Jan 8, 2019
By Peter Apps
In the first week of 2019, as China grabbed headlines for landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a New Year’s Day editorial in the nation’s official military newspaper told its readers that “war preparations” should be a top priority for the year. The following day, President Xi Jinping offered a forceful reminder of what Beijing considers its most likely focus of conflict to be: Taiwan.
China’s rulers have long regarded the island as a rogue province, with regaining control a point of honor for the ruling Communist Party and military alike. In a major speech on Wednesday, Xi warned the “problem” could not be held over for another generation. While he talked primarily of “peaceful unification,” he said Beijing reserves the right to use force if necessary. The speech brought a sharp rebuke from Taiwan, where residents remain strongly opposed to rejoining China, even under a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” deal.
To invade the island successfully, most military analysts argue that Beijing would either have to deter the United States from intervening or defeat nearby U.S. forces and prevent others from entering the region. China may not yet be strong enough to do this, but its military enlargement means that may not always be the case. Certainly, Chinese military thinking increasingly revolves around just this kind of potential war, in which Beijing would want to grab territory while keeping U.S. forces back.
To an extent, much of this is grandstanding geopolitical ballet. Beijing has been unable to stop Taiwan from acting as a de facto country over the last half century, but remains desperate to prevent the island from making an outright declaration of independence. To an extent, this posturing – like Beijing’s increasing military assertiveness with warships and jets around Taiwan – is about reminding those in power in Taipei that any vote on independence might bring war. But there’s more to it than that. As China asserts itself as a global power, Beijing wants to show the world that it is strong enough to take Taiwan at any point it wants.
Domestic Taiwanese politics also remain a factor. In the run-up to Taiwan’s November elections, Taiwanese officials accused China of a Russia-style messaging campaign to undermine support for President Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Those elections saw a serious setback for the DPP and a strong performance by the pro-Chinese Kuomintang opposition, but Xi’s comments last week suggest Beijing still sees military posturing as the best way of pressuring the island.
Taking Taiwan militarily would not be a simple operation. Chinese forces would face sophisticated Taiwanese missile, mine, submarine and air attack if they tried to cross the 110-mile (180 km) Taiwan Strait. The island’s highly populated cities and densely forested mountains would prove a guerrilla fighter’s paradise. A botched Taiwan invasion, potentially with tens of thousands of casualties, could prove an international humiliation as well as kickstarting a domestic political crisis for Xi.
Taiwan, for its part, clearly wishes to persuade China that it is not an easy target. Taipei intends to spend $11 billion on defense this year, a six percent increase from 2018. Much of that will be spent on cutting-edge U.S. and Taiwan-made equipment – on Jan. 2, Taipei unveiled its latest domestically-built anti-ship missile, capable of inflicting serious casualties on any Chinese invasion force.
For Washington and Beijing alike, most of the military posturing for now is likely to remain limited to the Taiwan Strait. Last year, the U.S. Navy sent several ships through the Strait in what a U.S. Pacific Fleet statement described as a demonstration of the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. In 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two U.S. aircraft carriers – a much more potent force – through the same route during a crisis with China; some argue Washington should again take similar action. That would outrage Beijing – no U.S. carrier has sailed through in more than a decade, although China’s aircraft carrier has sailed the same waters in its own show of force.
China may be reaching for the moon, but Xi’s speech was a reminder that its greatest territorial ambitions may lie much closer to home. Even if Beijing isn’t on the verge of attacking the island, his rhetoric raises the risk that there may eventually be outright war. In a world where the risk of conflict between major nations seems to ratchet higher every year, China’s desire to dominate Taiwan may yet be what lights the spark.
(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. Paralyzed by a war-zone car smash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics at www.pete-apps.com @pete_apps – Reuters)