Caught up in a wave of international dismay over the Chinese government’s recent actions, many observers are predicting that China will soon attempt a military takeover of Taiwan.
They give a variety of reasons for the prediction: because Taiwan is the logical next target after Hong Kong; because Taiwan is increasingly uninterested in being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government in Beijing; because Beijing’s effectual renunciation of the “one country, two systems” arrangement for Hong Kong indicates an increasing assertiveness and willingness to take risks; and because a Taiwan invasion would fit with China’s recent pattern of reckless foreign policies.
There is no question the Beijing government wants badly to make Taiwan a province of the PRC. Beijing considers Taiwan the last and most consequential of the Chinese territories wrested away by foreigners during the “Century of Humiliation.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is not possible without Taiwan’s political unification with the mainland. But these are long-standing sentiments. The question is why Beijing would insist it must happen now.
Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law for Hong Kong this year does not necessarily indicate that an attack on Taiwan is any closer. These two actions are not a package deal. Beijing has long pursued different policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, each on its own schedule.
The move to decisively curtail Hong Kong’s liberties does not increase the chances of success of a military campaign against Taiwan; if anything, the opposite is true, as China’s treatment of Hong Kong has stiffened Taiwan’s determination not to fall under the PRC’s control.
Moreover, China’s recent pattern of outward aggression actually makes a military attack on Taiwan less rather than more likely.
Beijing is dealing with the fallout from not only the Hong Kong crisis but also the bloody border skirmish with India in the Galwan River Valley, increased pushback from Indonesia and Malaysia over its claims in the South China Sea, failure to thaw relations with Japan, a deterioration of ties with Australia, setbacks with Western Europe over its controversial pandemic diplomacy, and heightened hostility from the United States.
China’s foreign relations are thus vexed worldwide. Typically, Beijing tries to recover from this kind of situation by initiating a period of damage control. For the next couple of years, China will need to improve its international standing. This would explain, for example, why Beijing is reportedly seeking to lower tensions with the US in the South China Sea.
Aside from his political survival, Xi’s main task now is to successfully manage China’s economic restructuring to allow for continued robust growth and movement from middle-income to high-income status. At the same time, Xi needs to avoid looking weak on the threat of Taiwan independence.
He has fulfilled that requirement through repeated warnings and provocative military maneuvers. But any move by Taiwan toward de jure independence would force Xi’s hand, which is why successive Taiwanese governments have consistently avoided crossing China’s red lines.
By launching a discretionary war against Taiwan, Xi would risk not only losing a cross-Strait campaign, but would also likely derail China’s economic growth as international shipping avoided the war zone and foreign governments cut their trade and investment to punish its aggression.
China’s economy is already shaky. Prior to 2020, it was showing signs of permanently slowing growth. This year the PRC abandoned its annual growth target, marking a first, and its first-quarter GDP declined by 6.8%. Positive growth returned in the second quarter, but remained limited by the effects of the pandemic in other parts of the world.
Chinese-American political scientist Minxin Pei has argued that even without a war, tensions with the US, pandemic effects and pre-existing “brittleness” could threaten the CCP’s survival. Xi is thus not likely to embark on a war that could cause such economic disruption and social disorder, which would adversely impact his leadership legacy.
International goodwill toward China is currently at a new low. The US now characterizes China as a danger and an adversary, rhetoric that increases the possibility that US forces would intervene to defend Taiwan in the case of an invasion try.
On the other hand, by waiting, China can continue to increase its military strength relative to Taiwan. The island, while boosting its capabilities with US armaments, still has at its disposal a defense budget that amounts to only a small fraction of China’s.
War might have the upside of a rally-round-the-government effect for Xi, but the nationalistic benefits would be outweighed by the risk of economic disaster. There is no rush for Xi to attack Taiwan. This is at least one catastrophe we will be spared in 2020.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.