Concurrent with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tensions have increased in the Taiwan Strait. Tensions had, in fact, been on the rise for several years with the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force repeatedly probing the Republic of China’s airspace. The rhetoric in Beijing and Taipei also has become more heated.
Given the atmospherics, many observers have questioned whether the Russian attack on Ukraine might encourage Chinese leader Xi Jinping to take a harder line on reunification and even try to strong-arm the island’s government to agree to “return to the motherland.” A series of statements and moves first by the Trump administration and more recently the Biden administration also have increased tensions. Adding to the tensions — a series of high-level visits by senior members of Congress, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in August 2022.
This suggests the United States has grown weary of the “one China” policy, is inching toward a “one China, one Taiwan” policy, and is prepared to stand with Taiwan should a crisis erupt. Others have argued that Xi wants to cement his legacy as China’s greatest leader since Mao Zedong by being the man who liberated Taiwan and finally won the Chinese Civil War.
But is there an alternative explanation? Is it possible that Xi is actually playing defense? More specifically, is the goal of China’s pressure campaign not to force Taiwan to return to the motherland but rather to stop it from drifting further away? While it is certainly true that Xi and Chinese nationalists want reunification, they also fear that Taiwan – with the support of the United States, Japan, and others – is contemplating a unilateral declaration of independence.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has committed itself to help the island maintain its de facto independence. Successive American administrations have, however, hinted that the United States would not welcome a unilateral declaration of independence but instead favored a negotiated path from de facto to de jure independence for the island – or reunification, if that is what the Taiwanese decide they want. For decades the policy of “strategic ambiguity” served to concurrently warn Taipei against a unilateral declaration of independence and warn Beijing against using military force to bring the island under its control. In short, the United States embraced policies that discouraged both Taipei and Beijing from seeking to change the status quo.
At the same time, the United States welcomed increasing economic, social, and cultural links between the mainland and the island. Things seemed to be moving in the direction of peaceful coexistence. The flow was not toward a rapid political rapprochement and then reunification. On the contrary, President Ma Ying-jeou’s goal seemed to be to placate Beijing with gestures as a means of maintaining the island’s de facto independence and perpetuate the status quo. Ma, whose Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, promoted improved relations with China, was elected president in 2008.
The monkey wrench was, however, that many on the island were unhappy with the flow of jobs and capital to the mainland, and support for reunification was diminishing. In 2014, resentment of the Kuomintang’s policy of détente with the mainland burst into the open during the Sunflower Revolution and helped increase support for Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the point where Tsai won the presidency and the party won a parliamentary majority in the 2016 general elections. Even though Tsai had not advocated independence, in Beijing’s eyes the DPP is hiding its intentions and biding its time, waiting for a signal from Washington to make its move.
And in Beijing’s eyes, Washington has in fact been signaling that it might welcome a bold move by Taipei. It has increased arm sales and weaken the policy of limiting official contacts between the two governments. Anti-Chinese rhetoric has proliferated in Washington and “standing up to Beijing” seems to be the only major thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Thus, from Beijing’s perspective, the commitment of Taipei and Washington to the “one China” policy and its ability to sustain the status quo has become questionable.
In this light, Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the West’s response may have worsened Beijing’s predicament. In 2019, Washington and its allies essentially stood by and let Beijing’s agents in Hong Kong suppress anti-government demonstrations and enact a harsh new national security regime that has silenced and imprisoned critics of the Hong Kong government and Beijing.
In 2022, however, the United States stood by Ukraine, not just rhetorically, but with harsh economic sanctions and billions of dollars in military hardware – the opposite of how the Obama administration reacted to the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and subsequent occupation of the Donbas and Luhansk regions with only condemnations, limited sanctions, and non-lethal military aid, policies that the Trump administration largely continued. Washington also succeeded in rallying its NATO allies and convinced key members to provide substantial military aid. Moscow’s threats to cut off the flow of Russian oil and natural gas failed to drive wedges between Washington and the major European capitals. Backed by western arms, Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russian drive on Kyiv and have stubbornly resisted Russian attacks in the Donbas and the rest of the east. In September 2022, a Ukrainian counteroffensive overran Russian forces in the northeast and seemed to suggest that the tide may have turned against President Putin.
From Beijing’s point of view, the Ukrainian war raises the chances that the Taiwanese could move in the direction of independence if Taipei concludes that the Biden administration considers Taiwan on a par with Ukraine. Beijing has repeatedly made clear that a Taiwan independence declaration would trigger war. Despite the expansion of China’s military capabilities, including the fielding of two aircraft carriers (and the launching of a third), a war would be risky. The Taiwan Strait is a far more formidable barrier than the snow and mud that Russian forces encountered in their failed attack on Kyiv. An attack on the island would be rendered more complicated and victory less certain if the United States came to Taipei’s aid. Conflict over Taiwan, moreover, could rapidly escalate into a much larger war. There is, therefore, a chance that an assault on the island might be thwarted, in which case not only would Beijing face an immediate declaration of independence but, far worse, Xi could become “the man who lost Taiwan.”
Rather than risking that fate, Xi needs to join the line of party leaders who have kept Taiwan from getting away. To this end, he needs to ratchet up the pressure in hopes of signaling to the Biden administration that the mainland opposes any significant change in the island’s status and that if push comes to shove, the mainland will go to war regardless of the risks and costs. Only by threatening war can Xi avoid war. It’s a dangerous game and serves to steadily worsen relations between Beijing and Washington. But it’s a risk Xi must run. Regardless of how much power he may have accumulated over the past decade, it is unlikely he could politically survive the loss of the island.