Will China invade Taiwan?

A successful takeover by China of what it sees as its own renegade province would be a crowning glory for President Xi Jinping. But the stakes are high – is he really willing to risk it?

What’s happened?

China has been sabre-rattling in the Taiwan Strait. Earlier this month 25 Chinese warplanes entered Taiwanese airspace, reportedly the biggest incursion on record. Chinese jets breached Taiwan’s air defence identification zone 380 times last year, forcing Taipei to spend US$900m scrambling fighter jets. The constant low-level pressure has proved so taxing on the island’s military that it says it will no longer send planes to meet every Chinese incursion. Concern is growing that this is a prelude to more serious conflict. 

Why does China want to take Taiwan?

Democratic and self-governing, Taiwan is the last remnant of the government that once ruled the whole of China (its official name is still the Republic of China or ROC). After defeat to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces fled to the island, where they set up a rival government. Until 1971 the ROC held China’s seat at the UN, but over time the major powers switched their recognition to Beijing. As a result, Taiwan is in the strange position of looking very much like an independent country – it has an army, a constitution and a currency – but having virtually no recognition. China regards the island as a renegade province; reunification is a key national priority. As The Economist points out, President Xi Jinping would be seen as a Communist hero if he could conquer the island, joining Mao Zedong as “co-victor of a Chinese civil war that was left unfinished in 1949”.

What do Taiwanese people think?

Traditionally many in Taiwan were proudly Chinese, but decades of separation mean that sentiment is waning. A poll last year found that 62.6% identify as Taiwanese, with 32.6% saying they were Taiwanese and Chinese. Just 2% said they were only Chinese. Despite the political disputes, cross-Strait economic ties are surprisingly close. Up to a million Taiwanese are thought to live on the mainland and Taiwanese firms such as Foxconn (which assembles Apple products) have collectively invested about £40bn building factories there. China’s leadership had hoped that deepening economic ties would eventually entice Taiwan into a “one country, two systems” relationship (modelled on the significant autonomy granted to Hong Kong). Yet the crushing of the city’s democracy movement means that idea is now dead. Polling finds just 1% of Taiwanese support immediate reunification; support for a formal independence declaration is also low. Most are content with the current ambiguous state of affairs.

What’s at stake?

Taiwan is a developed economy that plays a crucial role in global electronics supply chains. Local semiconductor manufacturer TSMC accounts for about half of the global computer chip market and enjoys a massive technology lead over its rivals (South Korea’s Samsung is a distant second). Per head, Taiwanese people are about two and a half times richer than mainland Chinese. Yet China’s population of 1.4 billion dwarfs Taiwan’s 23.5 million. That imbalance has created a fatalistic attitude towards invasion. Despite facing an existential threat, Taiwan’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is barely higher than that of the UK (although the budget was recently hiked by 10%). Taiwan’s hopes rest on the US intervening if China attacks. 

What is the US position?

For decades the US has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity”. Washington doesn’t recognise Taiwan and has given it no explicit security guarantees, but the White House is legally required to sell Taiwan the arms it needs to defend itself. The Biden administration says America’s commitment remains “rock-solid”. Washington has its own reasons for backing Taiwan. If China took the island it would shatter US credibility in the region and establish China as the dominant power in east Asia. China’s leaders suspect that when push comes to shove the West cares more about trade than it does about defending freedom. 

Will China invade Taiwan?

Most security analysts still think the answer is no. A common argument is that China is biding its time, growing its economy and waiting for the power balance with Washington to tip decisively in its favour before it makes a move. Amphibious invasions are the most complex and difficult of all military operations. Beijing’s sheer weight of numbers would see it succeed eventually, historian Bill Sharp tells Al Jazeera, but it could face huge losses along the way. The longer the war lasted, the greater the odds of US intervention. Military victory would also be followed by a long campaign of resistance from the local population. A failed or costly invasion would tarnish the reputation of China’s Communist Party. The collapse of the Argentine junta after the 1982 Falklands war is a reminder that dictatorships rarely survive military disaster. 

What will they do instead?

The most likely outcome is a continuation of the current “grey war”. This technique, especially beloved by Vladimir Putin and the Iranian regime, involves constant aggressions that fall short of provoking an outright war with the goal of making Taiwan feel isolated and with no choice but to start negotiations on Beijing’s terms. If that approach proves ineffective then China has other options. It could attack outlying Taiwanese islands. An economic blockade is also possible, although that would be much more likely to suck in the US.

So, World War III avoided?

When superpowers square off there is always a risk that things will escalate quickly. China is particularly dangerous at present because, as James Palmer puts it in Foreign Policy, it is acting increasingly irrationally, and global public opinion has turned against it. Yet this disdain does not seem to be influencing Beijing’s behaviour. If China is indifferent to its global image then it could be more willing to attack. 

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