The consensus among most observers is that Beijing’s aggressive military build-up does not necessarily mean that a war targeting Taiwan is imminent.
The issue of reunification is always high on Beijing’s agenda, but many are of the view that Chinese President Xi Jinping can “recapture” the self-ruled Taiwan – a wayward province in Beijing’s own parlance – without force, through trade and economic means.
Others also believe Beijing has qualms about a full-blown war that could backfire and derail China’s economic development. For this reason, they argue, Xi has a stake in maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
However Ian Easton, a military commentator with the Arlington-based Project 2049 Institute think tank, argues that Xi’s policy has always been for a forcible annexation of Taiwan, even at the risk of war.
“Beijing has repeatedly evinced a willingness to risk breaking the peace [as seen in the People’s Liberation Army’s drills as well as aerial and naval circumnavigations targeting Taiwan], and, its continuing provocations against the island portend something far more ominous,” noted Easton in a column that appeared in the Taipei Times.
Xi has considered the annexation of Taiwan his supreme military objective, especially after he made “China dream” the watchword of his plan to steer China’s revival as a global power. Apparently Xi’s “China dream” will be incomplete with the continued existence of Taiwan as a de facto independent country on the doorstep of the Chinese mainland.
It is believed that Xi seeks to resolve the question of Taiwan before he steps down as the party chieftain and head of state, thereby making the resolution his legacy. And even though he has already scrapped the ten-year term limit for the president and the General Secretary of the Communist Party has no written term limit, the 65-year-old leader cannot stay in power indefinitely.
According to Easton, swallowing up Taiwan will also allow Xi to solidify and expand China’s prestige, power, and influence around the globe at the expense of the US.
This because Taiwan serves as a strategic buffer for the West, and if the island were to fall, it would free up a large pool of military resources that Beijing could then devote to its other rivals.
In such a scenario, Beijing would secure hold of the center of the First Island Chain stretching from Kamchatka to the Malay Peninsula, with unfettered access to the deep waters of the Western Pacific and a vital stranglehold on the world’s most consequential air and sea lines of communications. Japan, the Philippines and the US territories of Guam, Saipan and Tinian would then be at risk of blockades and military posturing from China.
Easton notes that defense analysts and policymakers both in the US and Taiwan must assess their country’s strategic position relative to that of their competition. Then, they must find answers to fundamental questions such as what are the PLA’s relative strengths compared to the US and Taiwan, what are its relative weaknesses, and which strategies and operational capabilities are most likely to forestall a PLA attack and defeat aggression if it does come.
His policy recommendation is that, to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open, allies and partners like Washington and Taiwan have to work more closely together to advance shared interests, as the US must not overlook the strategic significance of Taiwan.