US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan has incited a predictably strong response from China. Chinese warplanes have brushed up against the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese foreign ministry has warned of “serious consequences” as a result of Pelosi’s visit to the island. Chinese President Xi Jinping has told US President Joe Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” And now, China has just announced a major military exercise with live-fire drills starting August 4 (just after Pelosi leaves Taiwan). The specter of military confrontation looms large.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative, this is not primarily because Xi is committed to reunifying Taiwan during his rule. Although reunification is indeed one of his long-term objectives (it would be a crowning achievement for both him and the Communist Party of China more broadly), any attempt to achieve it by force would be extremely costly. It might even carry existential risks for the CPC regime, the survival of which would be jeopardized by a failed military campaign.
China is not yet ready to launch an assault
For a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to have a good chance of succeeding, China would need first to insulate its economy from Western sanctions and acquire military capabilities that can credibly deter an American intervention. Each of these processes would take at least a decade.
The main reasons for China’s current saber-rattling over Taiwan are more immediate. Chinese authorities are signaling to Taiwanese leaders and their supporters in the West that their relations with one another and with China are on an unacceptable trajectory. The implication is that if they do not change course, China will have no choice but to escalate.
Until relatively recently, China’s leaders viewed the situation in the Taiwan Strait as unsatisfactory but tolerable. When Taiwan was ruled by the traditionally China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party, China was able to pursue a gradual strategy of economic integration, diplomatic isolation, and military pressure – one that it believed would eventually make peaceful reunification Taiwan’s only option.
But in January 2016, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party returned to power in Taiwan, upending China’s plans. While the KMT claims that Taiwan and China have different interpretations of the 1992 Consensus – the agreement the party reached with mainland Chinese authorities 30 years ago asserting the existence of “one China” – the DPP rejects it altogether.
DPP makes ‘reunification’ a distant vision
Though it is difficult to pinpoint precisely when the new status quo became intolerable to China, a key turning point probably came in January 2020, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP easily won a second term, and when her party trounced the KMT in legislative elections. As the DPP solidified its political dominance, China’s dream of achieving peaceful reunification moved further out of reach.
It also did not help that the United States had been gradually shifting its Taiwan policy. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the US lifted restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts; subtly changed the formulation of its “one-China” policy, by placing more emphasis on American commitments to Taiwan; and transferred advanced weapons systems to the island. Such challenges to China have continued under Biden. Last year, US marines openly trained with Taiwan’s military. And this past May, Biden signaled that the US would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan (although the White House quickly walked back his statement).
The Ukraine war also seems to have heightened the sense among Western leaders that Taiwan is in grave and immediate danger. They appear to believe that only robust and vocal support, including high-level visits and military assistance, can avert a Chinese attack. What they fail to recognize is that, viewed from Beijing, their support for Taiwan looks more like an attempt to humiliate China than anything else. It is thus more provocation than deterrent.
Xi must respond to avoid appearing weak
China now fears that if DPP leaders and their Western supporters do not pay a price for their affronts, it will lose its grip on the situation. This would not only undermine Xi’s chance of achieving his long-term goal of reunification; it also could invite accusations of weakness that would undermine his standing both within and outside China.
China is probably not planning to launch an immediate and deliberate attack on Taiwan. But it may decide to engage the US in a game of chicken in the Taiwan Strait. It is impossible to predict such a confrontation’s exact form or timing. But it is safe to assume that it would be extremely dangerous, because China believes that only brinkmanship can concentrate all the players’ minds.
Like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a new Taiwan Strait crisis might end up stabilizing the status quo – albeit after a few hair-raising days. And that may well be China’s plan. But such a gambit could also go horribly wrong. Lest we forget, the fact that nuclear war did not break out in 1962 was largely a matter of luck.
Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, is a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.