Are the Chinese mainland and Taiwan headed down an inevitable path to war – one that is likely to see the United States join the fray?
This slow-burning question came to the fore again last week when the mainland launched live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday amid fiery rhetoric from Chinese state media. On Thursday morning, Chinese state media started to post online videos of helicopters and warships firing at targets at sea but Taiwan dismissed the exercises as “routine”.
This came after President Xi Jinping had presided over a massive naval parade off Hainan island a week earlier, one that involved 48 warships including China’s sole operating aircraft carrier and more than 10,000 servicemen – the largest such exercise since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
The state media said Beijing was sending a loud and clear warning to Taipei and Washington amid heightened tensions caused by Taiwanese leaders’ open advocacy for independence and increased American support for the Taiwanese government.
Over the past few weeks, Chinese officials and state media have ratcheted up the rhetoric against Taipei and Washington, the largest supplier of arms to the island.
Referring to Thursday’s live-fire drills, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to US, warned in a lecture at Harvard University that China would try every possible means to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office, said any outside forces that attempted to “play the Taiwan card” would find their efforts “futile” and would hurt themselves if they went “over the line”, according to the official China Daily.
The remark was clearly aimed at US President Donald Trump and his administration which in recent months has taken a number of significant steps to warm ties with Taipei. As Beijing and Washington are currently positioning themselves for a possible trade war, Trump’s intention to play the Taiwan card again is even more dangerous because this would further destabilise bilateral ties or even worse, could lead to a real war.
True to Trump’s unconventional and unpredictable presidency, he first started to play the Taiwan card in the transition to the White House when he took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, breaking a nearly 40-year-old diplomatic protocol governing China-US ties.
At that time, Trump made it clear his intention was to use Taiwan as a play to force more concessions on trade from China. His suggestion then was overwhelmingly met with criticism and cynicism almost everywhere, even in Taiwan where it raised concerns that the island could be used as a pawn and discarded easily.
China sees Taiwan as a province and usually reacts strongly to any foreign country having official contacts with the Taiwanese government or sale of arms to the island, particularly from the United States.
Now one year later, Trump’s intention to play the Taiwan card again signals a much broader agenda targeting China. Almost all the moderating voices in his administration have been forced out and replaced by more hawkish officials including the soon-to-be secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the National Security Adviser John Bolton – both of whom are known for tough stances against China and pro-Taiwan views.
In recent months, his administration has approved licences for American firms to sell Taiwan technology to build submarines and signed the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage visits between American and Taiwanese officials. All these have invited protests from China.
A major test will come in June when the American Institute in Taiwan, the US de facto embassy, is slated to move into a new building. There has been growing speculation that Bolton or some other senior US official will attend the ceremony. If that happens, Beijing will regard it as a major provocation.
It is interesting to note that amid the war of words with Washington over trade, some elements in Beijing’s propaganda machine have been using warlike language to give the impression that China will not back down from the trade spat and will fight the US to the very end. That could well be a negotiation tactic, as trade issues are negotiable after all. But from the Chinese perspective, the Taiwan issue is absolutely non-negotiable. It is a clearly marked red line.
The Taiwanese leaders, encouraged by the latest warming signs from Washington, have started to openly advocate independence, which is a major taboo for Beijing and seen as breaking the status quo.
Over the past 40 years, Beijing and Taipei have tried to maintain the status quo in which both sides recognise the island as part of China, even while neither government recognises the legitimacy of the other. Taiwan agrees not to broach independence, in return mainland China does not use force to take over the island. Washington recognises this one-China principle but maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan and provides the island with arms under the Taiwan Relations Act – a constant source of friction with Beijing.
This month, the Taiwanese premier William Lai publicly described himself as “a political worker for Taiwanese independence”. Although this was not the first time he has said this, Lai’s latest declaration caused serious worries in Beijing in the context of Washington’s warming ties with Taipei.
The heightened tensions over the Taiwan Strait have come as Xi embarks on his second term as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Last month the national legislature repealed the term limits on the presidency, enabling Xi to rule as long as he likes.
With Xi trying to assert China’s power on the international stage, flexing China’s military muscle in the Taiwan Strait in the name of pushing back against the independence movement is likely to bolster Xi’s support on the mainland.
China’s official line has always been that it will seek peaceful reunification with Taiwan but not rule out using force to take it over. In the past, officials and state media have tended to emphasise the peaceful reunification part – more recently they have highlighted the bit about using force. Moreover, China has never publicly stated a timetable for reunification with Taiwan but some mainland analysts have started to preach the idea that reunification could take place by 2035 or 2050.
These assumptions stemmed from Xi’s landmark report at the Communist Party’s 19th congress in October when he outlined a clearly defined timetable to realise what he called the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation – China would basically become a modern country by 2035 and a world power by 2050.
For an ambitious leader like Xi, reunification with Taiwan has to be an integral part of the dream.
So will the US join the fray if push comes to shove? Many people have mistakenly assumed the Taiwan Relations Act requires the US to come to Taiwan’s defence. In fact, the law contains no explicit guarantee.
Besides, there is a big question over whether the US would risk waging a full-blown war with China over Taiwan. In the short term, if the current trend continues with the US determined to play the Taiwan card – which in turn helps embolden the pro-independence movement in Taiwan – China will probably feel compelled to accelerate its military preparations and increase the frequency of military shows of strength like the one last week. All this means that tensions over the Taiwan Strait will get much worse unless Trump rethinks his plan to play the Taiwan card.
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper