly assertive, if not menacing behavior, toward Taiwan, the dominant narrative is that such actions are likely just diplomatic gamesmanship. According to the conventional wisdom in the United States, Chinese officials are resorting to hardline tactics to discourage pro-independence factions in Taiwan from pursuing their agenda more vigorously and disturbing the strategic and economic status quo in East Asia. Such analyses speculate that there also may be an element of domestic politics involved, as Communist Party leaders play to nationalist, patriotic sentiments to distract the public from the country’s faltering economic performance.
Western observers contend that the Party elite seems to be adopting a similar response to the escalating trade war with the United States. For example, when the Trump administration imposed a new round of tariffs in the spring of 2019, Chinese state media ran several old, anti-U.S propaganda movies from the 1950s and 1960s.
The underlying message of sanguine interpretations in the American political and policy communities is that one should not take such maneuvers all that seriously. With regard to the Taiwan issue, the assumption is that Chinese officials may bluster and threaten, but they have no intention of actually resorting to military action, knowing that crossing that threshold would be disastrous for all concerned.
Such unflappable reasoning has some logic, but it is dangerously complacent. Granted, Beijing has adopted menacing measures toward Taiwan before without letting such conduct get out of hand. Mainland shelling incidents against the offshore islands of Qumoy (Kinmen) and Matsu during the 1950s fit that description. So too did China’s provocative 1995 missile tests in the Taiwan Strait on the eve of the island’s first fully democratic elections.
But there are multiple signs that this time Chinese leaders are far more serious about compelling Taiwan to accept unification with the People’s Republic—even at the risk of provoking a military crisis with the United States, Taiwan’s protector. The blistering comments that General Wei Fenghe, China’s Minister of National Defense, made to the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual multilateral conference on Pacific security issues, are extremely troubling. Wei warned against efforts either in Taiwan or foreign countries to thwart China’s goal of reunification. That stance was fairly standard fare in Beijing’s official position over the decades, but he added that “any underestimation of the PLA's resolve and will is extremely dangerous." To drive his point home, Wei emphasized that, "If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will have no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity. There was also a hint that China’s political and military leadership may be feeling increasingly cornered on the Taiwan issue. “If the PLA cannot even safeguard the unity of our motherland, what do we need it for?"
Wei’s comments are even more troubling because they followed a surprisingly mild speech by acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Although Shanahan did state that the United States would no longer “tiptoe around” destabilizing Chinese behavior regarding Taiwan or the South China Sea, the rest of Shanahan’s statement seemed calculated to dampen the growing bilateral tensions with Beijing. Wei’s speech, however, confirmed that the PRC is not in any conciliatory mood about the Taiwan issue.
Signs of trouble on that front have been building steadily for the past three years. The victory of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s 2016 elections dashed the hopes of Chinese leaders that the burgeoning economic ties with the mainland would translate into increased Taiwanese popular support for political reunification. Anger at that strategy’s failure led Beijing to revive a campaign to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation by poaching the handful of (mostly very small) nations that still maintain formal relations with Taipei. That effort has proven quite successful. Taipei has lost 5 diplomatic partners since 2016, and is now down to a mere 17—with the looming prospect of losing another in the next few weeks.
Even more worrisome, the PRC’s menacing military activities have also increased dramatically. Chinese war games in and around the Taiwan Strait have soared since 2016. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report to Congress also warns that Beijing is building up its ground, air, and naval forces to achieve a more robust capability to invade Taiwan. One key element of that buildup has been the development of sophisticated anti-ship missiles and other “access denial” systems that would put U.S. aircraft carriers and other assets at increased risk if the United States attempted to intervene militarily to prevent a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Despite the implicit assumption that Chinese leaders probably are just blustering about resorting to military force to compel reunification, both Congress and the Trump administration seem uneasy, and they have adopted measures to emphasize Washington’s support of Taiwan. The 2018 Taiwan Travel Act has led to unprecedented meetings between high-level U.S. and Taiwanese security officials. By a unanimous voice vote in early May 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Taiwan Assurance Act, which expresses firm support for Taiwan, while urging Taipei to increase its own defense spending. The House also passed a companion resolution affirming continuing overall U.S. support for Taiwan by a vote of 414 to 0.
But such measures are more symbolic than substantive. It would be far more significant, though, if the reports prove true that Washington is considering a weapons sale to Taipei valued at more than $2 billion.
In any case, U.S. leaders and American journalists need to recognize that both the tone of statements and the military policies coming out of Beijing regarding Taiwan appear to be deadly serious. As the PRC’s economic and military power continues to grow, it is not surprising that the government finally would seek to settle the last remaining issue from China’s civil war on decisive, favorable terms. The failure of the strategy the PRC pursued between 2008 and 2016 of trying to entice the Taiwanese people to accept reunification with the carrot of robust economic ties logically has led to an increased determination to pursue coercive measures. And that scenario is what we are now witnessing.
U.S leaders and the American people need to ask themselves if they are really willing to risk a war with China to defend Taiwan’s de facto independence. Continued complacency about Beijing’s “real” intentions, along with making empty symbolic gestures like the Taiwan Assurance Act is not a realistic strategy. Americans risk a tragic outcome if they continue to embrace the comforting illusion that Chinese leaders probably are just bluffing and posturing.