Surveying the Experts: China’s Approach to Taiwan

Surveying the Experts: China’s Approach to Taiwan, CSIS

As China’s recent unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan demonstrated, the Taiwan Strait is a major flashpoint that threatens to undermine regional and global stability. Yet crucial questions remain about the dynamics shaping the Taiwan Strait. What is China’s approach to Taiwan and how long is Beijing willing to wait for Taiwan’s unification? Will China use significant military force against Taiwan, and when? How does Beijing view the potential of U.S. intervention in a Taiwan contingency?

To shed light on these questions, ChinaPower polled 64 leading experts on the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and cross-Strait relations.1 The experts polled include 28 former high-level U.S. government (USG) officials from both Democrat and Republican administrations, as well as 23 former USG policy and intelligence analysts and 13 top experts from academia and think tanks.2 Responses were collected from August 10–September 8, 2022, amid the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Key takeaways from the survey are shown below. Click a tile to jump to the corresponding section for additional insights and analysis. Click here to jump to the conclusion section.

China’s Strategy for Taiwan

At the most basic level, China’s overall approach to Taiwan hinges on two main questions: does China have a clear strategy to achieve unification and how patiently is it willing to wait? The experts polled by our survey broadly believe that Beijing does not have a strategy and that it is willing to wait to achieve unification—but not forever.

Asked whether Beijing has “a coherent internal strategy and roadmap, with concrete stages and actionable next steps,” 80 percent of respondents said “no.” There was no significant difference in responses to this question based on the identity of the respondents: former senior USG officials and other respondents broadly agree on the matter.

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The general assessment that China lacks a coherent strategy is a reflection of public opinion polls in Taiwan, which consistently show that Taiwan’s citizens are not interested in unification with China. Under President Tsai Ing-wen, Taipei has also rejected China’s proposed “one country, two systems” offer and watched as Beijing cracked down on Hong Kong and reversed promises of autonomy for the Chinese special administrative region. China’s inability to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwan government and people has led Beijing to increasingly leverage coercive tools against the island, including threats to use significant military force. These dynamics raise serious questions as to whether China has a coherent strategy for peaceful unification with Taiwan.

Linked to China’s overall strategy are Beijing’s assessments of the necessary conditions for unification with the island. Only 10 percent of respondents think Beijing’s approach is to push for unification “at the earliest possible opportunity.” The overwhelming majority (84 percent) of respondents say “Beijing is willing to wait for unification but will not accept the status quo permanently.” For this group, there is likely an assessment that Beijing is willing to wait because the conditions—political, economic, or military—are not yet optimal for China to achieve peaceful or forceful unification. Only 6 percent believe Beijing is willing to permanently accept the status quo—wherein Taiwan is self-governed but Taipei has not declared independence—and none of the 64 respondents think that China would ever accept Taiwan independence.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/xvL3B/5/SHARE 

China’s Timeline for Unification

Some of the most hotly debated questions revolve around China’s timeline for unification. These questions are crucial, since a desire by Beijing to stick to a certain timeline could compel China to ramp up coercive measures or even military attacks to achieve its objectives.

When asked if Beijing has set a “hard internal deadline for resolving the Taiwan issue,” 44 percent of respondents said Beijing has set a hard deadline to achieve unification by 2049. This is not an arbitrary year. Authoritative Chinese sources, including the 2022 white paper on Taiwan, have closely linked Taiwan’s unification with the concept of “national rejuvenation”—a nebulous goal that Chinese leaders aim to achieve by 2049 to mark the centennial of the PRC’s founding.

Some experts believe that 2049 is only a soft benchmark for China and not a hard deadline. As a result, some selected 2072 as the hard deadline for China to achieve unification, believing that 50 years from 2022 is the longest time China could give itself. Others (42 percent) selected the option that Beijing is willing to wait indefinitely as long as it still sees unification as possible.

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Since experts do not formulate their assessments in a vacuum, the poll sought to gauge whether China’s recent unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan reflect changes in Beijing’s timelines. A large majority (80 percent) believe that the recent exercises do not indicate that China is accelerating its timeline for using large-scale military force against Taiwan. Notably, however, 29 percent of former senior USG officials believe the exercises do indicate a timeline shift while only 14 percent of other respondents hold that view.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/PZFBo/3/SHARE 

Xi Jinping’s Third Term

China’s approach toward Taiwan over the next five years will be heavily shaped by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He is China’s most powerful leader in generations, and he has abolished the two term limit on his power. Xi is set to begin his third five-year term in October 2022.

Under Xi, China has significantly ramped up pressure on Taiwan. There has been U.S. and international media speculation that the year 2027—which will mark the end of Xi’s third term and also the centennial of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—is a likely time period by which Xi will decide to use force against Taiwan to achieve unification. Xi’s own statements have also been interpreted by some as an indication that he seeks to resolve the Taiwan issue under his watch. In 2013 and 2019, Xi commented that the Taiwan issue should not be passed down from generation to generation. Yet he has been careful to not explicitly and publicly specify a date by which China needs to unify with Taiwan or use force against the island.

The experts polled by our survey broadly rejected the idea that China must act against Taiwan by 2027. About 83 percent of respondents assess that China does not plan to use significant kinetic military force against Taiwan by 2027.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Ek0RW/3/SHARE 

China’s lack of a plan to use significant military force against Taiwan does not mean that Beijing will sit idly by. Indeed, 79 percent of respondents assess that Xi will move beyond a more passive focus on deterring perceived Taiwan independence and instead prioritize making progress toward peaceful unification during his third term. This means that Beijing will need to be much more active—and likely more coercive—toward Taiwan to create the conditions for unification. This could involve more unilateral moves on Beijing’s end to impose its sovereignty and control over the island.

Only 9 percent of respondents believe that Xi feels China has exhausted all peaceful options and will feel compelled in his third term to unify Taiwan through coercive measures or military force. This corresponds closely to the 9 percent that believe Beijing will seek unification at the earliest possible opportunity (See above in the section on “China’s Strategy for Taiwan”).

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The Risk of a Taiwan Contingency

As cross-Strait tensions have flared in recent years, so has the likelihood of a military conflict or accident. Three of the survey’s questions sought to gauge experts’ assessments about the risks of various military contingencies in the next ten years. Their responses indicate a belief that a full amphibious invasion of Taiwan is possible—but more unlikely than not—while a more limited Chinese use of force and a military accident are fairly likely.

Asked how likely it is that China will engage in an amphibious invasion of Taiwan in the next ten years, 63 percent of experts responded that it is possible. Another 27 percent feel an invasion is unlikely. Only 8 percent think an invasion is likely.

Based on responses to other questions in the survey, these results indicate that most experts do not believe China proactively seeks to invade Taiwan in the next ten years. Instead, Beijing could feel compelled to do so if China views Taiwan or the United States as crossing unacceptable redlines.

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While experts were unsure about the likelihood of an amphibious invasion, they were much more willing to believe that in the next 10 years China would “deliberately escalate its use of force short of invasion,” for example by blockading Taiwan. A slight majority believe that such a scenario is either likely (30 percent) or very likely (22 percent). However, a plurality (44 percent) still view this as possible. Only 5 percent believe it is unlikely and no experts believe it is not at all likely.

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Respondents were even more likely to think that an “unintended military accident or collision will take place in or near the Taiwan Strait.” While a plurality (39 percent) still believe an accident or collision is possible, 34 percent believe such a scenario is likely and 22 percent believe it is very likely. Only 5 percent believe it is unlikely and no experts believe it is not at all likely. Notably, there were not major differences in views between former senior officials and other respondents.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/AMMMT/4/SHARE 

Potential Chinese Responses to U.S. and Taiwan Actions

Also important to China’s plans for Taiwan is how China might respond to potential U.S. and Taiwan actions. Beijing could feel that it must respond by using military force. Respondents largely agree that China would invade if Taiwan declared independence and that Beijing would respond strongly and negatively if Washington dropped its long-held approach of strategic ambiguity.

Over the years, Beijing has repeatedly made known its objection to Taiwan independence. The PLA’s unprecedented August 2022 exercises were targeted at deterring “separatist activities” on the island, and Beijing has taken other measures such as sanctioning Taiwan officials that it has labeled “independence diehards.”

Survey respondents appear to take Beijing’s concerns seriously. More than three-quarters of the experts polled said that China would invade Taiwan immediately (within six months) if Taipei declared independence. There was little variation in this belief among different groups of respondents. Compared to other respondents, former senior USG officials were only slightly more likely to say China would invade (79 percent versus 75 percent). Even among the 23 percent that do not believe China would invade Taiwan immediately, some still believe that China could use significant force against Taiwan. This could involve launching a blockade or engaging in unprecedented, large military exercises targeting Taiwan.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Bkvlc/3/SHARE 

Respondents were somewhat more sanguine about how Beijing would respond to a decision by Washington to end its long-held policy of strategic ambiguity—a policy wherein the United States does not say whether or not it would come to Taiwan’s defense. None of the polled experts believe China would respond to an end of strategic ambiguity by immediately invading Taiwan. Instead, 64 percent of polled experts expect that China would “respond negatively and significantly, provoking a U.S.-China or China-Taiwan crisis.” An additional 31 percent say that China would instead “respond negatively in a more limited way,” mainly lodging diplomatic protests.

Only two respondents believe that an official U.S. policy shift to defend Taiwan would deter China from using force against Taiwan, and only one respondent assesses that China would not respond to the U.S. policy change.  As shown in the next section, most experts do not believe ending U.S. strategic ambiguity would deter China from using force against Taiwan because Beijing already assumes that the U.S. military would come to Taiwan’s defense. Instead, Beijing is likely to view a change in U.S. policy as further provocation and as an effort to support Taiwan independence.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/yXgUr/5/SHARE 

Chinese Thinking on U.S. Resolve

Experts polled in this survey think Beijing already assumes the United States will intervene militarily to defend Taiwan. Many also believe that Chinese leaders fear the U.S. still has a military advantage. 

Survey participants were asked to assess how far Beijing expects the United States would be willing to go to defend Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They were given multiple options ranging from providing no support for Taiwan to bearing any military costs to defend the island. None of the experts assess that China believes Washington will provide no support or simply stop at political and economic aid. All respondents think China believes the United States would be willing to also deploy troops in Taiwan’s defense.

Experts diverge, however, on how far the United States would be willing to go to defend Taiwan. About 30 percent believe China assesses the United States is willing to deploy troops to defend Taiwan but is not willing to bear significant costs. Most respondents (66 percent) think Beijing has assessed that the United States is willing to go further by bearing substantial costs but will seek to contain the military conflict to the Indo-Pacific region. The remaining 5 percent think China sees the U.S. as willing to risk any cost, including a global war and attacks on the continental United States.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/1McF3/3/SHARE 

Importantly, these responses were specifically about a scenario in which the PLA launches an “unprovoked” invasion. If Taiwan were to provoke a Chinese attack by unilaterally declaring independence or by escalating through a preemptive military strike, Washington may be far less willing to come to Taiwan’s aid. Beijing is aware of this, and a different scenario would therefore likely be interpreted differently by Chinese leaders.

The widespread belief that China anticipates a U.S. military response is notable given that most respondents also think Beijing is uncertain about its capabilities vis-à-vis the United States. In the context of a Chinese amphibious invasion scenario in the next five years, about 41 percent believe Beijing is uncertain about U.S. capabilities but think Beijing “has confidence in its growing military capabilities.” This reflects the fact that China has invested significant resources to train and modernize the PLA.  https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/gkygq/3/SHARE 

At the same time, the PLA has not engaged in a major conventional conflict since the China-Vietnam war in 1979 and an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would amount to an extremely complex and difficult military operation. Most respondents (55 percent) consequently think that Beijing believes the United States still has a military advantage, indicating a belief that the United States and its allies could mount a considerable defense of Taiwan. Only 2 percent say that Beijing believes the United States could not repel a Chinese invasion.

Conclusion

The results of this survey offer valuable insights into the thinking of many of the leading experts on cross-Strait dynamics and Indo-Pacific security issues—including those who have shaped not only public discourse but also U.S. government policy. Taken together, their views suggest a consensus along the following lines:

  1. China is determined to unify with Taiwan, but Beijing does not have a coherent strategy. Experts in the poll unanimously agree that Beijing will not accept Taiwan’s independence. At the same time, most experts assess that China does not have a coherent strategy for unification.
  2. China is willing to wait to unify with Taiwan, and the August 2022 exercises are not an indicator of accelerated PRC timelines. Most respondents believe Beijing is willing to wait decades—or even indefinitely—to achieve its goals. Experts are split nearly evenly over whether China has set a hard deadline to achieve unification by 2049 or whether it is willing to wait indefinitely. Only a small share of experts believe China has a hard deadline to unify Taiwan in the next 15 years or less. Most do not view China’s unprecedented military exercise in August 2022 as an indicator that China has accelerated its timeline to use force against Taiwan.
  3. Xi Jinping feels there are still avenues to peaceful reunification. A large majority of experts believe Xi will prioritize making progress on peaceful unification during his third term (2022–2027). Few experts—and no former senior U.S. government officials—believe Xi has concluded that China has exhausted all peaceful options. Most respondents reject speculation that Xi intends to use force against Taiwan by 2027. 
  4. The potential for a military crisis or conflict in the Taiwan Strait is very real. While very few think a full amphibious invasion of Taiwan is likely in the next ten years, a majority say it is possible. Other scenarios short of an invasion—such as a blockade or a military accident or collision—are likelier than not in the next decade. 
  5. China would immediately invade if Taiwan declared independence. Experts were largely in agreement that a declaration of independence would provoke an invasion. China would respond more limitedly—but still negatively and strongly—to an ending of U.S. strategic ambiguity, likely by provoking a crisis.
  6. China assumes that the United States would intervene in a Taiwan conflict. Experts in the survey unanimously agree that Beijing assumes the U.S. military would deploy forces to intervene and defend Taiwan in a conflict, and a slight majority of experts think Beijing still worries that the United States has a military edge. Accordingly, almost no respondents believe that ending the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity would deter China from using force against Taiwan, since Beijing already assumes Washington will intervene. 

Survey Participants

A total of 64 respondents participated in this survey. The individuals listed below gave permission to publicly acknowledge their participation. An additional four respondents participated but did not wish for their names to be listed publicly. 

Jeff Benson, Jude Blanchette, Dennis J. Blasko, Richard Bush, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Elbridge Colby, Zack Cooper, Ralph Cossa, John K. Culver, Fiona Cunningham, Richard Danzig, Brian Davis, Gerard DiPippo, Lukas Filler, David Finkelstein, Michele Flournoy, M. Taylor Fravel, Bonnie Glaser, Michael J. Green, Derek Grossman, Kristen Gunness, Paul Haenle, Ryan Hass, Paul Heer, Lonnie Henley, Charles Hooper, Russell Hsiao, Michael A. Hunzeker, Christopher Johnstone, Shirley Kan, Ivan Kanapathy, Isaac Kardon, David Keegan, Scott Kennedy, William Klein, Matthew Kroenig, Roderick Lee, Kenneth Lieberthal, Bonny Lin, Shirley Lin, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Evan Medeiros, Lyle Morris, Dan Peck, Shelley Rigger, J. Stapleton Roy, David Sacks, Brent Sadler, Chad Sbragia, Andrew Scobell, David B. Shear, Thomas Shugart, David Stilwell, Mark Stokes, Robert Sutter, Scott Swift, Kharis Templeman, Christopher Twomey, James Winnefeld, Joel Wuthnow


Authors:
Bonny Lin, Brian Hart, Matthew P. Funaiole, Samantha Lu, Hannah Price, Nicholas Kaufman

Photo Credit: wael/AdobeStock

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