Beijing has never wavered in its decades-long claim to Taiwan, the self-governed island that it sees as a rogue breakaway province that must be brought back into the fold—by force, if necessary.
For just as long, however, Taiwan has managed to maintain its independence, in large part thanks to powerful allies in the West. But in a world preoccupied by a pandemic. and with China taking an increasingly hostile posture around the region, some—including in Taiwan—are worried that the small democratic nation could be next in Beijing’s crosshairs.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Wednesday warned of an increasing threat as China steps up its military preparedness, stressing that not only Taiwanese territory, but also its values are on the line.
“What China is doing now is continuing to ramp up preparedness to solve the Taiwan issue,” Wu said. “The threat is on the rise.”
“As China is eager to expand its communist ideology and authoritarian international order, Taiwan is on the front line of defending freedom and democracy.”
He called on the international community to oppose China’s hostilities in Taiwan in the same way it opposed Beijing’s imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, adding that Taiwan wants to cooperate with “like-minded countries” to defend their way of life.
“Taiwan may be small, but we know what we are fighting for is more than Taiwan,” he said. “It’s our values that are at stake.”
William Choong, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VICE News that the Chinese threat has always been there, but there has been a change in intensity, with the People’s Republic of China is becoming increasingly assertive regionally.
“To use the cliché, the writing has been on the wall for Taiwan,” he said.
Taiwan’s National Defense Ministry reported eight instances of Chinese military planes intruding in its air defense identification zone in June, Reuters reported. However, Foreign Minister Wu said the incursions happened more frequently than the government disclosed—almost daily in June. He said China’s military has also “simulated” military attacks on Taiwan.
Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China and Taiwan, told VICE News that these threats are certainly not new, but are increasing steadily.
“Joseph Wu is obviously analyzing that threat as it evolves and grows, and it only grows—to the point where it becomes a greater and greater concern,” said Thompson, now a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
With the modernization and scaling-up of the PLA over the past two decades, both the size and quality of China’s military is increasing. With increasing Chinese modernization, Taiwan’s advantages decline—and the numbers are telling.
To Taiwan’s 140,000 ground troops, China has 1 million. To Taiwan’s 23 Coast Guard ships, China has 248. Taiwan has no bombers, while China has 450. While Taiwan has 350 fighter jets, China has 1,500.
All in all, China’s defense budget is 17 times the size of Taiwan’s, with much of the former spent on developing the capability of unifying Taiwan with the mainland by force, according to a recent U.S. Department of Defense report.
According to Thompson, a legitimate threat requires two things: the capability to do harm and the intention to do harm. China has both.
“So this is a very serious problem,” he said.
Beijing has an explicit policy of reclaiming Taiwan, by force if need be, a goal brought up again and again by President Xi Jinping.
Choong said that China has “tied themselves to the mast” of its campaign of national rejuvenation, and that there will be “very little give” in Xi Jinping's posture vis-a-vis Taiwan.
“The PRC has never abandoned its desire to reunite with Taiwan by the threat or use of force since 1949. Taiwan should feel concerned about that,” said Kwei-Bo Huang, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taipei’s National ChengChi University.
Cross-Strait relations, meanwhile, have become more complicated as they take on an increasingly nationalistic dimension, and as mutual trust dissolves. China has become increasingly vocal in asserting its sovereignty in matters big and small, while Taiwan’s pro-independence government has worked to strengthen the Taiwan identity.
Any action on Xi’s part seen as acquiescing to the Taiwan independence movement will make his ruling base “shaky very quickly,” he said.
Thompson, for his part, sees reunification with Taiwan as a key aspect of Xi’s “China Dream.”
“The China Dream is rather vague, but it is grand. It’s not incremental, and it’s definitely not small ball,” Thompson said.
He describes Xi’s vision as creating his own place in history on par with the nation’s great leaders, not just Mao, but also the first emperor to unify China and Jian Zemin, who reclaimed Hong Kong.
Taiwan is the last holdout—“the only outstanding issue, as far as China’s concerned, that prevents their achieving rejuvenation and centrality in the region,” Thomspson said.
But even with the soaring national aspirations, increasing pressure, and growing threats, Thompson thinks there is a slim chance that China’s military will cross the Taiwan Strait anytime soon.
“There is the uncertainty about their own capability, the uncertainty about the international political environment,” Thompson said, adding that they face internal and external risks and threats of their own.
There are even fundamental logistical hurdles to mobilizing to the coast—from a national economic downturn to floods that would make war even more costly.
Additionally, the U.S. has recently been showing little restraint when it comes to China. In recent weeks, the U.S.-China relationship has reached unprecedented lows since it normalized decades ago.
Thompson thinks that a Chinese plan of intervention in Taiwan would involve increasing the uncertainty of an American response through messaging, diplomacy, or by simply counting on the American government to become entangled in internal debate.
“And that complicates Beijing’s assessment of how the U.S. might deliberate on Taiwan. And right now, the answer is, the U.S. wouldn’t deliberate on Taiwan, it would probably move very quickly based on animosity,” Thompson said.
Instead, the most likely catalyst of Chinese intervention in Taiwan is something there is very little anyone can do to influence: internal Chinese politics.
With Xi subject to horse-trading with elite party members—especially facing a party congress in 2022 that will determine the renewal of his chairmanship of the party—Taiwan could become a bargaining chip.
Choong also noted that while many choose to focus on the military threat, that isn’t the only one.
“If you believe the dictum that a country fights as a nation and as a whole country, not just the military, then you have to agree that Taiwan is under threat from China not only in a military dimension, but across all dimensions—economics, social issues, and even influence operations” he said.
He said that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy that encourages investments in Asian countries outside of China is becoming a “tall order.” China is also trying to entice young Taiwanese to work and study in the mainland, “pulling out all the stops” with scholarships and other incentives to draw them to the PRC, he said.
“What we are seeing is essentially that the Chinese are trying to infiltrate the strata of Taiwanese society at the grassroots, trying to change perceptions of the mainland among Taiwanese,” Choong said.
“China is trying to use all dimensions to add pressure on Taiwan and undermine national cohesion at a time of Chinese assertiveness.”
So even if the Taiwan isn’t likely to see a full-blown military intervention soon, that doesn’t mean it can rest easy.
“When [Taiwan Foreign Minister] Joseph Wu says he’s concerned, he’s being diplomatic in his language,” Thompson said. “If I were in his position, I’d be scared.”