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.
Nothing in Xi’s speech suggested China sees conflict as imminent. However, Xi’s comments about support for peaceful “reunification” included a warning that “we do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures” to prevent Taiwan’s independence. Ultimately, if Beijing truly wishes to reassert control over the island, military force may be its only option. That would be a risky step for a government that has not fought a war against a foreign state since a brief and unsuccessful conflict with Vietnam in 1979. It would also put Beijing on a collision course with Washington, which does not support Taiwan’s independence but has what the U.S. State Department describes as “a robust unofficial relationship” with Taipei.
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.
Much of China’s military buildup has been based around ships, aircraft, and arms systems that appear suited for the type of conflict needed to take Taiwan. As well as landing ships to carry assault troops, that includes a focus on missiles designed to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers – or prompting Washington to keep out of range of the conflict. How well those weapons would work is another question, but they would be central to any conflict over Taiwan or disputed islands elsewhere in the South China Sea.
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.
A Reuters global affairs columnist, Peter Apps is the founder of think tank Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defence, political risk and emerging markets.