An unusually large number of US pundits, members of the US Congress and even policy experts have recently opined that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is imminent. It will happen very soon, they say.
Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who just announced that she will seek the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president next year, wrote on Twitter that China “is close” to invading Taiwan.
The recently formed US House of Representatives China Committee in its first meeting adopted a hard, even warning, stance against China. Another committee, chaired by US Representative French Hill, is advancing what is called the Conflict Deterrence Act, to warn off China.
Is it true that China is about to launch an invasion of Taiwan? What are the reasons for this narrative?
US-China relations are at a low point. The US media and anti-China members of Congress assail China daily over it spreading COVID-19, killing 1.1 million Americans. They contend that China is trying to destroy the US-built world order, designed after World War II to preserve peace and enhance global prosperity.
China, it is said, seeks to advance its own world order.
More is being said in public about China stealing US technology in the context of China apparently forging ahead of the US in the high-tech war.
Additionally, China has escalated tension with Taiwan with its naval and air forces regularly crossing Taiwan’s air defense zone.
Plus, Chinese leaders almost daily angrily condemn Taiwanese independence advocates.
The South China Sea has become an area of increased US-China tension. It is linked to Taiwan by proximity.
The war in Ukraine gives China a big opportunity. The West is preoccupied there. Beijing regards Russia as a long-lasting ally and wants to help it.
Of course, there is the view among US pundits that China is experiencing an economic downturn and a resulting leadership crisis, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) needs a war.
Finally, polls in Taiwan show a marked trend among residents to identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese or both. This might prod Chinese leaders to move quickly.
What is the counterevidence?
If China were to invade Taiwan in the next few days or even months, that would be known to the US. Invasions take a lot of preparation.
Former US president Dwight Eisenhower, when he was leader of the Allied forces in World War II, spent months preparing the Normandy invasion in 1944. That was only 42km across the English Channel.
Taiwan is more than threefold that far from China, and there are currents in the Taiwan Strait to contend with.
Furthermore, US intelligence organizations have more than 130 satellites that can provide surfeit evidence of China preparing an invasion, or not.
Taiwan also has intelligence information on China’s military, and if an invasion were pending, Taiwan would be making emergency plans. It is not.
Three of the reasons to bolster the narrative that China is planning an invasion of Taiwan soon are not convincing.
China’s military showing off to intimidate Taiwan is just that. Western media exaggerate its importance. Taiwan’s air defense zone is not clear or well established. The US designed it after World War II. The midway line is not established in law or otherwise.
The South China sea has seen more tension of late, but Beijing and Taipei are not likely to engage over events there. After all, they agree about its status — it belongs to China, although which China does not seem to matter.
The war in Ukraine is said to give China an opportunity, yet China seems to want to negotiate peace there.
Chinese leaders talk of the urgency of resolving the “Taiwan issue,” but urgency is seen as 2025 or 2027. That leaves considerable time to change course.
Also mentioned is 2049, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. That is so far away that the situation is certain to be different.
Another reason to think that China is not thinking of invading Taiwan is the matter of its need for sophisticated computer chips, a good share of which are made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC). An invasion would certainly wreak havoc with its production and exports, and impact China’s economy. TSMC is Taiwan’s “ace in the hole.”
Likewise with China’s perception of Taiwanese politics. Beijing celebrated the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) big election setback in November last year. This had special salience because President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) ran an anti-China campaign and was blamed.
Although some polls indicate that the DPP has bounced back, many pundits think the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) could win the presidential election in January next year.
However, the KMT has not decided on a candidate and if the election campaign of 2020 is any clue, it might suffer from factional disagreements that hurt its chances for victory.
Clearly it is too early to know which party will win.
China’s preferred plan to bring Taiwan into the fold is to expand economic ties that make Taiwan dependent on China and want to unify. The data seem to indicate China’s plan could have more appeal later rather than sooner.
Western media fancy the idea that China will invade Taiwan in coming days. That sells more newspapers and gets more revenue from television ads, but it contradicts the notion that Chinese are patient people, and Taiwanese do not want a war and are not panicking.
John Copper is Stanley J. Buckman distinguished professor emeritus of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
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