Illustration: Craig Stephens
Yun Sun
Yun Sun

The next Taiwan Strait flashpoint? Beijing sees coercive force as peaceful nudging but the US does not

  • Where Beijing sees grey-zone activity and psychological warfare as peaceful means to push for unification with Taiwan, for the US, coercion is clearly stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act as something it opposes and must act against
President Xi Jinping’s report to the 20th party congress did not raise many new concepts on the Taiwan issue. But the emphasis, one could argue, has definitely shifted.
While “ peaceful reunification” and “ one country, two systems” are still hailed as the best options for Taiwan, the call to fight against “interference by external forces” has gained significantly more prominence. For most observers, the question of Beijing’s use of force on Taiwan is still the most critical. Xi’s report maintains that Beijing will not abandon the use of force and will keep all options on the table.

The concept of Beijing’s use of force on Taiwan has been frequently discussed. Most assume it means a direct military operation. Given the political reality, the 20th party congress meeting was never going to be a watershed event in China’s genesis on national unification.

Beijing will not pronounce a deadline for unification, as that only ties its hands. This is especially because the conditions for unification, including Taiwan’s domestic politics and US policy towards Taiwan, are all out of Beijing’s control.
But China’s desire and push for unification is real, and accelerating. It is fair to say Beijing has left no stone unturned in promoting reunification. Economic integration, such as through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010, used to be a primary area of efforts. For believers of political integration or absorption led by economic integration, weaving Taiwan’s economy closely with the mainland’s is the best way to achieve unification peacefully.
Social integration has also been attempted exhaustively, such as through the “26 measures” and “31 measures” (preferential policies for the Taiwanese). But since the 2016 election of the Democratic Progressive Party, none of these has rendered the intended result.
People walk by a Taiwanese flag in Keelung, Taiwan, on October 10 as the island marks the foundation of the Republic of China. Over the years, Beijing has promoted both social and economic integration with Taiwan to push for unification. Photo: Bloomberg
If there is one thing Beijing has come to realise, it is that Taiwanese public opinion is nowhere near supporting the unification formula defined by China. Even for the Kuomintang, creator of the 1992 one-China consensus, unification under the current circumstances is unthinkable. The KMT has always argued that important political preconditions have to be met before the unification can even be discussed, such as the liberalisation of the Communist Party and democratisation of China.

Under the circumstances, Beijing’s best chance for a peaceful unification is not to shape Taiwanese public opinion, but to eliminate their options.

For Beijing, Taiwan can resist only because of US support. Since Beijing assumes America’s decline is inevitable, it believes Washington will eventually abandon Taiwan – only then will the Taiwanese have the political will to negotiate unification with Beijing peacefully.

But in light of the rising strategic competition between the United States and China, and the growing unlikelihood of the US abandoning Taiwan, Beijing’s blueprint for peaceful unification is becoming increasingly improbable. So the use of force, in particular coercive force, has become one, if not the most, popular option in Beijing’s playbook.

In the Chinese definition, coercion, including military coercion under the threshold of direct conflict, territorial occupation, use of lethal weapons or human casualty, is not necessarily unpeaceful. War (战) and peace (和) are a defined pair of antonyms. Coercion under the threshold of war, or winning without fighting, is regarded as the superior approach, and the supreme art of war.

What this means is, when China employs coercive measures, such as grey-zone activities (combining military and non-military operations) and psychological warfare without triggering direct military conflict or a direct military takeover of Taiwan, Beijing doesn’t see them as having violated the US condition for a “peaceful resolution” of the Taiwan issue. The logic continues that the coercive use of force does not run the risk of US military intervention.

Another caveat in the Chinese narrative lies in the differences among three goals for the use of force: preventing Taiwan independence, promoting unification, and a direct takeover. Use of force for a direct takeover is the most narrowly defined, indicating a military attack for territorial occupation. That is also the least likely in China’s current policy planning due to the uncertainty of result and prohibitive cost.

The army of the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts long-range live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait on August 4. In the Chinese definition, coercion, including military coercion under the threshold of direct conflict, territorial occupation, use of lethal weapons or human casualty, is not necessarily unpeaceful. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese interlocutors have constantly emphasised that its use of force, including grey-zone activities, psychological warfare, military exercises and partial blockades (such as after Nancy Pelosi’s visit), is primarily aimed at “preventing Taiwan independence”. This framing portrays China’s action as reactive, and justifies its legitimacy and necessity.

The problem of this approach lies in the lack of distinction between coercion to “prevent Taiwan independence” and coercion to “promote unification”. Where China sees its action as responding to a particular political event in Taiwan, the result of its action nevertheless exerts a coercive influence over the Taiwanese government and people through intimidation.

There is no defined boundary for when China’s “reactive” use of coercive force becomes an offensive one aimed at changing the status quo in China’s favour. In most cases, these two goals run in parallel.

Pelosi, Taiwan and the perils of Chinese nationalism

Beijing’s use of coercive force will turn the Taiwan Strait into the most controversial and dangerous battlefield between the US and China. Many forget the Taiwan Relations Act does not only apply to Beijing’s use of force, but also to other forms of coercion. The act commits the US to providing Taiwan with arms and maintaining US capacity to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or social and economic system, of the people of Taiwan”.

What this means is, while Beijing might see coercion as a peaceful means to push the Taiwan situation in a favourable direction, for the US, coercion is clearly stipulated as something it unequivocally opposes and is obliged to act against.

As tension around the Taiwan Strait escalates, the use of coercive force on Taiwan could become the trigger for the next round of crisis.

Yun Sun is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Center