Chiang Ying-ying / AP
Richard Bush (@RichardBushIII) retired from the Brookings Institution in 2020, after an 18-year-old associate and acting director of the Center for East Asian Studies. Bonnie Glaser (@BonnieGlaser) is the director of the China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ryan Hass (@ryanl_hass), a former foreign affairs officer, served on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and is a senior member of the Brookings Institution.
A growing body of officials and experts in the United States is causing alarm over the risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific States of the United States, recently handicapped the threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan as “manifest during this decade, in fact, for the next six years.” China is preparing for the invasion and unification of Taiwan by force, it is thought, as soon as it gains opportunities for that. Such doomsday predictions deserve examination.
Chinese actions undoubtedly deserved control. In recent years, Beijing has become impatiently aggressive in pursuit of its ambitions. China has drawn blood along the disputed Indian border, threatened Vietnam, expanded its military presence in the South China Sea, increased the pace of its operations near Senkaku Island and trampled on Hong Kong autonomy – not to mention any of the crimes it commits against its own citizens in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Beijing is also investing heavily in military capabilities that could be used in the case of Taiwan. China has grown in naval shipbuilding in recent years, surpassing the U.S. Navy in troop numbers. Robert S. Ross of Boston College estimates that the Chinese navy already has more than 300 ships, while the US navy has about 280.
China is marching its full range of opportunities to increase pressure on Taiwan below the conflict threshold. People’s Liberation Army forces are now operating throughout Taiwan. They also performed highly advertised amphibious assault exercises and aerial breakthroughs in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on the highest frequency in nearly 25 years.
Beijing’s hostility to Taiwan was fueled by the perception that the Trump administration had shown stronger support for the island government, reducing any incentive Taipei had to submit to its demands. Trump officials have taken initiatives mainly in the diplomatic and security fields, and have fostered Taiwan’s trust. The Biden administration has shown broad continuity in supporting Taiwan during the first months.
As worrying as the trends in Chinese behavior may be, it would be wrong to conclude that they represent an introduction to an unchanging catastrophe. China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to discourage Taiwan’s independence, not force it to unite. Beijing remains confident in its capacity to achieve this short-term goal, although it is laying the groundwork for its long-term unification goal. Really, based on a survey as far as defense attitudes are concerned, we believe that the people of Taiwan are already sober about the risks of gaining independence.
Chinese leaders have also applied harsh rhetoric, though some are exaggerated. Too much has been given since President Xi Jinping’s statement that future generations do not pass on the division to the sea. Every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has projected a determination to unite Taiwan with the mainland. Xi is no different either. And Xi, now 67, is unlikely to be around to see if Taiwan is united with the mainland by the alleged deadline, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.
While it is true that some in China have concluded that time is no longer on the Chinese side and that Beijing should use force to force unification, Xi resisted such pressure. In its latest five-year plan, launched this year, Beijing reaffirmed policy guidelines for achieving “peaceful development of strait relations,” continuing a line dating back to the era of Hu Jintao, China’s president from 2003 to 2013.
Beijing has its own incentives to avoid war. Most important among them is that any attempt to take Taiwan by force would very likely provoke a military conflict with the United States. Such a conflict would be difficult to limit by escalating or spreading beyond the Taiwan Strait.
Under such circumstances, Beijing could not be guaranteed an absolute victory, and anything short, quick, and absolute unification would risk undermining the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party at home. China’s use of force against Taiwan would also poison China’s image in the region and the world, warn neighboring countries of the threat posed by stability to China, and lead to a diversion of resources and focus from Xi’s urgent domestic priorities.
Given the unattractiveness of these options, it is little surprise that China has chosen a different path. In recent years, Beijing has introduced a wide range of tools to deter Taiwan’s independence and is gradually weakening the will of the Taiwanese people to resist integration with the mainland.
China has targeted Taiwan economically, sought to bring the brains of Taiwanese chief engineers to the mainland, isolated Taiwan on the world stage, fueled social divisions within Taiwan, launched cybernetics, and undertook military demonstrations.
Beijing’s goal is to constantly remind the Taiwanese people of its growing power, encourage pessimism about Taiwan’s future, deepen divisions within the island’s political system, and show that external forces are powerless to counter its inflections.
His approach is guided by the Chinese aphorism: “Once ripe, the melon will fall off the stem.” This strategy may require more time than war, but for Beijing it will have less cost and risk.
Coercion without violence is not just a threat; it is an everyday reality. China does indeed pose a kinetic threat to Taiwan, and Taiwan and the United States must strengthen their ability to deter war. But the immediate threat is not only military, it is also psychological.
The hiping threat that China poses to Taiwan is made by Beijing. Taiwanese need reasons to trust their own future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities.
If U.S. policymakers want to help Taiwan, they will have to go beyond focusing on the military threat. They must modernize the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship, help Taiwan diversify its trade ties, and provide platforms for Taiwan to gain dignity and respect on the world stage.
Some of the work will necessarily be focused on security, but that is the beginning, not the end of what needs to be done. Beijing will oppose, of course. But the focus on economic and diplomatic initiatives lies well in American one-China policy, as defined by successive administrations.