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What has changed between China and Taiwan?

Even before the latest surge in tensions, the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait was on the rise

- November 10, 2022

How worried should we be about Taiwan-China relations? Some U.S. officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken — have recently suggested that the risk of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait is increasing.

These warnings come after months of turbulence in the Taiwan Strait. In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Taiwan and met with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing criticized the visit as a “major political provocation” and responded with large-scale military exercises near Taiwan.

In September, President Biden emphasized that the United States would intervene in the event of a Chinese attack against Taiwan, repeating warnings that he had issued in the past. And recent statements by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterate China’s resolve to achieve political unification with Taiwan. In his party congress speech last month, Xi stressed that China would “never promise to renounce the use of force” to accomplish its goals.

What’s behind this decades-long dispute — and what has changed? My new book on China-Taiwan relations helps explain the prospects for cross-strait military conflict.

China and Taiwan disagree on Taiwan’s sovereign status

The dispute over Taiwan dates to the end of China’s civil war in 1949. As the victorious Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, the defeated Nationalist Party (along with its government, the Republic of China) retreated 110 miles offshore to the island of Taiwan. In the decades that followed, both governments claimed to be the rightful government of all of China, and both viewed Taiwan as an integral part of their country.

In China, that view has remained largely unchanged: Beijing still views Taiwan as rightfully a part of China, and Chinese leaders view unification with the island as an important national objective. However, as Taiwan democratized in the 1990s, Taiwan’s approach to the cross-strait sovereignty dispute changed dramatically.

In democratic Taiwan, whether the island should be considered a part of China is openly debated. Today, most of the island’s 24 million citizens self-identify as Taiwanese — rather than Chinese — and there is virtually no support for near-term unification with China. Opinion polls in Taiwan show that most people would opt for formal independence if it could be achieved peacefully. In other words, the dispute today is less about which government is the rightful government of China. It’s more about whether Taiwan should be considered Chinese at all.

Experts have differing views on the likelihood of conflict

Even before the latest surge in tensions, some analysts argued that the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait was increasing. In 2021, high-ranking U.S. military officials testified before Congress that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years. Other analysts emphasize, however, that the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait should not be exaggerated, and that a war is unlikely, at least in the near term.

Experts arrive at different assessments in part because cross-strait relations are characterized by a complex mix of stabilizing and destabilizing factors. Those pessimistic about a cross-strait conflict tend to point first and foremost to a rapidly shifting balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait. They worry that China has the capability and will to use its growing military might to force unification.

Yet an attempt to resolve Taiwan’s status with military coercion remains risky for Beijing, and could undermine China’s extensive links to the global economy. And some analysts conclude that China lacks key capabilities needed to launch a successful invasion.

Others note that Xi appears less patient on Taiwan than his predecessors. He has stated on multiple occasions that the Taiwan issue should not be passed down generation after generation, for instance. Yet Xi’s China faces a range of extremely serious economic challenges.

Would economic or political pressures push Xi to act on Taiwan as a way of rallying public support around his rule? That’s not clear — these pressures also might dampen incentives to attack, since a cross-strait war would probably make China’s domestic economic challenges worse.

There are multiple pathways to conflict in the Taiwan Strait

Where do Taiwan and China stand? Both Taiwan and China have a range of goals in the Taiwan Strait. At the most basic level, Taiwan seeks to preserve the status quo, and avoid forced unification with China. But Taiwan has broader aims as well.

For example, surveys suggest there is wide agreement on the island that Taiwan should seek greater participation in international organizations. And many Taiwanese hold more ambitious goals, such as formalization of the island’s de facto independence.

Meanwhile, China clearly seeks progress on unification with Taiwan. But Beijing’s rhetoric about use of force is often framed around preventing moves by Taiwan toward greater independence.

These goals create a number of pathways to military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. China might turn to military force to achieve its goal of unification — but it could also use force reactively if Taiwan were to move sharply toward formal independence.

Beijing might also resort to force to stem what it sees as unfavorable trends in Taiwan. These might include political and social trends — including a growing Taiwan-centric identity — as well as deepening U.S.-Taiwan security ties. Such ties, from Beijing’s perspective, could effectively preclude unification as a viable future option.

The possibility that war could arise through these multiple pathways leads some analysts to highlight the continued need for a balanced U.S. policy. These experts argue that, to avoid conflict, the United States needs to deter China from using force, but also must provide Beijing with assurances that the U.S. does not seek Taiwan’s permanent separation from China.

The complexity of cross-strait relations is nothing new. The recent turbulence suggests that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has always been a balancing act, and is likely to remain so.

Scott L. Kastner is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of “War and Peace in the Taiwan Strait” (Columbia University Press, 2022).