Does China Have a Strategy for Taiwan?

October 21, 2021 Updated: October 23, 2021


At first glance, the answer might seem to be no.

Beginning on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, 150 Chinese air force planes entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) during a five-day period. This blitz capped a period of increasing tensions over the past year and was followed by a series of beach landing and assault drills in Fujian, the province just across the strait separating Taiwan and China.

In a question-and-answer session with Taiwan lawmakers, Taiwan’s defense minister called the current situation the most dangerous he had seen in his more than 40 years in the military. Although China was already capable of attacking now, he continued, it would be completely capable by 2025.

Responding to these belligerent actions, Beijing countered with typical pretzel logic, explaining the incursions as “just moves to protect peace and stability.” Taiwan’s seeking help from other countries was termed provocative behavior—in other words, redefining seeking help from provocations as provocation—and “doomsday madness.” George Orwell redux.

However, only days after the series of military actions, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a widely reported speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, vowing peaceful “re”unification and, most importantly, not mentioning the use of force. He was similarly low-key in an address commemorating the 110th anniversary of the revolution that brought down the Qing Dynasty: A union could be brought about peacefully, with “secessionists” who oppose unification finding themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

How should these contradictory signals be interpreted? One possibility might be that the strategy of alternating threats of force with more conciliatory words is a variant of the good cop/bad cop technique, in which threats of punishment are followed by offers of lenient treatment on condition of good behavior. Another might be awareness that if belligerent words are not followed by belligerent actions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be seen domestically as weak and internationally as having tried a bluff strategy that failed.

Xi Jinping
Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrives at an event commemorating the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2021. (Andy Wong/AP Photo)

If indeed the hard/soft strategy was the intention of the CCP, it would seem ill thought out and does not seem to have had the desired effect. Publicly, there was little reaction from Taiwan: The country’s many newspapers reported only tersely on the military intrusions, with citizens going about their business as usual. Aware that Beijing would characterize any efforts to respond to its challenges as further “provocation” that the PRC would “be forced to” respond to, the Taiwan government responded coolly, saying that the future of Taiwan was not for others to determine; only its people could decide how they wanted to be governed. In her address to the nation on the 110th anniversary of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, which is celebrated as Taiwan’s national day, President Tsai Ing-wen expressed good will to the PRC while adding that there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people would bow to pressure.

Since then, China’s intrusions have ceased—but for how long? Clearly, the intention to annex Taiwan—despite repeated references to “re”unification, Taiwan has never been part of the PRC—is still on Beijing’s agenda, though the timetable is uncertain. Taiwan’s defense minister mentioned the year 2025. Others opine that Xi is trying to shore up support ahead of an upcoming Party Congress, reasoning that a strong policy on Taiwan can help him to place allies in key positions. A third group speculates that it is of utmost importance to Xi to unify by the end of his term in office, though since he has succeeded in removing term limits for the presidency, it is not clear when this might be: Xi is currently 68. Still others push the timetable out even further, predicting that the target date is 2049, the centennial of the PRC’s founding.

Meanwhile, in addition to continuing to enhance its military capabilities and threatening unspecified dire consequences to both those Taiwanese who resist annexation and those foreigners who support Taiwan’s resistance, Chinese strategy appears to be operating on two tracks: first, to convince Taiwan that the United States will not help it if attacked and, second, to convince the United States and its security partners that Taiwan is not worth defending.

The first track was made easier by the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, which itself recalled a similarly humiliating American exit from Vietnam in 1975. State-owned Global Times editorialized that Taiwan should regard these as an omen of its future fate.

On the second track, efforts to undermine U.S. support of Taiwan have concentrated on warnings that the United States was “playing with fire” by backing Taiwan. Oddly, the PRC’s best allies in this campaign appear to be many of America’s mainstream media, that either complacently or from willful ignorance accept Beijing’s narrative on the inevitability of “re”unification and warn Washington against provoking Beijing on the matter of Taiwan—as if Taiwan, rather than China, were the belligerent party. They also seem oblivious to the geopolitical consequences of the PRC gaining control of Taiwan, thereby enabling it to expand beyond the first island chain, bringing its territorial waters close to Japan, and its navy within striking distance of American bases in Guam. Deterrence through strength appears to be an alien concept: in this view, the only alternative to capitulation is war.

So far, neither track seems to be succeeding, resulting instead in a hardening of attitudes in the target governments. In the United States, a defense department spokesperson characterized China’s activities as destabilizing and increasing the risk of miscalculation, while the White House described its support for Taiwan as “rock solid.”

An American guided missile destroyer accompanied by a Canadian frigate pointedly transited the Taiwan Strait, with a spokeswoman for the U.S. 7th Fleet stating that the passage “demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Cooperation like this represents the centerpiece of our approach to a secure and prosperous region.”

Washington also revealed that a special operations unit and a contingent of marines have been secretly conducting training operations in Taiwan for over a year.

Separately, Taiwan disclosed that U.S. coast guard ships will exercise along with its coast guard, “to enhance the joint capabilities … to respond to rising challenges at sea.”

Taiwan US relation
A U.S.-made CH-47 helicopter flies an 18-meter by 12-meter national flag at a military base in Taoyuan city, Taiwan, on Sept. 28, 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was evasive when asked about Britain’s reaction if China attempted to invade Taiwan, refusing to rule out joining U.S. military action.

Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Nakayama Yasuhide, speaking remotely to a conference on Japan-Taiwan relations in Taipei, said that the fates of Japan and Taiwan are intertwined, likening their geographic closeness to the distance between the tip of the nose and the lips, and that “people say we are like friends, but we are not, we are family,” and that hence Japan would treat Taiwan’s menace and security as its own business.

As many in the audience would have known, in the contentious period when Japan was deciding to formalize relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972, Nakayama’s father, Masaaki, was one of five Diet members who stood resolutely against normalization until the end. With this as the background, his son said that Japan today should reconsider whether the diplomatic arrangement with Beijing really serves the nation’s interests anymore in light of the aggressive posture taken by China toward its neighbors.

The European Union has also voiced concern, with its commissioner for competition declaring that China’s increasing display of force in the Taiwan Strait able to “direct[ly] impact European security and prosperity.”

More generally, Jens Stoltenberg, long-time head of NATO, announced that the organization would cooperate more closely with Australia, Japan, and Asia-Pacific countries, and are watching China’s military modernization with concern.

And, referencing, among other items, Harvard University’s announcement that it is relocating its overseas Mandarin program from Beijing to Taipei, Japan’s Nikkei opined that Taiwan was reaping the benefits of soft power as China’s image declines.

While invasion cannot be ruled out, only death and taxes are inevitable, and Beijing must also be mindful of the costs of using force. The current shortage of semiconductor chips has underscored the importance of Taiwan, the source of the bulk of these chips, and in particular the pivotal status of industry giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. The damage that an invasion would do to this would have reverberations that would not only upend manufacturing worldwide, but in China itself. TSMC’s management has announced plans to diversify by building factories in Japan and in the United States—not coincidentally the two states that have the most to lose by a PRC takeover of Taiwan—but it will take years before the foundries are operational.

Nor is the Taiwan defense minister’s prediction that the PRC’s military will be fully capable of invasion by 2025 a certainty. China’s economic growth is sputtering. Among other factors are an energy shortage, declining water supplies, and a shaky financial system. The demographic dividend of a large group of healthy young people willing to work for low wages has ended even as the birth rate falls. While China’s leadership may repeat its intention to annex Taiwan, these realities could severely degrade its ability to do so.

In consideration of these realities, the best strategy to counter Beijing would be a continuation of that which has in fact characterized the cross-strait policies of both the Trump and the Biden administrations, as well as that of Tsai Ing-wen’s government: seeking peace while raising the costs of a Chinese invasion to levels that Beijing finds unacceptable.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of politics at the University of Miami, a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a faculty adviser to the Rumsfeld Foundation, and a former commissioner of the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Her books include studies on China’s ethnic minorities, Sino-Japanese relations, a comprehensive treatment of Chinese government now in its 10th edition, and an edited volume on Taiwan politics.