Sympathy for Taiwan is not enough

Chinese head of state and party leader Xi Jinping is obsessively pushing for “reunification” with Taiwan. Defensive weapons benefit the beleaguered island republic more than expressions of solidarity.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a memorial service for war veterans.

Jason Lee / Reuters

“Who plays with fire, burns in the flames.” Xi Jinping used a menacing metaphor in July when he warned US President Joe Biden against deviating even an iota from the status quo on Taiwan policy. This consists in Washington recognizing only one China – the People’s Republic. Taiwan also has to make do with a vaguely worded aid pledge: in 1979, the US only pledged to support Taiwan in its defense. The form in which Washington would intervene in an emergency remained open.

The American President has deviated from this doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” several times in recent times. Biden promised Taiwan military support three times in the event of aggression. This can hardly have been a verbal blunder typical of Biden. The visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, America’s third-highest-ranking public official, seems to fit in with this. A delegation of parliamentarians from Washington landed in Taipei again this week, and the two governments announced formal trade talks on Thursday.

From a Chinese point of view, the USA is scratching the one-China policy and taking steps towards recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Beijing is raging – and doesn’t believe the great Western power when it asserts that absolutely nothing has changed in Taiwan policy.

A look at this 73-year-old conflict shows that it will simmer as long as the main parties – China, Taiwan and America – respect the status quo and certain unwritten rules. Taiwan may be de facto independent, but they don’t say it out loud. America and other countries maintain representations in Taipei, but they are called “representation offices” instead of embassies out of deference to China; a window dressing in the service of geopolitical stability.

Xi pushes the pace

Biden’s clearer language and Pelosi’s demonstration of solidarity have undoubtedly increased tensions in East Asia. However, China has been working on the status quo for a long time and has broken several taboos in recent weeks: During the maneuvers after Pelosi’s departure, the People’s Liberation Army fired a rocket over the island republic for the first time. Some missiles even ended up in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

These revenge actions are part of a series of provocations and border crossings. Chinese fighter jets are increasingly penetrating Taiwan’s air surveillance zone. And in June, Chinese leaders boldly asserted that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters. A central transport axis of global trade, which American warships regularly use, was quickly assigned to China’s sovereign zone of influence. If the Chinese Navy actually enforces this reading, the danger of clashes with the US Navy will increase.

Taiwan endures the threats with remarkable composure. But the government there must also recognize that the risk situation has increased during Xi’s reign. The goal of “reunification” — through peaceful or military means — features more frequently in Xi’s rhetoric than in his predecessors. He also pushes the pace. The Taiwan question cannot be passed on from one generation to the next, said China’s strongman.

Xi Jinping is in a hurry when it comes to Taiwan, says Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former foreign prime minister and two-time prime minister. The sinologist knows China’s autocrat like hardly any other western politician. According to Rudd, Xi’s ultimatum expires in 2049. Either the island, with its 23 million inhabitants, will voluntarily join the Communist Party by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic – or the connection will take place on the battlefield. With the coming together of the unequal brothers, a historic mission would be fulfilled for the CP. Xi, an ambitious power politician, would rise to the Olympus of communist dignitaries. Comparable to Mao Zedong.

Missed chance

Does this inevitably mean that Taiwan will be annexed by force? Theoretically, there is a possibility of a voluntary association; an association whose terms Beijing and Taipei negotiate by mutual agreement. At the moment, however, there is little evidence of such a solution. According to surveys, only a small minority in Taiwan wants to become part of the People’s Republic. Few are in favor of formal independence either. The overwhelming majority favor the status quo, especially since Taiwan is twice as prosperous as the mainland.

Of course, China has lost the chance to sell the Taiwanese a voluntary cooperation as a viable option. The slogan “One country, two systems” that Beijing wanted to make palatable tastes bitter after the upheavals in Hong Kong. In the former crown colony, there is practically nothing left of an independent political and judicial system. All institutions are being trimmed down to the “Beijing system”. Chinese diplomats who rant that Taiwanese need to be “re-educated” like Xinjiang’s Uyghurs are likely to alarm even pro-Beijing islanders.

The fundamentally opposed positions west and east of the Taiwan Straits leave little room for compromise. China’s most recent white paper explicitly affirms the option of acquiring Taiwan by force of arms if necessary. A military conflict in East Asia is in the air. Some observers consider such an escalation scenario to be alarmist: an invasion would also impose immeasurable suffering and high costs on the little battle-tested People’s Liberation Army, so the argument goes. Taiwan’s position as a chip stronghold also acts as a life insurance policy. China is just as dependent on Taiwan’s cutting-edge technology as the rest of the world.

However, this line of argument presupposes a sober weighing of costs and benefits. She ignores the fact that Beijing is almost obsessively pursuing the goal of unification. Xi sees himself as a leader with a historic task to fulfill. Western admonitions or threats of sanctions are only likely to have a limited effect. The comparison with the Ukraine is obvious: Some, with good arguments, believed that the Russian campaign before February 24 was unlikely – the consequences were too unpredictable, the potential upheavals for the Putin regime too high. As you know, things turned out differently.

deterrent effect questionable

What should the West do in this situation? Taiwan has developed into a prosperous democracy and deserves political support. One must not be misled by state propaganda that justifies “reunification” by any means necessary. It insinuates a legitimate claim for a “repatriation” of the brothers and sisters across the Taiwan Strait. There is no right of return. Because the small democracy, defamed by mainland China as a breakaway province, was never governed by Beijing’s communists.

Appeals hardly persuade China to renounce the use of force. Therefore, the more convincing the defense plan and the greater the risk of military intervention by friendly states, the lower the probability that the People’s Liberation Army will invade Taiwan or cut off the island through a blockade ring.

In the short term, there is nothing to prevent Taiwan from upgrading. His army needs more defensive weapons: anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft systems and precision artillery. In the first phase of a war, the islanders, like Ukraine, would be on their own. It’s not just the hardware that’s lacking: Taiwan’s generals also need reform after questionable armaments projects and corruption scandals.

Alongside strengthening Taiwan’s army, the US and its allies in the region must fly the flag. China’s unilateral declarations, such as those on the status of the Taiwan Strait under international law, must not simply be accepted.

Whether these efforts will have a sufficient deterrent effect is uncertain. On paper, the People’s Liberation Army is vastly superior to the Taiwanese armed forces. China’s ruling elite is also increasingly closing itself off and pursuing aggressive nationalism. This constellation can encourage overconfidence and increases the risk of a fire breaking out in East Asia. Contrary to what Xi would have us believe, the most dangerous arsonists are based in Beijing.

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