On the face of it, focusing on Taiwan as the world’s worrisome hotspot may seem an odd choice. The past year has witnessed an unusual amount of turmoil – the ravages of the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting global economic fallout, deepening political dissention in the United States and weakening American international leadership, and nationalism, intolerance and isolationism on the ascent across the globe. The entire post-World War II order seems to be breaking down under the strain. By comparison, the dispute over Taiwan’s status is an unresolved relic of a different, and arguably bygone, era. Now seven decades old, the standoff between the rival governments in Beijing and Taipei has been tense and occasionally nerve-rattling, but also limited mainly to fiery rhetoric rather than live fire, thankfully for the prosperity and stability of East Asia.
But all this dramatic change is coalescing around this old conflict and making it new again. The altered global balance of power and morphing politics in East and West are undercutting the sources of stalemate across the Taiwan Strait. A newly assertive China is striving to re-establish its traditional position as East Asia’s premier power, just as political divisions and “America First” provincialism have sparked doubts about Washington’s commitment to upholding its own international system.
Taiwan is a natural fault line vulnerable in such times of stress. Beijing has raised tensions – and alarm – by intensifying military pressure on Taiwan to a level unseen in decades. During the second half of 2020, Beijing’s armed forces conducted an intense series of military exercises, in the air and on the sea, unusually close to the island to intimidate its leaders and citizens. The government in Beijing appears to have completely discarded the concept of the “median line”, an unofficial demarcation in the Taiwan Strait that has acted a safeguard against unforeseen military mishaps. The incidents have prompted Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, to warn anyone who will listen that the risks of a Chinese invasion of the island have escalated.
What has changed most of all is the political situation in Beijing. There President Xi Jinping has gained more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, and he has justified this controversial shift to one-man rule by portraying himself as the ultimate defender of Chinese national interests. His domestic political stature thus almost compels him to take a harder line in international affairs, especially toward a sore spot like Taiwan. The Chinese Communists in Beijing still claim Taiwan as a rogue province that is rightfully part of their People’s Republic of China. At the same time, Xi has been pursuing a more muscular foreign policy on just about every front – from the contested border with India to diplomatic disputes with Australia, Canada, and other countries – apparently emboldened by China’s enhanced political and economic clout.
Meanwhile, from Beijing’s perspective, Taiwan itself is appearing more threatening. Traditionally, the political elite on the island have maintained the general position that reunification with the mainland remained the ultimate goal. After all, the government in Taipei – the Republic of China – was re-established there by the Nationalists who fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949. But Taiwan is becoming more and more independent. Polls show larger proportions of the people identify themselves as “Taiwanese” as opposed to “Chinese”, and favor declaring Taiwan a full-fledged sovereign state. The current president, Tsai Ing-wen, now in her second term, is part of a local political movement, the Democratic Progressive Party, that does not share the Nationalists’ wistful longing for a return to China. Her government is reaching out to the rest of the world for greater support – especially to Washington. The U.S. and Taiwan recently agreed to hold an annual economic dialogue, and with ire toward China at a high level in Washington, the incoming administration of Joe Biden is very likely to continue to show strong backing for the Taipei government. That is sure to keep blood boiling in Beijing.
All this adds up to heightened risk of war. With Washington distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and its own political squabbles, Xi may smell a moment of opportunity to pounce on Taiwan. There is a chance Xi is looking at his power grab in Hong Kong as evidence he could get away with an attack on Taiwan. Xi was able to crush the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony with, in Beijing’s mind, limited international fallout.
Yet Hong Kong could just as easily serve as a warning. Beijing had to go to great lengths to subdue the anti-Communist opposition in the city, even though it controlled its administration and security forces and was supported by a large swath of the local political and business leadership. In a takeover of Taiwan, Beijing holds no such advantages. Instead, it would be facing a hostile government determined to resist with its own army and a population unlikely to readily submit. If Xi tried to conquer Taiwan and failed or got the People’s Liberation Army embroiled in a costly and protected Vietnam-style morass, he could destroy his political standing at home.
Still, even if Beijing is not intent on invasion, tensions in the strait are unlikely to abate. Beijing has clearly determined that greater coercion and intimidation is required to bring an increasingly wayward Taiwan to heel. That on its own translates into a greater possibility of war. The larger amount of military hardware being tossed about the island could accidentally spark a conflict, if some nervous pilot’s trigger finger itches. Sadly, in a world where so much is new, we cannot escape our old problems.