The Taiwan Strait is arguably the most dangerous flashpoint on the planet. It’s fundamentally unstable and the threat from China is growing worse. The likelihood that frontline countries like South Korea, Estonia, or Poland are ever going to be blockaded or invaded by their neighbors is not zero, but it’s close to zero. The same cannot be said of Taiwan.
Here’s why the situation is so unstable. Taiwan does not have nuclear weapons. China does. And there are no American troops stationed on the island to serve as a strategic tripwire. The US doesn’t even conduct port visits or hold defense exercises with Taiwan. Perhaps even more worrisome is the flimsy diplomatic relationship between the two. Simply put, Taiwan does not have the security that comes with diplomatic recognition and a defense treaty with the United States.
American arms sales to Taiwan, while wonderfully robust in recent months, should not be viewed as a silver bullet. Arms sales are always fraught with uncertainty and hardly sufficient for Taiwan’s defense in view of China’s massive armaments program.
The sad irony is that, for decades, American diplomats have inadvertently prevented Taiwan from maintaining a credible self-defense posture. Foggy Bottom has stopped Taiwan from building or buying ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, stealth fighter-bombers, long-range drones, and other defensive and offensive capabilities that are manifestly needed for deterring Chinese invasion.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) political warfare tactics have, by in large, succeeded in paralyzing hard decisions in the United States and in Taiwan, to say nothing of Japan, Korea, Australia, and other interested parties. This is a collective problem and a collective failure. Multiple administrations — Republican and Democrat, DPP and KMT — have allowed the regional security situation to deteriorate.
The balance of power has tipped in favor of a powerful communist dictatorship, and strategy makers in Washington and Taipei still don’t have a serious theory of cross-Strait deterrence. Our leaders don’t know how to communicate red lines to Beijing, because they don’t know what their red lines are and what they are prepared to do if they are crossed. Our leaders don’t know how to control escalation. They don’t even know what their long-term political goals for the future are. Their strategic thinking, therefore, is feeble.
Has the countdown begun? Do Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Communist Party high command have a timeline for conquering Taiwan? It’s uncertain, but they might.
In November 2012, Xi Jinping secretly pledged to continue the Taiwan work of former Chairman Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Xi swore to his colleagues that he would get the CCP and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), ready for an offensive war against Taiwan by 2020. Notably, Xi did not say how he would judge the PLA’s readiness. And he didn’t comment on whether or not he would use the military option as soon as it was ready. Like any good politician, he left himself plenty of room to maneuver.
Nonetheless, we have solid evidence that suggests Xi and the CCP do intend to attack Taiwan at some point in the foreseeable future. Let me cite a few illustrative examples.
In January 2016, the CCP launched a sweeping military reform and reorganization program. It was the first time anything like this had happened in Communist China’s 70-year history. Giant military bureaucracies are famously difficult to change. And it’s always dangerous for civilian leaders to attempt to restructure them. To succeed, Chairman Xi has had to fire, imprison, and, in several cases, execute, well over 100 high-ranking generals in just a few years time. More purges are coming.
But why did he take such a risky path in the first place? Xi has suggested he had no better option. China needed a more lethal military machine, one capable of fighting and winning future wars. Of course, the main future war the CCP envisions fighting is a war of conquest directed at Taiwan. We are now watching as China builds exactly the type of military it needs to invade Taiwan and defeat the US military in the Pacific.
A further warning sign came on January 2, 2019, when Xi declared before a large theater audience in Beijing that the annexation of Taiwan is an essential part of his plans for China’s future. He said that he refused to renounce the use of force, and stated that “Taiwan independence will lead to a dead end.”
Then, in July 2019, the CCP released a threatening defense white paper. Please allow me to translate a few choice lines. The English translation provided by the Xinhua propaganda service is watered down.
“Solving the Taiwan problem and achieving complete national unification is in the fundamental interest of the Chinese race. It is obviously necessary for achieving the Chinese race’s great renewal... China must be unified and obviously will be... If anyone splits Taiwan off from China, China’s military will pay any price to totally defeat them.”
These are, of course, radical statements, which are completely out of touch with reality. China hasn’t been “unified” for 70 years. Taiwan, under its Republic of China constitution, has long existed as an independent country. Underscoring this, the US had an embassy in Taipei for 30 years, and Taiwan’s government has only grown more legitimate since then, thanks to its warm embrace of freedom and democracy.
So, while the CCP won’t admit it, the truth is there are actually two totally different countries across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China, nor should it be. By denying the facts of history and the rights of individuals to chart their own paths, Xi Jinping is playing with fire. Like dictators before him, he is setting China on a tragic course.
Science and reason tell us that Marxist-Leninist thinking is dead wrong. Nothing that happens is inevitable. The future has not been written. It is men and women in positions of power and responsibility who decide what happens through their actions, and sometimes, through their inactions.
Leaders in the US and Taiwan need to plan and prepare for the worst. Threats can be reduced, and war can be prevented. Although it often seems that politicians in Washington and Taipei are too afraid of the CCP, too internally divided, and too complacent, they can change outdated policies before a future crisis forces them to act. Many positive changes have already begun, but the room for improvement is still vast.
When we consider the CCP threat to regional peace, the only thing that we can conclude with absolute confidence is that there is no reason for defeatism and despair, but every reason for greater vigilance and resolve.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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