Beijing Wins When the World Thinks Twice About Taiwan
Beijing Wins When the World Thinks Twice About Taiwan
China’s aircraft have engaged in almost daily sorties into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone over the past year. Each incursion is mapped out on the defense ministry’s website and shared via Twitter. Many here see it as saber rattling, others as an attempt to grind down Taipei’s military guard by forcing increased upkeep and maintenance, while others yet view it as a way for Beijing to analyze response strategies in the event the mainland decides to launch a real attack.
It’s all part of a civil war that supposedly ended 70 years ago. As Taiwanese commentator Paul Lin noted recently, there’s a reason why China’s People’s Liberation Army hasn’t changed its name — because in the eyes of the Communists “the people” haven’t been liberated until Taiwan is taken and the PLA has defeated the Kuomintang, which took refuge in the island at the end of World War II. “The Communist Party will not be content until the other side is eliminated,” Lin wrote in a column published by the local website Newtalk News.
Standing in Beijing’s way, though, is the United States. Washington is likely to assist Taiwan not just as a like-minded nation and common foe of China, but due to the legal obligations laid out in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. That law doesn’t explicitly ensure that a US administration would dispatch forces to fight off an invasion, but it does require that enough help be provided to allow the government to protect itself.
Of course, there are many experts — including some in the PLA — who see an invasion as unlikely to succeed. Still, China appears to be betting on one strategy to win a showdown: making sure Taiwan doesn’t have a coalition of allies committed to coming to its rescue. The People’s Republic is manipulating emotions and playing on fears to convince the global community of three connected principles: Taiwan is part of China; Beijing will go to war rather than give up the claim; and, faced with the mainland’s resolve, any allied defense of Taiwan’s 23 million people will extract too high a toll and is a lost cause.
China is already finding traction with the “lost cause” argument among international opinion leaders and politicians. In 2019, the Atlantic published an article outlining how the US might lose a war to China provoked by an occupation of Taiwan. Behind the scenes in think tanks and diplomatic circles, Chinese advisers and academics have been busy disseminating this view in hopes that the chattering classes will percolate the narrative up to decision makers.
In February, an Australia-based academic conducted a poll with the question: “How many American (and allied) lives do you think is worth it in the defense of Taiwan against Beijing's aggression?” It was a Twitter survey and so the overwhelming response of “as many as it takes” must be taken in that hothouse context. But that’s exactly the kind of question Beijing loves to see — one that puts the unimaginable front and center and makes people squirm. China is betting that few elected officials in the US or elsewhere would send their sons and daughters into a fight that they do not comprehend. All Beijing needs to do is have its state-run media declare, as the China Daily did in 2020, that “Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland is an unstoppable historical trend” — and people will think twice before standing up for Taiwan.
The actual history is a bloody mess. Absorption of Taiwan has been a key goal of the Chinese Communist Party since Mao Zedong defeated the Kuomintang in 1949. Japan took control of the territory in 1895 after a war with the Qing dynasty, which ruled China at the time and had seized the island from the Dutch in 1683. Defeated in World War II, Japan was ordered by its American conquerors to hand Taiwan over to their Kuomintang allies — who were losing to the Communists on the mainland. The KMT’s Republic of China never occupied Taiwan before that; and the CCP’s People’s Republic of China has never set foot on its soil. But both incarnations of China are adamant that Taiwan is an inalienable part of their polity — even as a movement grows for a Taiwan that is part of neither.
Beijing is hoping that complexity won’t be something Americans (or Australians or Europeans) will say is worth dying for. The message is simple: Going to war for Taiwan would hurt you more than it would hurt us, and it’s not your fight anyway. “It’s psychological warfare by Beijing to convince Taiwan and friends of Taiwan that a takeover is simply inevitable and the situation is hopeless,” Bill Stanton, a former US representative to Taipei and current senior vice president of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taipei told me this week. “I think it’s had an effect because there’s been more people writing about the hopelessness of the cause.”
There’s a thesis that China isn’t in a hurry to wage war now, but is willing to bide its time and keep the idea alive to scare off would-be defenders. Writing this week for Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, Australian National University lecturer Sung Wen-ti posits that “Beijing is actually not interested in pursuing unification by force in the foreseeable future.” Had the PLA wished to do so, Sung reasons, it would have intervened when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated for her second term in May last year after a landslide victory. Tsai has parried Beijing’s definition of one China and her Democratic Progressive Party also holds itself apart from the Kuomintang’s old dream of unification. Instead, she and the DPP are committed to making no changes to the status quo — keeping Taiwan prosperous, democratic and free.
And so China’s not giving up the military option. Just this week, its Taiwan Affairs Office told reporters that PLA drills are evidence of the seriousness of its anti-independence effort. Just the same, Beijing knows that winning the propaganda war is crucial: It will give PLA troops a better chance of victory if Taiwan’s friends stay out of the battle.