China’s leaders may pursue a cross-strait unification with Taiwan, but will they go so far as to use force? Tommy Sheng Hao Chai writes.
Recent changes in the Taiwan Strait have exacerbated fears about a crisis in the years ahead. Shifts in the military balance, Trump’s grand bargain and Tsai Ing-wen’s electoral victory in Taiwan are emboldening a nationalist China to actively pursue cross-strait unification. However, this does not mean China is ready to use force on Taiwan, given the remaining risks and the enduring prospect of peaceful unification.
The cross-strait military balance has changed significantly. Beijing’s encounter with Washington during the 1995-96 crisis had exposed several military deficiencies and encouraged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to adopt better strategies and capabilities to deter pro-independence development in Taiwan and asymmetrically counter the United States. This includes an anti-access/anti-denial (A2AD) area designed to deny U.S. access into the first island chain surrounding the East Asian continental coastline.
Although this advantage is important for securing cross-strait military victory, the PLA continues to lack the amphibious landing capabilities necessary to invade the island. China may be ill-prepared to face major resistance emerging from Taiwan’s strong democratic identity, possibly exacerbating Taiwanese counter-insurgency movements and dragging China into a protracted civil war. Furthermore, Washington’s continued commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act and its ‘dual deterrence’ policy mean that it will continue to intervene in any future Chinese attempt to destabilise the status-quo.
While T rump’s presidency has generated uncertainty over a potential U.S.-Sino grand bargain that may see Taiwan abandoned, this is unlikely due to the strength of the Taiwan lobby. Abandoning Taiwan would also undermine America’s alliance credibility and strengthen the Chinese perception that U.S. power and resolve are declining. On the other hand, the U.S. military is still ahead of China’s and has a sophisticated strategy, the ‘Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons’, to challenge China’s A2AD systems.
Due to the prospect of American intervention, Chinese leaders may consider delaying U.S. forces and invading Taiwan before the U.S. arrives. However, this is undermined by factors including the lengthy and overt nature of amphibious mobilisation and Taiwan’s political resilience, which gives Washington ample warning to prepare.
As such, China’s alternative is to engage in a protracted war in hopes of reaching a stalemate that retains its bargaining power in post-crisis negotiations. Yet, this is unlikely as doing so would impose huge costs on China’s other strategy of maintaining a peaceful regional environment conducive to sustained economic growth. This priority is significant as economic performance continues to lend domestic legitimacy to the Party.
The problem is that China’s regional environment is increasingly challenged by great-power competition, territorial conflicts and fears among its neighbors of potential Chinese revisionism. This has encouraged “each rival dispute with China to view how Beijing handles any dispute as possibly presaging its approach to other disputes,” RAND Researcher Timothy Heath notes. An attempt to forcibly resolve the cross-strait issue would therefore undermine China’s commitment to a peaceful regional environment and be seen as evidence that it might use aggression to force others into surrender.
It could provoke an anti-Chinese coalition and undermine China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a regional infrastructure-building project which requires continued diplomatic support from its economic partners. This may impede on China’s economic performance and call into question the Party’s domestic legitimacy.
Since there are still significant risks to military unification, Chinese leaders are likely to wait for a better window of opportunity to maximise gains and minimise costs. Such a moment may arrive when China can more effectively deter third-party intervention, achieve an invasion capacity sufficient for the swift capitulation of Taiwan, and cultivate an international environment that raises substantial costs to regional neighbours who might oppose reunification – a scenario still very much far-fetched.
On the other hand, although peaceful cross-strait unification seems increasingly remote, a Taiwanese move to formal independence is unlikely. It is true that the landslide victory of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party occurred at a time of growing societal fear due to the corrosive impact of the previous administration Kuomintang’s pro-Chinese policies on Taiwan’s de facto independence. This political climate makes it difficult for Tsai to advocate policies that are overtly China-friendly.
Yet, it is unlikely that Tsai will promote policies explicitly in favour of formal independence, since any attempt short of the ‘1992 Consensus’ will provoke China’s retaliation and weaken her approval rating. This is especially so given the time needed for Tsai’s New Southbound Policy to take effect. Thus, Tsai may choose to re-engage with China to recuperate from the short-term losses of the New Southbound Policy. Meanwhile, China’s ‘United Front’ strategy could still undermine the DPP and foment Kuomintang’s comeback.
What all these mean is that China is unlikely to use force to achieve cross-strait unification, at least not in the near future. The window of opportunity has not yet arrived. In the meantime, Beijing can rely on its ‘carrots and sticks’ approach to prevent Taiwan from slipping towards independence.