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An impending war in Taiwan Strait? Beijing and Washington must take full advantage of their return to high-level talks to snuff out the dangerous speculation
The simple truth still reins supreme: No Independence, No War
The Chinese mainland is ramping up efforts to seek a military reunification with Taiwan, perhaps as early as 2027. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment in the international community amid US-China tensions.
That was also the underlying theme of a panel discussion I was invited to, delicately put in the programme as “the geopolitical challenges of Taiwan and its neighbours”, last month at the World News Media Congress in Taipei. At the panel and in subsequent interactions with fellow attendees, I argued that war over the Taiwan Strait was very unlikely so long as the self-ruled island does not declare independence.
But this simple yet significant argument appears lost on most people inundated with dire forecasts of a mainland attack on Taiwan and reports that China and the United States are preparing for a war over the island.
Their fears have been amplified by the rising US-China confrontation, apprehensions over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absolute power and intention, and the pro-independence movement perceived as gaining momentum in Taiwan. A case in point: according to the congress organisers, more than a few attendees inquired about the safety of visiting Taiwan.
Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan, or more precisely, Xi’s ambition, has elicited the biggest fear. Over the past few years, much of the world has been seized by the presumption that Xi is determined to achieve reunification glory before retirement.
Some analysts appear to have zeroed in on 2027, when Xi’s third term as Communist Party head expires. The assumption is that a reunification would help seal his fourth term and ensure his name as the man who made China whole again.
These presumptions were given credence by generals and intelligence personnel in the US, Britain and Australia. One US general even said his gut told him the US would fight mainland China over a Taiwan invasion in 2025. These assumptions are dangerous and irresponsible: no concrete evidence has been produced, only gut feeling.
Of course, they could point to Xi’s strident stance on Taiwan and his frequent exhortations to mainland armed forces to be ready. But every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong has used similar rhetoric: on this issue, they cannot be seen as weak.
In every major speech Xi gives on Taiwan, he emphasises peaceful reunification as the top priority and in China’s best interests while not ruling out the use of force – a long-standing policy.
Some would point to China’s rising military capabilities and Xi’s absolute power to justify a mainland attack on Taiwan. This line of reasoning is equally dangerous.
That Xi is China’s undisputed and unchallenged leader probably means he does not need an attack on Taiwan to secure his fourth term. There is good reason he says “time and momentum” are on China’s side in a world going through “changes unseen in a century”. One underlying message is that while other world leaders serve at the pleasure of voters, he does not.
The worst fear among certain analysts in China is that Beijing could be provoked into a war over Taiwan, partly because of the presumption in Washington that China’s military capability may soon become too strong to deter.
Much has been said about rising Chinese nationalism but popular support for a military attack on Taiwan is not as strong as outsiders fear, particularly given China’s weak economic recovery. Also, Moscow’s prolonged war in Ukraine and the West’s sweeping sanctions on Russia have provided food for thought, with China’s economy dependent on foreign trade and energy.
Interestingly, as Beijing and Washington signal a warming of ties, some prominent nationalist commentators have begun to urge caution about going to war.
It is within this context that one should look at China’s increased military manoeuvrings in the Taiwan Strait, including its warships and fighter jets regularly crossing the “median line”, and harassing the warships and military jets of the US and its allies.
To better understand the situation, a bit of history is in order. From 1979 when China and the US re-established diplomatic ties until the start of the Donald Trump administration in 2017, both countries had largely managed the Taiwan issue well as Washington promised to refrain from official relations and to restrain Taiwan from pursuing independence. Meanwhile, the US continued to sell arms to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, to which China lodged strong protests but did nothing else.
From China’s view, the relative calm over Taiwan was shattered after Trump launched a trade war against China in 2018 and China hawks in the administration started to play the Taiwan card, sending bilateral ties spiralling.
Joe Biden’s administration continued to play the Taiwan card as senior legislators, including then-US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi and legislators from Europe, visited Taipei and met the Taiwanese president and other leaders. To Beijing, those visits were a clear breach of bilateral agreements. Biden further muddied the waters by talking at least four times about defending Taiwan while insisting the US does not support its independence.
Moreover, over the past few years, the US has succeeded in internationalising the Taiwan issue, which Beijing considers an internal affair. These developments, in Beijing’s view, have galvanised the pro-independence movement in Taiwan.
Hence Beijing’s more fevered rhetoric and military exercises aimed at deterring the pro-independence camp.
If polls are any guide, Taiwan vice-president William Lai Ching-te, who once called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence”, is the favourite to become president in the election scheduled for next January.
So how to prevent a war over Taiwan?
The answer is easy yet elusive. Taiwan’s next president must refrain from making any policy or move deemed as pushing for independence, and then Beijing will have no excuse to be belligerent in the Taiwan Strait.
For that to happen, Beijing and Washington must take full advantage of the window of opportunity in which both sides have resumed high-level talks, to forge a new understanding over Taiwan.
There is a precedent. In 2003, then-US President George W. Bush publicly rebuked then-Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian for trying to deviate from the status quo. In other words, Taiwan is not to declare independence, and Beijing is not to use force.
Cynics may argue that the circumstances have changed. Twenty years ago, the US needed China in its global fight against terrorism following the September 11 attacks; now, Washington is determined to contain China’s rise on all fronts.
But surely, preventing a war with disastrous consequences for the world must override all other considerations and calculations.
Republished from the South China Morning Post.
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