Will Taiwan tensions explode?

Risks of resorting to force would be incalculable for Xi Jinping, argues Chris Hughes

The World Today Published 3 December 2021 Updated 9 November 2023 3 minute READ

Chris Hughes

Emeritus Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics

What might a Taiwan crisis look like? China ups its inflammatory rhetoric, shoots missiles close to the island’s ports, mobilizes massive armed forces along the Strait and conducts amphibious assault and live-fire exercises near the islands under Taiwan’s control.

In response, the United States orders in a carrier group, to confront the Chinese Navy’s most modern destroyers, attack submarines and warplanes. The world waits anxiously for the first shot to be fired.

This drama has happened before. It would be a repeat of the crisis during the run-up to Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996. Having lived in Taiwan for several years, I was worried at the time. More experienced voices, however, assured me that this was only theatrics aimed at swaying voters away from supporting candidates China perceived as promoting the island’s independence.

Sure enough, there was no war and President Bill Clinton was soon rebuilding relations, even though Taiwan’s voters had defied China.

This pattern of threats was repeated in 2000, when the Taiwanese elected the independence-leaning Chen Shui-bian as president regardless of seeing the Chinese premier shaking his fist as he warned that this would risk war. Chen was re-elected in 2004, despite China having warned that his ‘pro-separatist activities’ had crossed a ‘red line’. When elections were held in 2008 and 2012, Beijing was wise enough to keep silent and see the victory of its favourite candidate.

Elections and opinion polls in Taiwan make it hard to deny the strategic failure of winning hearts and minds through economic integration

But are the prospects for war now higher? China certainly has more fire power. Moreover, elections and opinion polls in Taiwan make it hard to deny the failure of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of winning hearts and minds through economic integration.

Xi Jinping appeared to ring a warning bell when he became president in 2013 and declared that the dispute over Taiwan’s status ‘cannot be passed on from generation to generation’.

The temperature continued to rise as Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won the island’s presidency with landslide victories in 2016 and 2020.

Despite this tension, however, there is no indication that the US or Taiwan intend to cross what would be the most obvious red lines for China, such as formal recognition of the island or a referendum to drop the name ‘Republic of China’ from its constitution.

It is always possible that some in China might use the mere perception that such red lines might be crossed to pander to popular nationalism, especially as frictions might grow over who will succeed Xi that are likely to rise in the run-up to next autumn’s Chinese Communist Party’s national congress. After all, history is replete with examples of regimes that have been driven to launch wars by domestic politics. For such a train of events to occur, however, would require Xi’s hold on the levers of power to be considerably weaker than most observers believe it to be.

Given the incalculable risks of using force, Xi would also need to have an extraordinarily narrow understanding of the national interest. Even a successful invasion would entail substantial loss of lives and property on all sides and be an economic catastrophe for China and the world. It would accelerate the process of global decoupling, and the destruction of Taiwan’s state-of-the-art tech firms would deny China access to valuable, cutting-edge manufacturing assets that are essential to cope with the structural problems of an ageing population and environmental degradation.

Nationalists might gloat over the ashes of victory, but the seeds of a deeper political crisis would have been sown as a defeated Taiwan joined the growing list of security crises festering inside an increasingly isolated China. Worst of all for Xi would be if an untested People’s Liberation Army failed to secure victory in this hardest of military operations.

If the US needed a reason to cross the red line of recognition, this would be it. China’s threats are already feeding bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress, encouraging Joe Biden’s administration to restate the commitment to Taiwan’s defence and implement countermeasures that include arms sales, stationing military trainers, and adding ‘Taiwan’ to the name of the island’s de facto embassy in Washington. If China were to open fire on American vessels, the pressure for a forceful response would be intense – especially if lives were lost.

Moreover, threatening Taiwan is already undermining any hope of taking advantage of Donald Trump’s unilateralist shadow to drive a wedge between the US and like-minded states. Instead, it is accelerating cooperation between members of the Quad, comprising US, Japan, Australia and India, has encouraged the formation of the Aukus pact and is leading far flung states such as Britain, France and Canada to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations through the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has never enjoyed a higher international profile as the world’s media compare its thriving democracy with China’s drift towards more authoritarian government.

Before dismissing the possibility that Xi has better options than war for managing the relationship with Taiwan, it is worth considering that previous leaders have found flexibility when greater problems are pressing – and from more precarious domestic positions.

Commentators seize on Xi’s own pronouncements on Taiwan as evidence of bellicosity when they really show more confusion than confidence

In the 1970s, Deng accepted that it was more important to normalize relations with the US than insist that Washington recognize the People’s Republic of China’s claim to Taiwan. At that time, he was trying to re-establish CCP legitimacy following Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In the 2000s, Hu Jintao, the weakest of all China’s leaders, engineered a subtle but significant shift of emphasis when he moved away from pursuing reunification, in favour of the more modest goal of ‘opposing independence’. Both ushered in what now appear to be golden eras in cross-Strait relations and helped to establish the international conditions for China’s economic miracle.

At present, many commentators seize on Xi’s own pronouncements on Taiwan as evidence of bellicosity when they really show more confusion than confidence. He has made some serious blunders by merely confirming parts of the strategy established under Deng, such as the right to use force.

This is largely because Taiwan has changed beyond all recognition from the authoritarian state that it was when that legacy was established. Most serious was when Xi confirmed the plan to apply the ‘one country, two systems’ formula to Taiwan, in a New Year speech in 2019.

The smashing of Hong Kong’s democracy movement that summer showed the world what that meant in practice. The following year Taiwan’s voters again showed defiance by re-electing Beijing’s bete noir, Tsai Ing-wen, as president.

There are already signs of a growing recognition in Beijing that threatening and aggressive behaviour is increasingly counterproductive across the board.

In May this year, Xi called for the presentation of a more ‘trustable, lovable, respectable’ image of China to the world. Particularly pertinent to Taiwan was his restatement of Deng’s commitment to achieving unification in ‘a peaceful manner’ in a speech in October to mark the 110th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty.

It would be naive to assume that this signals the opening of the door to a political resolution that accommodates the aspirations of Taiwan’s 24 million people. However, it might at least show that wiser councils do understand that threats to use force only drive Taiwan further away and do not help to deal with China’s real problems.