The imposition of sweeping Chinese legislation in Hong Kong has unnerved Taiwan, deepening fears that Beijing will focus on capturing the island. In recent weeks, China has buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily. It accused Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, of carrying out a “separatist plot” by speaking at an international democracy forum. It has warned the Taiwan government to stop providing shelter to Hong Kong political activists, who are flocking to what they call the last bastion of freedom in the Chinese-speaking world.
Matthew P. Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Beijing was looking at how the United States and other countries would respond. “We’ve seen plenty of examples of China testing and prodding and doing just enough to stay below the threshold of eliciting a strong response from the U.S.,” he added.
On July 8 Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) also blasted China for pressuring U.S. officials against visiting Taiwan and called on the international community to resist Beijing’s unreasonable demands. Whereby FBI Director Christopher Wray outlined the various ways China influences U.S. officials and lawmakers from visiting Taiwan. At the same time, China is upping its campaign where it pushes for “reunification” with Taiwan.
The intensifying efforts to win hearts and minds in democratic Taiwan come amid widespread support on the island for anti-government protests in Hong Kong and opposition to a new Chinese-imposed security law for the city.
Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue, with Beijing claiming the self-ruled island as its own, to be brought under its control by force if needed.
While many Taiwanese trace their ancestry to mainland China and share cultural similarities with Chinese, most don’t want to be ruled by autocratic China.
And whereby a Chinese assault on the island is neither imminent nor inevitable. Beijing’s recent actions in Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia, raising worrying questions about its evolving objectives and increasing willingness to use coercive tactics to achieve them.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become much more tolerant of friction in international affairs than it once was and much bolder about using coercion to advance Chinese interests, often at the expense of the United States and other powers, such as Japan and India. In recent months, China has increased its military and paramilitary pressure on neighboring countries with which it has territorial disputes, including India, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Whether these aggressive maneuvers were intended to remind the world of China’s resolve or to capitalize on the distraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they offer a stark reminder of Xi’s appetite for risk, tolerance for conflict, and desire to assert territorial claims.
Recent history reveals that the international system is vulnerable to this kind of creeping irredentism. And given how little Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong has cost it to date, we are concerned that Beijing will draw the wrong conclusions about the costs of future coercion against Taiwan.
Hong Kong and Taiwan have more in common than many analysts appreciate, both in the view of Beijing and in the sentiments of their citizens. The protests that have raged in Hong Kong for the last year resonated deeply with the people and the leadership in Taiwan. Taiwanese citizens sent protective gear to the protesters in Hong Kong, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January in part because she voiced support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. In a rare bipartisan move, her ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition Kuomintang, and other parties jointly expressed “regret and severe condemnation” of Beijing’s national security law. Taiwanese officials have also pledged to provide refuge to Hong Kong residents fleeing Chinese repression, and some Hong Kongers appear to have taken them up on the offer. According to news reports, the number of Hong Kong residents who moved to Taiwan in the first four months of 2020 was up 150 percent from the same period last year.
The democracy movement that has so united the citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan has allies in other parts of Asia as well. A social media movement is known as the Milk Tea Alliance, a reference to the sweet milk tea popular in East Asia, has brought together activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand who are critical of Chinese nationalist netizens and who oppose Beijing’s new national security law. Recently, the Milk Tea Alliance spread to the Philippines, where some citizens have joined the online movement to voice concerns about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
But what many in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian countries see as online mobilization in support of universal democratic norms, Beijing sees as a dangerous movement of “splittists” who seek to undermine China’s sovereignty, keep China permanently divided, spread Western values, and contain China in Asia. Indeed, Chinese authorities regularly blame “external hostile forces” for the protests in Hong Kong, and for the movement’s resonance in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Xi's China Dream
China’s leaders have always maintained that they are prepared to use force over Taiwan, either to prevent the island’s de jure independence or to compel its unification with the mainland. But Xi has taken a progressively harder line on Taiwan, in word as well as deed. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he declared that reunification was linked to his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. Since then, he has twice stated that the separation of mainland China and Taiwan “should not be passed down generation after generation.” And in his most recent speech focused solely on Taiwan, in January 2019, he said that “our country must be reunified, and will surely be reunified.”
Even more ominous, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang omitted the term “peaceful” in front of “unification” previously standard in official communications about Taiwan, in his annual opening speech to the National People’s Congress in May. A few days later, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi did the same in his speech to the congress. As a former head of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Wang was well aware of the significance of this rhetorical change. By the end of the NPC’s two-week session, “peaceful reunification” was back in the final version of Li’s work report approved by the congress, along with unconvincing explanations for its initial absence having to do with poor bureaucratic coordination.
In addition to hardening its rhetoric against Taiwan, China has sought to isolate the island diplomatically. In the last five years, Beijing has poached seven of Taipei’s formal allies, leaving only 15 countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent country. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in May, China even excluded Taiwan from the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, despite the island’s global leadership in containing and mitigating COVID-19.
At the same time, China has ramped up military pressure on Taiwan. Its air force and navy have conducted more than ten transits and military exercises near the island since mid-January, including an increasing number of deliberate incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, according to research by Bonnie S. Glaser and Matthew P. Funaiole of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In March 2019, China’s air force sent two advanced fighter jets over the centerline of the Taiwan Strait for the first time in 20 years. Since then, it has sent an increasing number of aircraft across the centerline. China’s strategic bombers have also circumnavigated the island multiple times in recent months, while other Chinese aircraft have crossed the Miyako Strait between Taiwan and Japan. All of these maneuvers were intended to intimidate Taiwan by demonstrating Beijing’s readiness to use force at a moment’s notice.
Shortly after Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen landslide reelection in January, the Chinese military apparently leaked a photo depicting soldiers studying maps of Taiwan. Invasion routes are clearly marked on the maps. One of the maps shows Chinese forces landing in southern Taiwan, but only after seizing Penghu, a Taiwanese archipelago of 90 islets that lies 30 miles from the main island.
China has little choice but to capture or suppress Penghu before invading Taiwan proper. Taiwanese forces on the archipelago operate a long-range radar plus Hsiung Feng II anti-ship cruise missiles and Sky Bow III surface-to-air missiles. If a Chinese invasion fleet bypassed Penghu without destroying its garrison, the fleet would be subject to missile strikes at its flanks.
It’s not for no reason that Paul Huang, a researcher with the Taipei-sponsored Institute for National Defense and Security Research, early this year described Penghu’s as the most important of Taiwan’s three major island garrisons.
If China failed to suppress or capture Penghu, the main invasion force “might be obliged to abort the operation, making an assault on Taiwan one of history’s nonevents—like Hitler’s invasion of England,” analysts Piers Wood and Charles Ferguson wrote in a 2001 edition of the U.S. Naval War College Review. But taking the islands could be hard for China. Their 60,000-strong permanent garrison includes an army brigade with 70 upgraded M-60 tanks and an artillery battalion. The Taiwanese navy routinely deploys a missile destroyer in the waters around Penghu. The air force practices staging nimble Indigenous Defense Fighters to the archipelago’s airport.
A major beach-defense exercise in 2017 involved 3,900 Taiwanese troops, IDF and F-16 fighters, AH-64, CH-47 and UH-60 helicopters, RT-2000 multiple-launch rocket systems, tanks, 155-millimeter and 105-millimeter howitzers and teams firing Javelin anti-tank missiles at offshore targets. The Taiwanese fleet operates just two front-line submarines, but in the event of war it’s a safe bet that at least one of them would prowl near Penghu.
There is little Tsai can do to convince China to dial back the diplomatic and military pressure short of accepting its unilateral definition of “one China” and its “one country, two systems” model, both of which are now wholly discredited by what has happened in Hong Kong. In the worldview of China’s leaders, Tsai’s commitment to Taiwanese independence, she perceived efforts at “de-Sinification” on the island, and the growing connections between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the democratic world more broadly all legitimize China’s saber-rattling, and perhaps, eventually, its use of force. Xi appears to have made up his mind about Tsai, wrongly but perhaps conclusively. He and other Chinese leaders are still weighing the costs and benefits of a harder line on Taiwan as they take the measure of U.S. and international willpower, which is why the U.S. response to the Hong Kong law matters so much.
The USA to deter Beijing?
If so the US administration (which US defense agreement with Taiwan) might need to start by improving its coordination with European and Asian allies. It has issued symbolically important joint statements in Hong Kong, first with Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom and then with the G-7. But much more diplomacy is needed to broaden that coalition and coordinate pressure on Beijing. That so few Asian governments have criticized China’s new law is deeply worrisome, as is the European Union’s initial pledge that it will merely “follow developments closely.” But before Washington can rally its European and Asian allies behind a unified message on Hong Kong, it will have to stop kicking them. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of troops from NATO, his extreme demands for payment from Tokyo and Seoul, his threats to pull troops out of South Korea, and his disinterest in the G-7 and other groupings have pushed these allies away at a time when they would ordinarily be open to U.S. leadership. These actions have also telegraphed vulnerability, disunity, and lack of resolve among Western allies to Beijing.
But China is creating more favorable conditions for U.S.-led diplomacy in Hong Kong. Beijing’s so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, aimed at intimidating countries critical of its handling of the pandemic, combined with its recent aggression on territorial issues has alienated much of the world. The United States should seize this opportunity to make Hong Kong a diplomatic priority. In the lead-up to the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong in September, Washington should lead the G-7, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the European Union, and the so-called Quad of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India in joint statements and actions warning Beijing against arresting political candidates it dislikes.
The United States and its European and Asian allies should also consider offering Hong Kong citizens residency and a path to citizenship, just as the United Kingdom has done. And if the situation in Hong Kong deteriorates, owing to arrests of candidates in the September elections, for instance, the United States should consider sanctioning the Chinese officials responsible. Such measures won’t restore Hong Kong’s autonomy in the near term, but they could discourage overt acts of repression and help shape Beijing’s thinking about Taiwan.
Staving off Chinese aggression, whether in Taiwan or elsewhere in Asia, however, will also require the United States to get serious about military deterrence in the western Pacific. Over the last two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made advances that seriously eroded U.S. military power in the western Pacific, especially around Taiwan. Recent operations by two U.S. carrier battle groups in the South China Sea were important demonstrations of willpower, but capacity matters, too. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has written, the U.S. military now faces the prospect of losing a fight with China in defense of Taiwan. The Pentagon has focused on building large platforms, such as aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships, but such facilities don’t effectively deter China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities. The United States needs to rethink its forward-basing posture, increase its cooperation and interoperability with allies such as Japan, and improve its ability to fight in highly contested environments, including through greater use of unmanned systems.
Washington could also help Taiwan make its political system more resilient in the face of Chinese pressure and its military better able to degrade Chinese capabilities in a fight. The latter objective will not be served by selling the island the billions of dollars’ worth of M1A2 tanks authorized by the Trump administration in 2019. These do little to deter a combined naval, air, and missile campaign from China, and the PLA will always be bigger and better equipped than Taiwan’s army in a ground battle. Rather, the United States should work with Taiwan to develop asymmetric military capabilities that would actually stand a chance of deterring a Chinese invasion or attacks on critical infrastructure.
Plus U.S. pressure should also be tempered with skillful diplomacy to ensure that Beijing sees an international coalition moving against it but doesn’t feel so threatened that it lashes out or is able to separate the United States from its allies.