The leader wants to continue on the path of Mao and Deng by bringing more territory under Beijing’s control.
Ever since Mao Zedong triumphed in 1949, prompting his Nationalist enemies to flee to Taiwan, Communist Party leaders have bolstered their legitimacy to rule by taming rebellious corners of China’s vast periphery.
The quest to capture lost territory prompted Mao’s army to subdue Tibet, where cadres co-opted Buddhist monasteries and eventually built a railway that ensured well-supplied garrisons of troops across the Himalayan plateau. He also reclaimed Xinjiang in the far west, a Muslim desert region the size of Iran where Silk Road traders once crossed paths with Uighurs—who have now been reduced to about 30% of the population of their own homeland after millions of China’s dominant Han ethnicity moved in. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping further helped restore China’s glory following the so-called century of humiliation when he negotiated the return of two cities lost to colonial powers. The U.K. handed over Hong Kong in 1997, and Portugal followed two years later with Macao.
Xi Jinping has consolidated control in all of these places since taking power in 2012 and bolstered Beijing’s hold on disputed reefs in the South China Sea. Most notably, he set up a vast police state in Xinjiang that sent Muslims en masse to reeducation camps, and just in July he imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong aimed at stamping out dissent in a city that many in the West once hoped would spur China to embrace democracy.
Now fears are growing that Xi wants to cement his place alongside Mao and Deng by conquering Taiwan, a prize that’s eluded Communist Party leaders for decades. Joseph Wu, the foreign minister of the island’s democratic government, warned on July 22 that China “may look for excuses to start a war or conflict” after it suddenly stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, raising the risk of a collision that could escalate. “What China is doing now is continuing to ramp up preparedness to solve the Taiwan issue,” Wu said. “We are very concerned that China will target Taiwan now that the Hong Kong security law’s been passed.”
Worries are also growing in the U.S., where both parties are increasingly united in viewing China’s rise as a threat to the free world. On July 23, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” and a Republican Party lawmaker even planned to propose a bill authorizing the president to respond with military force if China attacks Taiwan.
The U.S. had terminated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan as part of the agreement to establish diplomatic ties with China in 1979 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing. It replaced that with legislation authorizing the sale of weapons for Taiwan to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” while stopping short of saying it would join a conflict.
Those defense sales have become an increasing point of tension with Beijing. China slapped sanctions on Lockheed Martin Corp. in July after the latest approval of weapons sales under President Donald Trump’s administration, which has included billions of dollars’ worth of F-16 fighter jets, tanks, and Stinger missiles. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations envoy, on July 21 called for sales of more high-tech equipment and a trade deal. “Protecting Taiwan from Chinese aggression is essential to preventing an outright conflict with Communist China,” Haley wrote in a Medium.com opinion piece that lauded Trump for regularly sending warships to the Taiwan Strait. “No one wants war. Yet by threatening Taiwan, Beijing is making the world less safe and a confrontation more likely.”
Of the many U.S.-China conflicts right now—from Huawei Technologies Co. to Hong Kong to the consulate closures—none is more dangerous over the long haul than that involving Taiwan. The Communist Party has threatened to invade the island ever since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled China in 1949. In a speech in Beijing last year about the party’s policy toward Taiwan, Xi said, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” He declared that “China must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.”
How a war would play out is the subject of much debate. China’s population of 1.4 billion dwarfs Taiwan’s 23 million, and its total defense expenditures are estimated to be 25 times greater. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said in July that China wants peace but “is fully capable of destroying all of Taiwan’s military installations within a few hours, before seizing the island shortly after.”
Yet researchers who’ve studied war preparations on both sides doubt it will be so easy. While the People’s Liberation Army would seek to bombard the island with missiles and cyberattacks to quickly neutralize Taiwanese forces before they could fight back, the chances of pulling off such a comprehensive surprise assault are slim, according to a 2017 paper by Michael Beckley, who’s advised the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence communities.
Any failure to immediately knock out Taiwan’s forces, he wrote, would allow the island to repel an amphibious invasion or sustained bombing campaign—even without the U.S. military. Taiwan has been building up asymmetric capabilities like mobile missile systems that could avoid detection, and a prolonged conflict that draws in the U.S. and its allies risks dire economic consequences that could backfire on the Communist Party. “Even if China’s prospects are better than I have suggested, the PLA clearly would have its hands full just dealing with Taiwan’s defenders,” Beckley wrote, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “Consequently, the United States would only need to tip the scales of the battle to foil a Chinese invasion.”
Any military action would be catastrophic for the global economy in one crucial regard: Taiwan has more than 20% of the world’s microchip production, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., which briefly became the 10th most valuable company in the world on July 24 following reports speculating that Intel Corp., the largest U.S. chipmaker, might outsource its production to the company. TSMC is based in Hsinchu, less than 100 miles from China’s coast. A sudden disruption of the supply chain would resound everywhere, including the People’s Republic.
Even if it took over the island, Beijing would face a hostile population. While China long used economic incentives to win hearts and minds, it cut off direct contact after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, who views the island as a de facto independent nation that needs increased international recognition. China’s suppression of Hong Kong only boosted support for Tsai, who easily won reelection in January. Xi’s proposal to use Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model for unification is so unpopular in Taiwan that even the Kuomintang, the main China-friendly opposition party and the rump organization of the Nationalists who fled Mao, has rejected it.
The difficulties of unifying under that system were made evident in July. After China imposed the national security law in Hong Kong, the government tried to force senior Taiwanese officials at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office to sign a “one China” pledge that recognizes Beijing’s sovereignty over the island. The officials refused and returned to Taiwan, and it’s uncertain whether the office will stay open. Converted from a travel agency setup in the 1960s under British rule, the office had come to reflect the kinship between two bastions of democracy-loving Chinese people on territory claimed by Beijing. Whereas Hong Kong once provided refuge for more than a million people seeking to escape the mainland, Taiwan is now becoming a destination for pro-democracy protesters in the city. “In the past, Hong Kong was not only a buffer for cross-strait relations, it was a window for global countries to engage and interact with China,” says Lin Fei-fan, the deputy secretary-general of Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “And Taiwan will be at the front line of China’s pressure now that Hong Kong is no longer a buffer.”
Lin says Taiwanese officials are monitoring Xi’s statements closely, so as not to be caught unprepared if he takes any action to distract from a slowing economy in China. They also expect Beijing to further isolate Taiwan from its remaining diplomatic allies, block its officials from joining global bodies, step up cyberattacks and spying operations, and continue military drills near the island in the air and at sea.
Still, an invasion remains unlikely. At an annual legislative meeting in May, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, called Taiwan’s people “brothers and sisters” and said leaders would “do our very utmost to promote peaceful reunification of China.” And in July, a spokesman for China’s defense ministry put the blame on the U.S. for the increased tensions, saying its leaders frequently play the “Taiwan card” and want to undermine China’s sovereignty by “salami slicing.”
While China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, Tsai has sought to take advantage of Trump’s trade war to reduce the island’s dependence on Beijing. Her “Invest Taiwan” initiative attracted more than $36 billion worth of pledges with incentives to persuade businesses to bring operations back home from the mainland. Despite a lower 2020 gross domestic product forecast of 1.67% because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Taiwan is set to be the only developed economy in the world to see growth this year.
Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus has also boosted its international standing. The island’s quick reaction and warning to the world prompted the U.S. and its allies to push for Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly, the decision-making section of the World Health Organization—a move Beijing continues to oppose despite the pandemic. (The Trump administration has announced the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO effective July 2021.)
In the U.S. the rhetoric over Communist designs on the island has ramped up. After the State Department abruptly booted China from Houston on July 23, GOP Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that “the city now has a consulate for the free Republic of China (Taiwan) and no consulate for the tyrannical People’s Republic of China … as it should be.” That evocation of the “two China” policy hails Taipei as a viable democratic alternative to Beijing. It also raises the issue of a formal declaration of Taiwan’s independence, a red line for the mainland that would likely trigger an invasion.
“The U.S. is desperately using the Taiwan issue to put pressure on the Chinese government, while some in Taiwan hope to use the opportunity to promote independence,” says Liu Guoshen, director of the Collaborative Innovation Center for Peaceful Development of Cross-Strait Relations, based in Fujian, the province directly across from Taiwan. “Given this situation, Beijing must prepare for the worst.” He adds that “if the United States holds no bottom line in using the Taiwan issue to carry out provocation, China will respond appropriately in its own way and at its own pace.” Liu says “Beijing has been the biggest defender of the status quo, and the Chinese government has not given up the goal of peaceful reunification.”
China’s idea of status quo doesn’t seem all that stable in the eyes of Taiwanese officials, however. They take a quick look around the neighborhood and see good reason for worry: China recently surprised India with the deadliest border clash in decades around the same time that it clamped down on Hong Kong. “China has moved toward Hong Kong first and Taiwan’s next,” says Tung Li-wen, a consultant for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees the island’s relations with Beijing. “But China’s ambition is not only Taiwan. It’s all of Asia—and the whole world.”