Is Beijing Planning a Forceful Unification of Taiwan?

Neeraj Singh Manhas
24th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

On July 1, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 100th anniversary. After taking CCP members on a tour of China’s recent past and glorious future, President Xi turned his attention towards Taiwan. “Resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and the Communist Party of China’s unwavering commitment,” he said. “We must act decisively to thwart any attempt at ‘Taiwan independence,’ and work together to forge a bright future for national rejuvenation,” he added.

What are Beijing’s specific plans for Taiwan’s future? There has been a lot of sabre rattling in recent years, with aggressive naval drills, aerial incursions, and warnings that force would be used for reunification if necessary. However, given the high domestic and international costs of war, how likely is it that Beijing will try to compel reunification through military means? Will the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launch an attack on Taiwan?

The military balance across the Taiwan Strait is shifting and becoming increasingly unbalanced. This imbalance, however, has existed for a long time, and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capability should not be confused with Beijing’s intentions. Simply put, the PLA must be ready. Some argue that Xi Jinping has set a timetable for reunification in order to make it part of his legacy, but in these turbulent times and in the face of so many other daunting challenges, the weighing of costs and benefits is more likely to be decisive. Beijing is well aware that any scenario involving war on Taiwan will be prohibitively expensive, especially given the likelihood that the mainland will be labelled as the aggressor. Others point out that Beijing has increased military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, but these moves are frequently misinterpreted as part of a well-executed strategy rather than responses to specific triggering events or trends.

Many scholars argue that public opinion in Taiwan has irreversibly shifted against the mainland, and the pressure on Hong Kong’s civil liberties in the aftermath of anti-government protests there has clearly soured many of Taiwan’s youth on Beijing. Despite this, cross-Strait business and trade continue unabated and Taiwanese students continue to travel to the mainland for school and work. Opinions may shift over time. Some believe that Taiwanese voters will push their leaders to take increasingly pro-independence positions, putting them on a collision course with Beijing. Tsai Ing-wen, on the other hand, was re-elected by a wide margin, despite (or perhaps because of?) her cautious first-term stance on independence-related issues. Taiwan’s democracy is boisterous, but ultimately pragmatic. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is a long-time member of Liberal International and a founding member of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. It represented Taiwan in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. The DPP and its affiliated parties are widely classified as socially liberal because of their strong support for human rights, including support for same-same-sex marriage. They are also proponents of a Taiwanese national identity. It is strongly linked with the Taiwan independence movement in seeking an identity separate from the Chinese.

If a war between China and Taiwan is not unavoidable, we must consider the factors that may increase the likelihood of such a move. Domestic politics, in a wag the dog scenario, have been mentioned as a potential catalyst for action on Taiwan. It is difficult to say what kind of infighting might inspire such a dramatic nationalist distraction at this point, but with uncertainty hanging over Beijing’s political transitions, it cannot be ruled out. A sudden departure by Taiwan authorities from the Republic of China Constitution, from historical understandings based on a one China framework, or from directly declaring independence would all be cause for concern and would almost certainly result in a punitive response from Beijing.

Washington also plays a significant role in this. In the international system, the line between de facto and de jure independence is a thin one that has generally been controlled by the United States. While Beijing is uncomfortable with this reality, it has bet that it can prevent the United States from recognising Taiwan, leaving its ambiguous status to be resolved later. However, the PRC is constantly aware of US moves toward recognition and is prone to (over)reacting to them. Disclaimers from the United States only add to the paranoia. This dynamic, especially in the current climate of mutual hostility and suspicion, could easily lead to the scenario envisioned by the question. So, whether or not “war” is declared on Taiwan ultimately depends on developments and leadership in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington.

At the same time, from Beijing’s perspective, there are still compelling reasons for the PRC to pursue its preferred outcome on Taiwan through means other than force. Any military attempt by the PRC to seize Taiwan would almost certainly involve the militaries of the United States, Japan, and possibly other countries. Beijing could not enter the conflict with confidence in its ability to limit the geographic scope of the conflict or control escalation, including the use of nuclear weapons. Leaders in the People’s Republic of China would also expose their own country’s vulnerabilities. To feed its people and power its economy, the PRC relies on imports of food, fuel, and other critical inputs. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy does not currently have the capability to protect the long supply lines that these imports pass through.

Any use of force by the PRC against Taiwan would taint China’s image around the world. It would cause volatility, which could lead to capital flight and trade flow disruption. In effect, PRC leaders would have to sacrifice all other national goals in order to pursue unification with Taiwan, an outcome that would be far from certain in any conflict scenario.

Some may argue that this analysis understates the People’s Republic of China’s growing military pressure on Taiwan. Although concerning, PLA operational activities alone do not indicate an impending conflict. They also serve as visible symbols in Beijing’s narrative that it is capable of discouraging Taiwan from declaring independence and opposing closer US-Taiwan ties. Beijing wants its military manoeuvres to raise eyebrows in Taipei and Washington, as well as domestically; PRC leaders want to be perceived as dealing forcefully with the situation.

Finally, the PLA would be confronted with more than just the difficulties of operating in the choppy waters of the Taiwan Strait against a highly motivated group of Taiwanese defenders who have witnessed the repression that occurs in places ruled by the PRC, such as Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The armed forces of the People’s Republic of China would also have to contend with the almost certain intervention of the United States and Japan, as well as the potential intervention of other actors such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or European allies, who could contribute diplomatic, economic, intelligence, or other support.

While there are compelling reasons why the PRC would not launch such an attack, Taiwanese, American, or Japanese policymakers may be wary of escalation. Xi has consolidated enough power in his own hands that if he incorrectly believes he can win or that he has no choice but to fight, he may initiate hostilities even if he considers such a conflict to be high-risk. As a result, Taiwan, the United States, and Japan may consider speeding up joint preparations to ensure that deterrence holds and that their defence capabilities are sufficient to defeat any PRC military coercion effort.

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are those of the Author

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