In March this year, admiral Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, testified to Congress that he was afraid China would attempt to take over Taiwan as early as 2027. Davidson based his fears on the unprecedented pace at which China has strengthened its armed forces.
In his testimony, Davidson noted: “I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that [China is] putting in the field, unless… it is an aggressive posture.” Davidson’s successor admiral John Aquilino stressed to Congress the urgency of strengthening US forces in the Indo-Pacific to counter any attempt by China to take over Taiwan.
China and Taiwan have managed to coexist relatively peacefully for over 70 years. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping introduced “one country, two systems” as a model for China’s relations with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. At the time, Deng advised China to maintain a low international profile and leave the difficult questions for future generations to resolve. For decades China’s leadership has spoken of “peaceful reunification”.
Xi Jinping has taken a tougher stance. In 2017, Xi announced that reunification of Taiwan is part of the “Chinese dream”, his grand plan for national rejuvenation. Subsequently, he has twice noted that the separation of Taiwan from China should not simply be shifted from one generation to the next. In 2019, he proclaimed with certainty that Taiwan and China would be reunited. In a break with the past, recent statements by senior officials have suggested that reunification need not be peaceful.
Looking ahead, what can we expect from Beijing?
The US position has hardened
Taiwan has existed as a de facto independent country for seven decades. Over the years, the gap between Taiwan and the mainland has grown. In 2020, The Economist Intelligence Unit classified Taiwan as a full democracy at par with Australia or the Netherlands, while at about $28,000, its GDP per capita is almost triple of China’s. In a recent survey, 64.3% of Taiwan’s population considered themselves Taiwanese, 29.9% Taiwanese and Chinese, and only 2.6% Chinese. Only 8.1% supported reunification with China. These are hardly an ideal foundation for reunification.
Since Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the US has been its strongest supporter. While accepting the one-China principle in its relations with Beijing, Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” allows it to maintain relations with both Beijing and Taipei. On the one hand, the US encourages Taiwan not to declare unilateral independence, while on the other it seeks to deter China from attempting reunification.
The Trump administration took a particularly hard line on China. In October 2020, US health secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei, the first cabinet-level visit from the US in over four decades. China responded by stepping up its violations of Taiwan’s air defence zone and threatening other retaliatory measures. The Biden administration has maintained this firm stance. Early this year, secretary of state Antony Blinken reaffirmed the US commitment to Taiwan and warned China not to change the status quo.
“One country, two systems” is no longer credible
For many years, the Hong Kong model or some permutation of “one country, two systems” was considered the most viable option for China’s long-term relations with Taiwan. Beijing’s tightened grip on Hong Kong, including the new national security legislation passed in 2020, the assignment of Chinese security forces to Hong Kong, and recent restrictions on its lawmakers, have undermined the credibility of the model – and of Beijing’s promises. Many feel this was short-sighted of Beijing. The options for addressing relations with Taiwan are now more limited.
Outright invasion poses many risks
Despite its sabre-rattling, Beijing can hardly be enthusiastic about taking Taiwan by force. The Taiwan Strait is stormy for a large part of the year, and the island itself is not easy to invade. The east coast is mountainous, and the west coast is heavily fortified. China’s armed forces have overwhelming superiority, but lack combat experience. It’s also unclear to Beijing how the US, Japan and their allies would react.
The more likely scenario is that Beijing will use grey and hybrid interventions to bend Taipei to its will.
A military takeover by China would encounter both military and civilian resistance in Taiwan, might not be resolved quickly and could become a political embarrassment for Beijing. Taiwan’s citizens are Han-Chinese, speak Mandarin and many have relatives, friends and businesses on the mainland. An outright invasion might lack popular support in China and could weaken Xi Jinping politically.
There are other reasons for Beijing to hesitate. Invading Taiwan will be condemned widely and turn China into an international pariah. Many Western countries will impose sanctions. China’s leaders have not forgotten how clamping down on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 led to international sanctions and a collapse in economic growth. Prior to Tiananmen, growth was a robust 14%, while in 1989-1990 it barely reached 3%.
A violent clash over Taiwan will also hit the global economy. Taiwan produces a large share of the world’s microchips, with as much as 84% of the most advanced semiconductors produced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) alone. War will devastate the electronics industry and many related sectors, in China and worldwide. According to Kurt Campbell, who coordinates Indo-Pacific affairs in the Biden administration, it could trigger a global economic crisis.
Hybrid intervention is more likely
The more likely scenario is that Beijing will use grey and hybrid interventions to bend Taipei to its will. Xi can present the commencement of negotiations for reunification as a political win, even if the details and timetable are left open.
In this scenario, Beijing will use “all means short of war” to create uncertainty and confusion in Taiwan. These tactics can include increased infringements of Taiwan’s air defence zone, military exercises in the Taiwan Strait or near its coast, economic sanctions on Taiwanese businessmen and investors, cyber-attacks to disable Taiwan’s banks or physical infrastructure, stepped-up support for anti-government groups and wide intervention in Taiwan’s political processes.
A military takeover by China would encounter both military and civilian resistance in Taiwan, might not be resolved quickly and could become a political embarrassment for Beijing.
From Beijing’s perspective, the small Taiwanese islands—Quemoy (Jinmen), Matsu and the Penghu (Pescadore) islands, among others—might present an attractive target. Taking over some islands will be easier to execute than a full-scale invasion and can be combined with hybrid pressure to force Taipei to the negotiating table.
The status quo has provided stability for over 70 years and is seen by many as the most desirable option. There are many reasons for China to avoid invading Taiwan. But the likelihood that China will try is now higher than ever. The best way for the US and its allies to safeguard the status quo is to heed the warnings of admirals Davidson and Aquilino, and make a military takeover by China as difficult as possible.
Robert Wihtol has worked on development issues in Asia and the Pacific for nearly four decades, as both an international civil servant and an academic. He worked for the Asian Development Bank for 20 years, including as Country Director for China and Director General for East Asia. He currently teaches at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila and the Asia-Pacific Finance and Development Institute in Shanghai, and runs staff training programs at the ADB. He also chairs the board of Finland's development fund, Finnfund.