A growing concern has been expressed at the heightened bellicosity projected by China towards Taiwan. Will China resort to a military takeover after all?
Taiwan is finding it difficult to keep itself out of international headlines. The island nation, home to just 23 million people, has found itself to be the recipient of Beijing’s ire in the form of heated rhetoric and military incursions into Taiwanese airspace. Between October 1-4, Taiwan reported close to 150 incursions of Chinese aircraft into the former’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Shortly after, China’s Xi Jingping made a speech vowing that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled”. In response, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen made it clear that Taipei would not bow to pressure from Beijing and articulated a growing desire in Taiwan to chart a path independent of Beijing. These tensions, seen in the broader context of perceived Chinese aggression globally, US-China competition in Asia and China’s enhanced military capabilities, have left many convinced that Beijing is signalling its intention to settle the Taiwan question through force.
However, it is helpful to place President Xi’s statements on Taiwan in the broader historical context. As China scholar Bonnie Glaser has pointed out, nothing that Xi has said thus far deviates from the script Beijing has followed on Taiwan for some decades now. While Xi stated that reunification with Taiwan was inevitable, he is far from the only Chinese premier to have made that statement. Indeed, during his speech at the 100th CCP Anniversary conference, he mentioned his commitment to peaceful reunification without linking it to national rejuvenation. As Glaser further argues, Taiwan is no stranger to a heated war of words with Beijijng. When President Chen Shui-Bian openly called for Taiwanese independence in the early 2000’s, mainland Chinese officials made it clear that the Straits were “entering a period of high danger”. Such rhetoric has not been seen today given that President Tsai is a canny politician who has argued for charting an independent course for Taiwan without speaking of outright independence.
There are, in this author’s view, two driving forces for Beijing’s increased belligerence: One is domestic politics in Taiwan and the other is international support for and interest in Taiwan.
Top leaders in Zhongnanhai (China’s Raisina) are concerned at the swelling support garnered by politicians like Tsai Ing Wen at a time when support for engaging Beijing has all but disappeared. Nowhere has this been more clear than with the collapse of the 1992 Consensus. While the Consensus is notoriously hard to pin down, with some even doubting its existence, it broadly refers to an unofficial understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there exists only One China. Further, the Consensus allows for different interpretations of what One China truly means. While Taipei (formally the Republic of China) staked a claim to being the legitimate Chinese government, Beijing did the same. This helped reassure Beijing that Taiwan would not attempt to bolt from the stable and declare formal independence. However, President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a long history of opposition to the 1992 Consensus while the Kuomintang (KMT) supported it. In 2020, Tsai won a second consecutive term by handily defeating the pro-engagement KMT candidate. Tsai’s victory came in the larger backdrop of increasing scepticism about China amongst Taiwan’s citizens. As Chinese security forces crushed protests in Hong Kong, many in Taiwan soured on the idea of greater engagement and unification with the mainland. Tsai’s more confrontational stance concerning Beijing rescued her faltering government and sparked a crisis amongst younger members of the KMT who have publicly called for the party to reconsider its support for the 1992 Consensus. Taiwan’s citizens increasingly identify as exclusively Taiwanese and do not feel a connection to China that defined generations that came before them. Faced with rapidly disappearing support for unification, Beijing is worried that it faces a closing window of opportunity before any form of accommodation with mainland China becomes a political non-starter in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s citizens increasingly identify as exclusively Taiwanese and do not feel a connection to China that defined generations that came before them. Faced with rapidly disappearing support for unification, Beijing is worried that it faces a closing window of opportunity before any form of accommodation with mainland China becomes a political non-starter in Taiwan
Secondly, Taiwan’s troubles with Beijing have attracted tremendous attention and international support. Taiwan’s time in the sun began when the small island nation led one of the industrialised world’s most effective responses to the COVID-19 epidemic. Given this, many in the international community felt that the world could benefit from Taiwan’s knowhow and pandemic management experience and supported its entry into the World Health Organisation. While this bid failed given China’s long-standing opposition to Taiwanese membership, it did pull Taiwan into the international spotlight. Further, Beijing’s aggression vis-á-vis Taiwan has occurred at a time when China’s perceived aggression towards its neighbours has turned heads internationally. Support for Taiwan has exploded with everyone from former Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott to a grouping of French senators lining up to visit Taiwan. Even the more squeamish Europeans are hosting an economic delegation from Taiwan.
While this explains Beijing’s enhanced threat perception when it comes to Taiwan, it still doesn’t quite explain why it has chosen military provocations to make its point. To understand Chinese thinking, it helps to jump back to the 1990’s. During this period, a newly democratised Taiwan flirted openly with the idea of proclaiming independence from Beijing. Worried by what it saw occurring across the Strait, Beijing stepped up its military activities in the Straits. Several military exercises and one Taiwan Straits Crisis later, the good folk of Taiwan concluded that the prickly question of independence should be kicked down the road. This was made abundantly clear in the 1996 Presidential election when the DPP candidate calling for independence suffered serious setbacks. Pro-independence politicians took the hint and the can was kicked down the road. Taiwan’s citizens understood that while Beijing did not seriously expect unification to be a workable goal, it could not stand for an outright declaration of independence. Through its military pressure, Beijing may be borrowing its playbook from its earlier success in tamping down enthusiasm for independence.
While she and her party remain opposed to the 1992 Consensus and favour eventual independence, it is no secret that Taiwan’s independence will force Beijing to intervene militarily. Tsai also understands that her counterpart in Beijing has a number of other pressing challenges like rising inequality in China, a substantial demographic challenge, and geopolitical competition with the United States. Going to war in Taiwan would risk endangering Xi’s domestic goals for China while further tarnishing China’s already blotted reputation abroad
Despite her international reputation as a firebrand, President Tsai Ing Wen understands Beijing’s position. While she and her party remain opposed to the 1992 Consensus and favour eventual independence, it is no secret that Taiwan’s independence will force Beijing to intervene militarily. Tsai also understands that her counterpart in Beijing has a number of other pressing challenges like rising inequality in China, a substantial demographic challenge, and geopolitical competition with the United States. Going to war in Taiwan would risk endangering Xi’s domestic goals for China while further tarnishing China’s already blotted reputation abroad. Should Beijing roll the dice, go to war and lose, the Chinese Communist Party would face an existential crisis from which it would have difficulty recovering. As such, Xi’s China has little incentive to force the question through military action.
Any possible solution to the ongoing crisis will require both sides to commit to the same process of dialogue that produced the 1992 Consensus. While Taiwan’s political leadership is unlikely to push for independence, it is clear that a political formula based on eventual reunification will run into fierce opposition domestically. Taiwan increasingly hopes to carve out its own identity and free itself from the burden of fulfilling the dreams of an earlier generation of Chinese who wished to reconquer China under one banner. Ultimately, Presidents Tsai and Xi would prefer to bring down tensions and hammer out a new consensus to reflect new political realities in Taiwan. While both leaders might hope to kick the can down the road and deprioritise independence as a goal, Tsai’s reluctance to accept the One China principle will be a significant sticking point. The world will have to wait and watch.
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Shashank Mattoo was a Junior Fellow with the ORFs Strategic Studies Program. His research focuses on North-East Asian security and foreign policy.Read More +