China Watch: Taking Two-Pronged Approach Toward Taiwan
Commentary by US sources that China may attempt to seize Taiwan by force by 2025 or 2027 is not well founded because these assessments focus on projected military capabilities rather than leadership intentions. There are no known indications that PRC leader Xi Jinping has made any military decision on Taiwan.
Available information indicates that Beijing prefers to use a combination of economic incentives and military threats to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence or drawing closer to the United States. Comments in official PRC media suggest that the war in Ukraine has prompted the PRC military to reexamine previous assumptions that it could capture Taiwan quickly and with limited repercussions.
Two-way visits this month by political figures on both sides of the Taiwan Strait represent tactical efforts to deescalate tensions ahead of Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2024. Beijing sees the elections as an opportunity to help the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, which advocates closer ties to China. The KMT performed well in Taiwan’s mayoral and country elections in November 2022, raising hopes that it may recapture power in 2024.
- From 8 to 17 February, KMT Vice Chairman Hsia Li-yan visited China and met with senior PRC officials, including Politburo Standing Committee member and “Xi whisperer” Wang Huning and the new director of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), Song Tao. Both sides expressed support for closer economic ties and engagement under the so-called “1992 Consensus” framework, which acknowledges the “one-China” principle without accepting China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan.
- From 18 to 20 February, a delegation from the TAO’s Shanghai branch visited Taipei at the invitation of Taipei’s KMT-affiliated mayor. The independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government approved the visit likely because it was an opportunity to show voters that the party is interested in deescalating tensions.
- Most voters in Taiwan accept Taiwan’s status quo as a self-ruling island without wide, formal international recognition because they believe that unilateral moves toward independence would mean war and that Taiwan’s international friends, especially the United States, would oppose such actions. Reliable polling from 2022 showed 57.2 percent of voters either supported the status quo indefinitely or supported the status quo but “leaned toward unification.” 25.2 percent supported the status quo but “leaned toward independence.” 4.6 percent supported immediate independence, and 1.2 percent supported immediate unification.
- China (including Hong Kong) is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 40 percent of Taiwan’s goods exports, compared with about 15 percent for the United States. Taiwan’s business community historically has supported closer economic ties with China.
- Xi Jinping’s public statements on Taiwan suggest he would be inclined to accept the status quo for the foreseeable future, as long as Taiwan does not take steps toward formal independence, members of the international community adhere to a “one-China” policy, and Washington maintains its “strategic ambiguity” regarding defending Taiwan.
- Beijing leans upon a credible military threat as the best deterrent against Taiwan independence, but the United States and its allies see China’s increasing military signaling as an indication that it is unilaterally changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. This fundamental difference in perception, on top of accelerating US-PRC tensions across the relationship, has driven Beijing and Washington to take tougher positions.
- Xi has maintained that China is willing to be patient regarding unification with Taiwan, but Beijing has been vague about its vision of “peaceful unification.” While Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model remains the official framework, Xi and senior Chinese leaders have deemphasized this formulation in statements since 2020 because they likely realized that this model has lost its appeal for Taiwan, given China’s crackdown and political intervention in the territory.
- The closest Xi has come to stating a timeframe for unification was in a speech on Taiwan in 2019, saying that the Taiwan issue cannot be “passed on indefinitely from generation to generation.” While Western media outlets cite this as evidence of Xi’s putative impatience, Chinese-language press articles conversely have interpreted this comment as reflecting a lack of urgency. Academic experts in Taiwan and China have commented that a generation can be as long as 30 years and that Xi has 2049 in mind, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
- Beijing’s pressing concern is that growing US support for Taiwan and a bipartisan US political consensus to be tough on China will embolden Taiwan to move toward formal independence, especially if the DPP wins the island’s next election. Beijing has for decades told its own citizens that it will not tolerate Taiwan independence, and as a result, it believes that “losing” Taiwan represents an existential threat to the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China.
- Beijing is sensitive to signs that Washington is moving away from its policy of “strategic ambiguity” in defending Taiwan. Public comments by US politicians and military officers about a coming war with the PRC over Taiwan may reinforce Beijing’s fear that Washington is committed to defending Taiwan and is preparing for conflict.
- Although Beijing in December 2022 expressed anger toward a new defense authorization law that authorized up to $10 billion in security assistance and fast-tracked weapons procurement for Taiwan, it is likely relieved that the bill dropped more provocative provisions such as recognizing Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally.
- Beijing has criticized US-led security alliances, mimicking Russia’s stance that NATO expansion was the root cause of Russia’s war with Ukraine. A declaration of Taiwan as a major US defense ally would signal to Beijing that Washington has taken a step toward ending its policy of “strategic ambiguity.”