Keep an Eye on Taiwan

The battle over the island may be a Cold War relic, but it will shape the future.


Man holding the Taiwan flag up in the air, in front of a blue sky

Taiwan is one of those flash points that has never flashed. The dispute over the island’s fate has had the potential to erupt into conflict between China and the United States for decades. But the feared Chinese invasion has never come. The situation has remained deadlocked for so long that Taiwan’s quandary often drifts into the background of Asian affairs, overshadowed by seemingly more-pressing concerns, such as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and inflamed tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.

Not now. With an erratic President Donald Trump distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his own ill health, and already disengaged from Asian affairs, concerns have been mounting about America’s commitment to defending the region. China, by contrast, is becoming more assertive, having achieved a clampdown in Hong Kong—where it put a far-reaching and restrictive national-security law in place—with few, if any, tangible repercussions from the international community. As a result, some Taiwan watchers, and the island’s leaders themselves, are worried that the risks of war breaking out over control of the island are rising, either caused accidentally, or even purposely launched by Beijing.


“It is becoming more alarming,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told me. He said he was “very concerned” that Beijing would use its long-standing claim to Taiwan as “a very good excuse … to launch an attack.” Warning lights are flashing in Washington, D.C., too: Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Mike Gallagher each introduced legislation in recent months to bolster Washington’s (rather ambiguous) defense commitment to Taiwan. “No longer can anyone harbor the illusion that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) would unify peacefully with Taiwan,” Gallagher noted in a statement.

In a confrontation as old and tense as this one, with its numerous scrapes and scares, discerning when to hit the panic button can be hard. Tensions over Taiwan date back to 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in a bloody civil war and chased them off the Chinese mainland to the island, where the Nationalists reestablished the rival Republic of China in Taipei. The Communists’ People’s Republic of China has never relinquished its claim to Taiwan, which Beijing considers no more than a wayward province, leaving the prospect of war hanging over the region. Perhaps this current bout of the jitters is just another round of political posturing and saber-rattling.

China, though, is clearly turning up the pressure on Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Chinese military has conducted exercises and drills unusually close to Taiwan, in the air and at sea. Last month, Beijing made clear it denied the existence of an unofficial boundary in the Taiwan Strait that has ensured a degree of stability along the heavily fortified waterway. “Those who play with fire are bound to get burned,” a spokesperson for China’s defense ministry recently warned Taiwan.

Some Taiwan experts aren’t convinced Xi’s aim is outright war. He would be taking an incalculable risk by invading Taiwan. If an assault failed, or was protracted and costly, the move could backfire badly. Richard Bush, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and longtime Taiwan expert, believes that Xi’s intensified pressure is not a prelude to war but part of a less risky, long-term strategy to undermine confidence in Taiwan’s government and its ability to hold out against China. “You tighten all the screws that you have to intimidate,” he told me.

Nevertheless, the heightened alarm exposes the uncertainty in global security created by shifting power balances and a breakdown in the American world order. Since the end of World War II in the Pacific, Asian affairs, though not always peaceful, have at least been somewhat predictable: Washington forged a system of alliances, supported by consistent foreign-policy principles and an American military presence, that solidified U.S. power in the region and offered enough stability for Asian nations—including China—to prosper.

That order is being challenged. A resurgent China is contesting American primacy in Asia and attempting to reassert its historical stature as the region’s predominant power. In Washington, meanwhile, isolationists, led by Trump, are questioning the purpose and value of Cold War–era commitments in Asia and around the world. That mix is fostering doubt that the American security system can or will hold.

Taiwan is one of the seams in that system that could split under the strain of this geopolitical confusion. Both Beijing and Washington are tugging more forcefully than they have in decades, driven by political change at home. The biggest shifts have come in China, where President Xi Jinping has refashioned the Communist government by accumulating more power than any other leader since Mao himself. Wu told me he believed that this development was a key cause of the new tensions: “The Chinese political system has changed … the political power has rested in a single person, and that has all kinds of dangers.”

To justify his power grab, Xi has presented himself to his domestic audience as the ultimate defender of China’s national interests and the man who will make China great again on the world stage. Xi’s one-man rule has also created a situation in which the buck stops nowhere else. Things go well, and he can win all the kudos; things go wrong, and he absorbs all the blame. At the moment, things are far from right in China: The coronavirus pandemic left the nation badly rattled and mired in what is likely its worst economic downturn since pro-market economic reforms began in the early 1980s. Those troubles could make Taiwan an especially tasty target, a way of bolstering Xi’s standing at home and burnishing his credentials as a nationalist. “This is the scenario we have all been worrying about for decades,” Shelley Rigger, a longtime Taiwan watcher at Davidson College, told me, “a Chinese leader who depends on showing strength somewhere.”

From Beijing’s perspective, Taiwan is also drifting in the “wrong” direction—away from China. The belief that Taiwan should at some point reunify with the mainland was once widely held on the island, and the notion of becoming a fully separate country was highly contentious. But in outlook and in sentiment, Taiwan society is more and more intent on charting its own course, with a greater number of its citizens supporting independence, and identifying themselves as Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese. This spirit has filtered into Taiwan’s politics. President Tsai Ing-wen, now in her second term, has sought to build support for Taiwan around the world, and decrease the island’s reliance on, and vulnerability to, the Chinese economy. She is also striving for a closer relationship with the U.S.: Wu said his government would like to pursue a trade agreement with Washington.

Beijing has found Tsai especially threatening and has treated her with hostility. That makes the prospect of negotiations to tamp down cross-strait tensions more unlikely. Xi has set up preconditions for talks between the two governments—including an acceptance of the “one country, two systems” formula used (unsuccessfully) in Hong Kong—that Tsai has rejected. “We certainly hope that the Chinese will see, also, the need to engage Taiwan for the sake of peace and stability in this region,” Wu said. But, he added, “I don’t see that the opportunity for the discussions, the engagement, between the two sides will come in the near future.”

Now toss Trump into this bubbling cauldron. His administration’s shift to a more confrontational stance against Beijing has been both positive and negative for Taiwan. On the one hand, Washington has very publicly ratcheted up support for Taiwan: In August, Trump dispatched Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taipei, the highest-level American official to visit Taiwan in more than four decades. Azar’s arrival infuriated China’s leaders, who consider such delegations trespassers in their own backyard. Two of Beijing’s military exercises near Taiwan were timed to recent visits by American officials. The rising tensions have also increased the chances that Taiwan will get dragged into an unexpected or unintended flare-up between the two powers—for instance, in their square-off in the South China Sea.

But Trump has made the most impact with what he hasn’t done—firmly uphold the U.S.-led global order. The concern over Taiwan is a by-product of the doubts Trump has fomented in foreign-policy circles about America’s resolve to stand by its global commitments. He has established a lengthy track record of reneging on agreements, disparaging international institutions, and bickering with allies.

In the case of Taiwan, the question is more urgent. Would Trump defend the island? In the past, Chinese leaders had to assume that starting a war with Taiwan equaled starting a war with the U.S., but the answer to that question now is more uncertain. Trump’s “unpredictable leadership can make things harder for Beijing, but it can also make things easier for Beijing,” Davidson’s Rigger said. “If you look at the pattern of the Trump administration, there is reason for people in China to think they can get it done now. That this is the time.”

Some of these risks are short-term. As the Chinese economy recovers, the domestic political pressure on Xi is easing. Trump could be out of office in three months, and a new Joe Biden administration may reinvigorate America’s Asian alliances, and reduce the uncertainty over U.S. intentions.

But the tensions over Taiwan are unlikely to abate. Relations between the U.S. and China will almost certainly remain sour, whoever lives in the White House. Trump may have done irreparable damage to the U.S.-led order, and his political movement will persist beyond the November election. Taiwan will not concede to Beijing’s demands. And Xi will remain the fiery nationalist. Whether the aim is war or not, Xi’s treatment of Taiwan is part of a more assertive, more aggressive set of policies both at home and abroad. Wu linked Beijing’s increased hostility toward Taiwan to its tempestuous border dispute with India, its crackdown on the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong, and its detention of untold numbers of minority Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang region.

“If you put all this together, we see that the authoritarian government of China is trying to expand its global influence,” he said. “Taiwan happens to be on the front line.”

That makes Taiwan the ultimate test for Washington in Asia. If Beijing does dare to attack the island, what happens next may well determine whether China or the U.S. reigns supreme in the Pacific. Failure by Washington to stand by Taiwan would potentially unravel the American alliance system in the region, and destroy American power along with it. The battle over Taiwan may be a Cold War relic, but it will shape the future.

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