In an article titled Beating the ‘drums of war’ Australian defense minister Peter Dutton is quoted as; “I don’t think it should be discounted” when asked about prospects of Australia being drawn into a war with China over Taiwan. “People need to be realistic,” he told the ABC.
Whereby it is not only hardliners in Australia also Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is becoming more critical as she called on China “to act in the world in ways that are consistent with its responsibilities as a growing power.”
Fact is, the prospects for war are actually higher in the next five years than the period thereafter because of how successfully China has closed the military capability gap with the US. Every day President Xi Jinping delays, his potential adversaries in a battle over Taiwan (which would undoubtedly include the US, Japan, Australia, and the UK) are investing enormous effort to prepare for war and once again expand the capability gap.
Continuing with our question can a potential future Pacific War be avoided as we have seen, China has become increasingly frustrated with what it has considered a renegade province since the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was formed in 1986 as a center-left, nationalist organization. That frustration has grown sharply since 2016 with the (including the later re-)election of President Tsai Ing-wen.
Nonetheless, the two governments existed in an uneasy if prickly peace until US President Biden in mid-April reassured Taipei by sending his first delegation led by former Senator and personal friend of Biden Chris Dodd to Taipei. A meeting between Biden and Japan's prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, on April 17 then marked the first time since 1969 that the US and Japan had issued a joint statement mentioning Taiwan. This when Senator Chris Dodd completed his three-day visit to Taiwan it was done with a show of support from the Biden administration.
The Biden administration entered office at a critical inflection point for the United States. President Joe Biden inherited a world order and, an Indo-Pacific region that is undergoing profound change with China’s rise and an ongoing geopolitical shift toward Asia. The new administration has begun laying out its agenda to address U.S. vital interests in this critical part of the world.
Within this broad expanse, the Taiwan Strait is increasingly a critical military flashpoint. Tensions are mounting as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ramps up its political, economic, and military pressure on Taiwan and its other neighbors. There are warning signs that Beijing may be accelerating its plan to seize Taiwan by force if necessary.
Biden’s strong start regarding the Taiwan issue comes against the backdrop of China dramatically increasing military activity in the waters and air space near the island. Data released by Taiwan’s defense ministry shows that since the beginning of 2020, more than 650 PLA warplanes have entered Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone on their way to the Bashi Channel, the gateway to the western Pacific and the disputed South China Sea.
All the while, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that the island would defend itself "to the very last day" if attacked by China. “We are willing to defend ourselves; that’s without any question,” Wu told reporters. Adding that Taiwan-US relations undergoing major adjustments. Reiterated by Japan that seeks to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas.
Taiwan and a surprising Chinese history
Building on earlier research like Lee Ji-Young's China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (2016) Tom Miller's China’s Asian Dream (2017) in "Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics: From the Tributary System to the Belt and Road Initiative" (April 2021) Asim Doğan explains how China appears to be moving from a period of being content with the status quo to a period in which they are more impatient and more prepared to test the limits and flirt with the idea of unification also with Taiwan.
Having earlier referred to the cartographic making of a Chinese Pacific, it is worth asking what accounted for Taiwan to have become Chinese in the first place?
Taiwan was never involved with the Chinese tributary system; neither was the Chinese to any large degree living on Taiwan until the Dutch importer them as laborers. On the contrary, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) wrote: "Overseas foreign countries… are separated from us by mountains and seas and far away in a corner. Their lands would not produce enough for us to maintain them; their people would not usefully serve us if incorporated."1 As a result, he said, China would observe a strict Maritime Prohibition (Haijin 海禁)2, a policy stipulating that all contact between China and overseas foreigners must occur in official embassies, known as tribute missions.3 No unofficial visits were to be tolerated. Nor were Chinese allowed to sail abroad except, again, on tribute missions.
The Ming reluctance to support overseas adventurers was not the result of an anti-imperialist stance, for the Ming had had an active imperialist history. Still, although China could have launched maritime enterprises that would have dwarfed European attempts, Ming rulers generally did not consider maritime activity to be in their interest, especially when it came to the support of private trade. The Qing Dynasty, too, restricted foreign trade until the late seventeenth century.4
Rather, the Dutch, who in the 1630s realized that their port’s hinterlands could produce rice and sugar for export. Still, they were unable to persuade Taiwan’s aborigines to raise crops for sale, most were content to plant just enough for themselves and their families.5 The colonists considered importing European settlers, but their superiors in the Netherlands rejected the idea. So they settled instead on a more unusual plan: encourage Chinese immigration. The Dutch offered tax breaks and free land to Chinese colonists, using their powerful military to protect pioneers from aboriginal assault. They also outlawed guns; prohibited gambling (which they believed led to piracy); controlled drinking; prosecuted smugglers, pirates, and counterfeiters; regulated weights, measures, and exchange rates; enforced contracts; adjudicated disputes; built hospitals, churches, and orphanages; and provided policing and civil governance.6 In this way, the company, created a calculable economic and social environment, making Taiwan a safe place for the Chinese to move to and invest in, whether they were poor peasants or rich entrepreneurs.7 People from the province of Fujian, just across the Taiwan Strait, began pouring into the colony, which grew and prospered, becoming, in essence, a Chinese settlement under Dutch rule. The colony's revenues were drawn almost entirely from Chinese settlers through taxes, tolls, and licenses. As one Dutch governor put it, "The Chinese are the only bees on Formosa that give honey."8
Thus were before the 1600s, Taiwan was self-governing, although there was no central ruling authority. It was a colony of the Netherlands for about 40 years in the early to the mid-17th century and was subsequently independent again for about two decades. After which not Han Chinese but the Manchu-led Qing sent an army led by general Shi Lang and annexed Taiwan in 1683. Qing rule over Taiwan then ended abruptly when Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. There were more than a hundred rebellions during the Qing period. The frequency of rebellions, riots, and civil strife in Qing Taiwan led to this period being referred to by historians as “Every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion.”
Previously China had sat comfortably at the center of a ring of tributary relationships with its neighboring countries. Its rulers had limited familiarity with any civilization outside of Asia. In their few contacts with Westerners, they had made clear that they expected the same deference from far-away leaders as they did from those on their periphery. In this context see also: Imagining the concept of Han in the context of the civilized center and the uncivilized lands on the periphery. Posted more than four years ago that time we concluded that as for the People's Republic of China today, though centered on Han Chinese, it is a multinational state modeled more closely on the Manchu empire than on the Song or the Ming. Like the Manchu empire, its territory includes Manchuria, part of Mongolia, Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Yunnan, as well as China Proper. Nevertheless, elements of the earlier Song vision of the Chinese nation persist to the present day. First and foremost, as mentioned, is the belief in the objective reality of a homogeneous Han people. The sense that Chinese civilization is fundamentally Han at its core has fueled the awkward relationship that continues to exist between the Chinese state and its fifty-five non-Han minority nationalities. One also recognizes in the twentieth century an enduring expectation of Han ethnic solidarity, whereby both early twentieth-century nationalists and the People's Republic of China have expected Han Chinese abroad (but not necessarily Uighurs or other minority nationalities) to exhibit loyalty to their motherland.
Whereby most recently, in the space of a little over a century, China suffered a long list of political, military, and cultural indignities.
Throughout the 19th century, China was riven by massive rebellions in which tens of millions of people died; these uprisings were frequently fanned by popular opposition to the growing foreign presence and by the imperial government’s acquiescence to foreign demands.
Independence movements in Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s further reduced China’s territory.
The millennia-old imperial system collapsed forever in 1911, leading to an extended period of further chaos in which the new, nominally republican government was unable to control large swaths of China’s remaining territory.
The eight-year-long war against Japan (World War II) and the multi-decade Chinese civil war between the Chinese Communist (CCP) and Nationalist (KMT) Parties devastated the Chinese landscape and tore its people apart.
The “Century of Humiliation” and China’s National Narratives
To be clear both the Communists under Mao and the Nationalists used the same Century of Humiliation narrative.
For the Nationalists it served to delegitimize the Qing Dynasty, by demonstrating its failure to ‘defend the country and thereby legitimize the revolution.
Mao Zedong in his famous proclamation speech announced that: Chinese have always been a great, courageous, and industrious nation; they have fallen behind only in modem times. And that was entirely due to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments., Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.9
Whereby Deng Xiaoping made the “one-hundred-year history of humiliation” post Tiananmen square central to the new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the 'Chinese' people and CCP society and its yearly National Humiliation Day.
Thus the intellectual debates about the nature of international relations that took place during the century of Humiliation underpin similar elite debates that are taking place in China today. Concerns with the nature of interstate competition, with the possibility for equality among nation-states, and with the question of whether the international system might evolve into something more peaceable in the future, remain salient topics of discussion and debate in China today.
Although the PRC government maintains that the Century of Humiliation ended when the Maost CCP won the Chinese civil war and established itself as the ruling regime; there remain several vestiges of that period that, in the minds of many Chinese, must be rectified before China’s recovery will be considered complete. The most important of these, and perhaps the only one that is non-negotiable, is now the return of Taiwan to the mainland.
Yet as we have seen after ceding it to Japan, neither the Qing, the Nationalists, or the Communists showed any interest in Taiwan. The Qing court, the revolutionaries, and the reformists all took the same view: Taiwan had been ceded by treaty and lost to China.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the same insouciance about Taiwan’s fate also characterized the revolutionary movement. Sun Yat-sen and his comrades made no demands for the return of the island to Qing control. At no point, so far as we know, did Sun concern himself with the resistance to Japanese rule, even though it continued to smolder. For Sun, Japanese-controlled Taiwan was more important as a base from which to overthrow the Qing Dynasty than as a future part of the Republic.
Also Chiang Kai-shek (anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT) in his speech on ‘The Anti-Japanese Resistance War and the Future of Our Party,’ Chiang Kai-shek argued that, ‘We must enable Korea and Taiwan to restore their independence and freedom. Even more so, Mao's Communist Party had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China. At its sixth congress in 1928, the Guomindang party had recognized the Taiwanese as a separate nationality.
Even more so, Mao's Communist Party had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China.
This would change shortly before the publication of the New Atlas of China's Construction created by cartographer Bai Meichu in 1936 who later advised the Republic of China government on which territories to claim after the Second World War.
A turning point for Bai and others who saw China's need to create a new Nation-State was the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919.
In an article in the June 2013 issue of China National Geography, Shan Zhiqiang, the magazine's executive chief editor, added: The nine-dashed line has been painted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese for a long time. It has been 77 years since Bai Meichu put in his 1936 map. It is now deeply engraved in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. I do not believe there will be any time when China will be without the nine-dashed line.
Bai and other Chinese geographers took the nationalist idea of ‘territory’, lingtu( 領土 lǐng tǔ), and projected it back to the time of ‘domain’, jiangyu (降雨 jiàng yǔ) , when there were few fixed borders. A map of national humiliation in Ge Suicheng’s 1933 textbook showed vast areas of central Asia, Siberia, and the island of Sakhalin as territory ‘lost’ to Russia. The map may have displayed different areas as ‘territory,’ ‘tribute states,’ or ‘vassal states’ but all were categorized as inherently ‘Chinese,’ nonetheless. The idea that at the time they were ‘lost,’ these territories might have been contested areas with no clear allegiance to any particular empire was not part of the lesson. They were presented simply as ‘Chinese’ lands that had been stolen. With a clear political purpose behind the making of these maps Ge Suicheng called on the young citizens reading his textbook to do what they could to recover all this lost territory.
And while China has gained an irreversible advantage in the South China Sea, at the end of the day, the onus is ultimately on China to furnish an international law-compliant basis for the alignment of its nine-dash line. Oblique references to history in its 1998 EEZ Act and 2011 Note Verbale to the United Nations, without clarification of basis or scope, do not suffice. Rather they stoke justified apprehensions that the line is instead an expedient tool that is wielded opportunistically, and at times illegally, to punish other claimants’ presumed non-neighborly activities in these contested waters.
At the end of the day, the onus is ultimately on China to furnish an international law-compliant basis for the alignment of its nine-dash line. Oblique references to history in its 1998 EEZ Act and 2011 Note Verbale to the United Nations, without clarification of basis or scope, do not suffice. Rather they stoke justified apprehensions that the line is instead an expedient tool that is wielded opportunistically, and at times illegally, to punish other claimants’ presumed non-neighborly activities in these contested waters.
Conclusion and outlook
While early on, we argued that as Japan felt due to earlier agreements with China, it felt justified to take Manchuria, not unlike China perceives Taiwan and a large part of the Pacific (the South China Sea) as their own. Similarly, when Japan saw itself in a special role as mediator between the West (“Euro-America”) and the East (“Asia”) to “harmonize” or “blend” the two civilizations and demanded that Japan lead Asia in this anti-Western enterprise, there are parallels with our article posted on 14 April (most of which was written on 8 April) we exemplified that countless wars have revealed some historical pattern: once a country’s territorial sovereignty conflicts with the hegemonic system, it is only a matter of time before war breaks out. This is because both parties are locked in an irreconcilable zero-sum relationship.
Whereby only a few months before, America’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, had declared that “The Asian peoples are on their own, and know it.” But on 25 June, Stalinist North Korea launched an invasion of its southern neighbor, and a country confronting communism could no longer leave Asia alone. America would fight with South Korea. It was to join in that defense that the Valley Forge was steaming north from Subic Bay.
Her route had added purpose. Containing Asian communism meant more than fighting North Korea. It also required making sure that Mao Zedong, mainland China’s ruler since the previous year, did not take the island of Taiwan from the Nationalist regime led by Chiang Kai-shek, who had been forced to retreat there. On June 27th President Harry Truman announced a new Taiwan policy: America would defend the island from attack; the Nationalists must, for their part, cease air and sea operations against the mainland. “The Seventh Fleet will see that this is done,” the president declared, with nicely laconic menace. Hence the Valley Forge’s show of strength.
From that week on to the relief of some and the frustration of others, Asian peoples were no longer on their own. The Korean war transformed the region into a theatre of ideological struggle just as fraught as divided cold-war Europe. For nearly three decades, the Taiwan Strait saw ships of the Seventh Fleet acting as a tripwire between the two Chinas. There were early battles over outlying islands, including a crisis in 1958 in which Mao’s brinkmanship nearly started a nuclear war. But over time, the rivals to the west and east of the strait settled into an uneasy half-peace, both adamant that they were the one true China, neither able to act on the conviction.
Over time Taiwan became the prosperous, pro-Western democracy of 24m people, which it is today. While the mainland saw traditions and social codes destroyed by Maoist fanaticism, Taiwan has a rich religious and cultural life. It has come to enjoy raucous free speech and a marked liberal streak: it was the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage.
A generation ago, it could matter greatly whether someone’s grandparents had arrived from the mainland in 1949 or had deeper roots on the island. That has now changed, especially among the young. In 2020 a poll by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based research outfit, found that about two-thirds of adults on the island now identified as purely Taiwanese. About three in ten called themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Just 4% called themselves simply Chinese.
Leaders in Beijing differ; they consider them all Chinese. They tell their own people that most citizens of Taiwan agree and that secessionist troublemakers egged on by America are thwarting the historical necessity of national unification.
Once, Taiwan was a point of compromise between the two powers. On January 1st, 1979, the day that America recognized the People’s Republic of China, the economic reformers running the mainland changed their Taiwan policy from armed liberation to “peaceful reunification,” soon afterward adding a promise of considerable autonomy: “one country, two systems.” But for the past 25 years, that conciliatory offer has been accompanied by an unprecedented military build-up.
In recent years China’s rhetoric towards Taiwan has sounded new notes of impatience. And the crushing abnegation of its promise to observe “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong has deepened Taiwanese distrust over the past two years. Last year the issue helped Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (dpp) be re-elected president.
In principle, the dpp favors the creation of a Taiwan that is formally its own nation; but to declare independence in that way would trigger massive Chinese reprisals. To keep that crisis at bay, Tsai, a moderate, cat-loving academic, relies on an artful diplomatic dodge: that she governs a country which, while proudly Taiwanese, uses the legal name of the Republic of China which it inherited from the Nationalists who arrived in 1949. China’s leaders detest her.
The passage of time poses a dilemma for China. Every year, China’s ability to coerce Taiwan economically and militarily grows greater. And every year, it loses more hearts and minds in Taiwan. Should rulers in Beijing ever conclude that peaceful unification is a hopeless cause, Chinese law instructs them to use force.
This dynamic alarms the heirs of Dean Gooderham Acheson. Though the accord of 1979 cast Taiwan into non-state limbo, the island’s security remained,as a matter of American law, a question of “grave concern.” When in 1996 China sought to intimidate the Taiwanese, about to vote in their first free presidential election, using missile tests, President Bill Clinton ordered the uss Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and her attendant battle group to pass through the strait. The missile tests stopped.
American military commanders are increasingly open about their concerns that, in the context of Taiwan, the balance of military power between China and America has swung in China’s direction. A 25-year campaign of shipbuilding and weapons procurement, begun in direct response to the humiliation of 1996, has provided the People’s Liberation Army Navy (plan) a fleet of 360 ships, according to American naval intelligence, compared with America’s 297. On 23 April, state media hailed the symbolism of a ceremony in which China’s supreme leader, President Xi Jinping, commissioned three large warships on the same day: a destroyer, a helicopter carrier, and a ballistic missile submarine. The second is ideal for airlifting troops to a mountainous island, the media noted with glee. The third is a way of deterring superpowers.
America still boasts more, better carriers and nuclear submarines. It has much more experience of far-flung operations, and it has allies, too. But America’s forces have global duties. China would be fighting close to home and enjoying the benefit of the pla’s land-based aircraft and missiles. Lonnie Henley, who was until 2019 the chief Pentagon intelligence analyst for East Asia, sees the radars and missiles of the integrated air-defense system along China’s coast as the “center of gravity” of any war over Taiwan. Unless those defenses are destroyed, American forces would be limited to long-range weapons or attacks by the stealthiest warplanes, Henley told a congressional panel in February. But destroying those defenses would mean one nuclear power launching direct attacks on the territory of another.
And the Chinese build-up continues apace. History is an imperfect guide, but offers precedents to ponder, says a senior American defense official. “The world has never seen a military expansion of this scale not associated with conflict.”
It is not just a matter of numbers. China has carefully focused its efforts on the ability to defeat American forces that might trouble it. It has missiles designed expressly for killing carriers and others that would allow precision strikes on the American base on Guam. The defense official lists other fields in which China has worked to neutralize areas of American strength, whether that means investment in anti-submarine weapons and sensors or systems to jam or destroy the satellites on which American forces rely. Copying an American method, China has set up a training center with a professional opposing force that mimics enemy (in this case, American) doctrines and tactics.
The head of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, told a Senate hearing in March that China’s fielding of new warships, planes, and rockets, when considered alongside the regime’s unblushing readiness to crush dissent from Hong Kong to Tibet, makes him worry that China is accelerating its apparent ambitions to supplant America and its allies from their position atop what he called the rules-based international order, a phrase that China sees as code for Western hegemony. Pondering the specific risks of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the admiral told senators that “the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Admiral John Aquilino, nominated to be Admiral Davidson’s successor as head of Indo-Pacific Command, told a confirmation hearing in March that work to shore up America’s ability to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan is urgent. While he stopped short of endorsing his predecessor’s timeline of six years, he called the prospect of Chinese use of force “much closer to us than most think.” Anxiety has been raised further by war games involving Taiwan scenarios, both secret and unclassified, that were won by officers, spooks, or scholars playing China's role.
The admirals’ worries mix judgments about China’s capabilities with hunches about its intent. Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund, a public-policy outfit, notes that their mission is to make plans, in this case, to win a war over Taiwan. Once they realize that victory may elude them or may only be possible at great cost, panic is understandable. That does not mean they are correctly assessing China’s incentives to act soon. Strikingly, some of the intelligence officers paid to analyze the world for admirals and generals are noticeably calmer. “The trends are not ideal from a Chinese perspective,” says Mr. Henley. “But are they intolerable? I don’t see them being in that grim a mindset.”
Broader American angst is driven by the knowledge of what defeat would mean. Niall Ferguson, a historian, recently wrote that the fall of Taiwan to China would be seen around Asia as the end of American predominance and even as “America’s Suez,” a reference to the humbling of Britain when it overreached during the Suez crisis of 1956. But when Britain stumbled at Suez, America had already taken its place as the Western world leader, Matt Pottinger told a Hoover Institution podcast, “There's not another United States waiting in the wings.”
For all its newfound strength, China faces daunting odds. A full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan, a mountainous island that lies across 130km of water, would be the most ambitious such venture since the second world war. America has spent years nagging its Taiwanese allies to capitalize on their natural insular advantages, for instance, by buying lots of naval mines, drones, and coastal-defense cruise missiles on mobile launchers to sink Chinese troopships, rather than continuing to splurge on tanks and f-16 fighters. Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs in 2018-19, promoted efforts to help Taiwan disable Chinese radar and other sensors: “If we can just blind the pla, that would be a huge contribution to the fight.”
If a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan were to fail, or military conflict to reach a stalemate, would it fight on? Outsiders offer no consensus. Henley suggests that a failed invasion might evolve into a long-term blockade, a strategy to which Western defense planners pay increasing attention. There is a much-heard view that once China starts fighting, anything short of victory would mean regime-toppling humiliation.
The risks and costs of war, even a successful one, bring home the point that capabilities in themselves are never the determining factor. Intentions matter too and are far more opaque, especially when, as in China, they reside largely in the mind of one man. It is common to hear Western analysts state that Xi has staked his legacy and legitimacy on Taiwan’s return. Hard evidence for this alarming belief is in short supply. In a new-year speech in 2019, the most cited is that he linked union with Taiwan to the ambition that he has placed at the core of his leadership, namely the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He also repeated what he had said to a Taiwanese envoy in 2013: that cross-strait differences should not be passed from generation to generation.
Having abolished the term limit on his role as president in 2018, 67-year-old Xi can hardly expect to be succeeded by another member of his generation. Following his own logic, it falls to him to make sure that the task is not passed on. In an October 2019 meeting in Beijing, Chinese scholars and military experts shared with Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University their understanding that Taiwan must be recovered during Xi’s time as leader.
Though some semi-official Chinese commentators already say that they see no hope for unification without some use of violence, there is no agreement among foreign governments as to whether that is the settled view of China’s rulers. China continues to try to shape Taiwanese opinion with a mix of sticks and carrots, suggesting that negotiation has not been abandoned. The biggest carrot, access to its vast markets, continues to be dangled in front of Taiwanese business interests. Ms. Glaser notes that Mr. Xi sounded a patient note in March when he visited Fujian, the coastal province nearest to Taiwan, urging officials to explore new cross-strait integration and economic development paths.
But China’s carrots and sticks can clash. To punish the Taiwanese for electing a dpp government, China has reduced official and semi-official cross-strait contacts to “nearly zero,” says Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, a former Taiwanese deputy defense minister, now at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think-tank in Taipei. That raises the danger of misunderstandings.
So does China’s increased military activity around the island. Psychological operations and “grey-zone” warfare have been intensifying. In 2020, according to Taiwan’s government, Chinese warplanes made 380 sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone ((ADIZ)), a buffer zone of international airspace where foreign planes face questioning controllers and potential interception by Taiwanese fighters. Such a tempo of operations has not been seen since 1996. On 5 April, the Chinese navy promised patrols by its aircraft carriers around Taiwan regularly. On 12 April, 25 Chinese planes entered the ADIZ, a record for a single day.
This may be a test of the new Biden administration, says a senior Taiwanese diplomat, or a bid to create a “new normal” in which Chinese forces are routinely present in a zone formerly controlled by Taiwan. China knows that Taiwan will not fire first, so “the Chinese will continue to push,” the diplomat says. The constant incursions wear down Taiwanese defenses, raise the chances of accidental collisions, and would make it harder to spot a rush to real war. Beyond the constant drumbeat of military pressure, China is “trying to divide society, trying to sow the seeds of chaos,” says the diplomat. “They also conduct cyber-activities and disinformation campaigns.”
Wang Zaixi, a former deputy head of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, a semi-official Chinese body, advocates a “third way” between all-out war and political negotiations massive display of firepower cows Taiwan into submission. In Chinese media interviews, he has cited the (not wholly reassuring) precedent of Red Army troops surrounding Beijing in 1949 in such intimidating numbers that the city fell with rather few casualties, an approach he calls “using war to force peace.”
Meanwhile American allies in the region emphasize how grim and frightening the Asia-Pacific would feel if America ever broke its commitments and ducked a fight with China. Japan’s prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, recently went further than any recent predecessor when he mentioned the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait in a joint statement with Biden. Japan fears Taiwan becoming a Chinese bastion just to its south.
Some in the US want to make clear that maintaining its Asian role is central to America’s interests, too. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat close to Biden, is co-sponsor of the Strategic Competition Act, a bill with strong bipartisan support that would deepen ties with Taiwan, whether by offering the island trade deals, weapons sales, expanded contacts with American officials or support in its attempts to take part in international forums, as one of several measures to push back against what he calls China’s growing global aggression.
It may sound a bit narcissistic for Americans to assume that China’s plans for Taiwan turn on how strong America looks to China. But Chinese experts and officials are sincerely convinced that America is delighted to be Taiwan’s security guarantor and thus gain a chance to meddle in China’s internal affairs. Without America to help, Taiwan will surrender in an instant, they argue.
There is much to be said for America’s decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity. Though some American scholars believe it would usefully deter China to hear the Biden administration say it would join any war over Taiwan, it could also provoke China to rash acts or embolden some future leader on Taiwan to declare independence. Logic also supports the Pentagon’s desire to spend the next ten years arming Taiwan, buying new weapons, and increasing the uncertainty of Chinese commanders and their political masters.
The challenge of such an approach is to generate enough anxiety to stay China’s hand, but not so much that Xi sees Taiwan slipping permanently from his grasp. For all the alarm in Washington, China does not feel like a country on a war footing or particularly close to one. Several sources briefed on a recent meeting in Alaska between China’s top foreign-policy officials, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, and the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, report that the Chinese delivered shrill and inflexible talking points on Taiwan, but used no new language that showed unprecedented urgency.
A consideration in the case of the US and also Australia of course is that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force operates a host of ballistic missiles capable of striking stationary targets across the Korean Peninsula and Japanese archipelago. Its new DF-26 ballistic missile is assessed to have an operational range of up to 2,500 miles, capable in theory of striking a moving aircraft carrier and nicknamed by Chinese sources as “the Guam killer” (Guam of course is where many US soldiers are stationed including where the US weapons stockpile for the whole pacific including for a possible defense of South Korea is located). The rest of Asia and northern approaches to Australia are also covered by these same missiles.
China’s public stance involves much saber-rattling, to be sure. Viewers of state television are never far from their next sight of an aircraft carrier or gleaming jets screaming through azure skies. But calls for sacrifice to prepare the public for full-on hostilities are missing. The party’s claims to legitimacy in this, its centenary year, are overwhelmingly domestic and based on order and material prosperity: they are buttressed by images of gorge-spanning bridges and high-speed trains, villagers raised from poverty, and heroic doctors beating back covid-19 even as it rages around the outside world.
Nevertheless, China’s visible capabilities and veiled intent are grounds for alarm. Its scorn for Western opinion, as over Hong Kong, is a bad sign. The war over Taiwan may not appear imminent in Beijing. But nor, shockingly, is it unthinkable.
How a potential future war about Taiwan can be avoided
Since China considers its over 2,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan insufficient for deterring independence, and its huge market has not made unification a more favorable prospect for the Taiwanese, China and the United States are now locked in a security dilemma where China will increase military coercion against Taiwan regardless of the nature of the support the U.S. provides to Taiwan.
Xi however, should soberly contemplate the downside of any adventurism now or in the future. China’s economy slumped badly during the latest global downturn. Despite the shrill propaganda, many citizens of China know the leadership in Beijing is much to blame for this state of affairs. Enough of them have traveled to Taiwan to understand the dramatic difference between them and presumably harbor some sympathy for the free and democratic society across the strait.
Reflecting growing bilateral ties, the United States and Taiwan should take further steps to enhance “extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations.” This would be consistent with the language of the Taiwan Relations Act and the Taiwan Travel Act, The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), and the TAIPEI Act.
At that same time, Taiwan must ensure its ability to integrate security efforts, including “hard power” deterrence, across all threatened elements of national life and strength to better respond to Chinese “sharp power” and protect Taiwan’s liberal values and democratic institutions.
A strengthened National Security Council operational role in integrating all elements of national power and a fundamental armed forces redesign to meet today’s challenge are also necessary. This demands a redesign of Taiwan’s national security structure, a revised force structure, new automated training, and professional military education systems, and new ways to ensure effective deterrence.
Taiwan’s ground forces must be integrated into the fight for air and sea supremacy. That conclusion leads to what kind of weapons may be needed. A jointly developed powerful simulation system is needed to test force structure options, operational concepts, and doctrine to ensure effective deterrence and to support improved training at all levels.
Cooperation with the United States and other nations in the region that face the same threat is essential. An Alliance of Democracies in the region and beyond must be energized to support democratic ideals and demonstrate the appeal of representative government to all captive populations in China and the region.
Demolishing the myth that Taiwan has no hope is critical. The United States, along with its allies, especially Japan, in close consultation with Taiwan, should develop a coordinated messaging campaign to counter that narrative, resist coercion, and strengthen deterrence.
While the United States has managed to deter Beijing from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach inches dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Greater clarity and assurance of U.S. commitments to defend Taiwan are critical for purposes of deterrence and stability.
Beijing as one Chinese commentator wrote; craves too much respect. It wants to be feared and loved. It may end up achieving neither.
1. Quoted in Chang Pin-tsun, "Chinese Maritime Trade: The Case of Sixteenth-Century Fu-chien" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1983), 14.
2. For a detailed look at the intention of the maritime prohibition and its rules, see Bodo Wiethoff, Die chinesische Seeverbotspolitik und der private Überseehandel von 1368 bis 1567 (Hamburg: Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, 1963), esp. 27–50.
3. Much ink has been spilled on the question of the Ming tribute system. A good early work is Wang Gung-wu's "Early Ming Relations with Southeast Asia: A Background Essay," in The Chinese World Order, ed. John K. Fairbank (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 34–62. See also the essays in The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Part 1, ed. Frederick W. Mote and Denis Twitchett, vol. 7 of The Cambridge History of China, ed. Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and William Atwell, "Ming China and the Emerging World Economy, c. 1470–1650," in The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Part 2, ed. Frederick W. Mote and Denis Twitchett, vol. 8 of The Cambridge History of China, 376–416. I have found especially useful Chang Pin-tsun, "Chinese Maritime Trade: The Case of Sixteenth-Century Fu-chien"; and Bodo Wiethoff, Die chinesische Seeverbotspolitik. J. K. Fairbank and S. Y. Teng's classic work on the Qing tribute system also contains important information about the Ming system: J. K. Fairbank and S.Y. Teng, "On the Ch'ing Tributary System," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 6, no. 2 (1941): 135–246. An interesting article about overseas Chinese who accompanied tribute missions to China is Chan Hok-Lam, "The ‘Chinese Barbarian Officials' in the Foreign Tributary Missions to China during the Ming Dynasty," Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, no. 3 (1968): 411–18. For an argument about the effects of these prohibitions on southeastern China's economy, see William G. Skinner, "Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History," The Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 2 (1985): 271–92. Skinner perhaps overemphasizes the role of Portuguese traders in reinvigorating the region's trade.
4. The Qing decision to open the seas came in 1683, after the capture of Taiwan from the Zheng regime. It was a momentous policy, causing changes throughout East and Southeast Asia.
5. This appears to have been less true of cultures in the far south of Taiwan and in the northeast, around today's Yilan (宜蘭), where sizeable rice surpluses were produced.
6. An overview of the legal and administrative structure of the Dutch colony can be found in a brilliant article by a young Taiwanese scholar: Cheng Wei-chung 鄭維中. “Lüe lun Helan shidai Taiwan fazhi shi yu shehui zhixu” 略論荷蘭時代台灣法制史與社會秩序, Taiwan Fengwu 臺灣風物, 52(1) : 11–40. See also C. C. de Reus, "Geschichtlicher Überblick der rechtlichen Entwicklung der Niederl. Ostind. Compagnie," in Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap der Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Batavia: Egbert Heemen, 1894).
7. The concept "calculability" is at the heart of Max Weber's important work General Economic History, trans. Frank H. Knight (New York: Greenberg, 1927). The much-discussed Protestant Ethic is only a minor part of Weber's general theory of capitalism, which focuses on institutions and practices that impede or foster calculability.
8. Governor Nicolaes Verburch to Batavia, letter, VOC 1172: 466–91, quote at 472; cited in De Dagregisters van het Kasteel Zeelandia, Taiwan, 1629–1662 [The journals of Zeelandia Castle, Taiwan, 1629–1662], ed. Leonard Blussé, Nathalie Everts, W. E. Milde, and Ts'ao Yung-ho, 4 vols. (The Hague: Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 1986–2001), 3:96–97.
9. Steven Mosher, Hegemon: China s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World, 2002, 37.