Prospects For Taiwan’s Peaceful Unification Are Fading

China’s top leader issued a powerful warning on Sunday against further U.S. support for Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a runaway province part of Chinese territory. At the opening ceremony of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress that’s held once every five years, President Xi Jinping said China reserves the option of “taking all measures necessary” to resolve the Taiwan question, Reuters reports. While reiterating Beijing’s commitment to peaceful unification, Xi threatened that “provocations by Taiwanese independence forces and interference from external forces” may compel China to take military action. 

During his speech to almost 2,300 delegates inside the Great Hall of the People, Xi vowed to achieve the “reunification” of Taiwan, possibly through the use of armed violence. “We will never promise to renounce the use of force,” he said to a resounding applause. The remarks followed a statement by Communist Party spokesperson Sun Yeli, who said that China will not tolerate Taiwan’s perceived move towards full independence or U.S. military and diplomatic support for the self-governing territory, Aljazeera reports. Sun asserted that Taiwan’s status is a matter for China alone to resolve. In response, the Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council said Taiwan will not back down on its sovereignty, according to Reuters. “We’re here to send a warning to the CCP authorities to abandon the imposed political framework and acts of coercion and aggression,” a spokesperson said on Sunday. The United States remains formally committed to ensuring the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question and providing the island with the means to defend itself from military attack. 

Taiwan is an increasingly thorny issue in U.S.-China relations that has raised the risk of armed confrontation between two of the world’s most powerful countries. Even in the absence of U.S. intervention, a cross-strait conflict would threaten the lives of millions of people and wreak havoc on global supply chains. Unfortunately, while leaders of each country pay lip service to peaceful unification, Xi Jinping’s recent remarks allude to the fact that China, Taiwan, and the United States are preparing for war. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei last month, China conducted its largest ever military exercise in the seas and airspace around the island and fired 11 Dongfeng-15 ballistic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, into the nearby waters as a retaliatory measure. To make matters worse, intensifying tensions over Taiwan have complicated or completely derailed bilateral efforts across key areas of policy. According to Politico, China canceled dialogues with the United States on climate change, transnational crime, and defence policy coordination in the wake of Pelosi’s visit

The source of heightened tensions over Taiwan is the mutual perception that the opposing side is unilaterally attempting to overturn the status quo. On the one hand, Taipei and Washington view rising military expenditures on the mainland as a worrying manifestation of Beijing’s expansionist ambitions. CNBC reports that China’s defence spending is set to rise by $229 billion this year, the fastest increase since 2019. Coupled with aggressive rhetoric and an extensive campaign of grey-zone coercion, significant investments in its military capabilities stoke fears that China aims to forcefully integrate Taiwan into the mainland’s authoritarian system. On the other hand, Beijing is deeply concerned with, and intent on arresting, unfavourable trends in Taiwan. For one, Taiwanese public identity is shifting steadily away from China. According to BBC, nearly 80% of people in Taiwan now consider themselves “Taiwanese,” whereas half the population still said they were “Chinese” a decade ago. A 2021 poll from the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed that roughly half of the island’s population now supports formal independence, with a large majority willing to fight a mainland invasion. 

Chinese officials also worry that the United States is determined to undermine their country’s progress towards unification. Though China has maintained that Taiwan has no authority to conduct foreign relations, the U.S. government has supplied the island with weapons since Congress authorized the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, a measure that Beijing views as a direct affront to its national sovereignty. Now, the United States appears to be increasingly willing to intervene in cross-strait affairs. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month passed the Taiwan Policy Act, which stands to give Taiwan benefits typically afforded to major U.S. allies, provide billions in Foreign Military Financing, and accelerate transfers of U.S. military equipment, Politico reports, sparking outrage in Beijing. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, told NPR in January, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

Anxieties over the fate of Taiwan, perhaps the biggest flashpoint for conflict between the United States and China, are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. However, there are tangible steps both sides can take to reduce the potential for military confrontation. First, the United States must credibly assure China that its objective is peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, not independence for Taiwan. When asked recently on “60 Minutes” whether U.S. forces would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion,” President Biden immediately replied, “Yes… That’s the commitment we made.” Though the Biden administration later took back the statement, The Washington Post explains, it calls into question the commitment of political leaders in Washington to the “one China policy,” which says that the United States will accept any outcome that is peacefully agreed on by mainland China and Taiwan, does not support the island’s independence, and opposes unilateral attempts by either side to change the status quo. To assuage Beijing’s concerns that Washington is pursuing sovereign status for Taiwan, senior American officials should maintain greater consistency when speaking about Taiwan and make clear that Taipei cannot unilaterally declare itself a legally independent country. The U.S. government should also cease its efforts to include the island in international organizations—even those that do not require members to be independent states, such as the World Health Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization—and begin negotiating trade and investment agreements in consultation with Beijing. 

China, for its part, should avoid escalatory rhetoric and provocative military maneuvers, and instead seek to engage Taipei’s leadership in direct discussions about a long-term resolution of the Taiwan question that takes into account the needs of Taiwanese people. In recent months, mainland forces have carried out flights over the waters between the southern part of Taiwan and the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea, breaching Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on an almost daily basis. Such grey-zone tactics not only exacerbate existing differences between Beijing and Taipei, but also undermine the ability of each side to avoid unintended conflict. Regular air and sea exercises conducted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the scrambling of Taiwan’s own aircraft and coastal defence forces, and the deployment of warships in close proximity to one another greatly increase the risk of accidental clashes that might trigger a full-scale attack. Instead of preparing to resolve their differences by force, decision makers in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing should allocate the bulk of their resources to developing non-combative strategies aimed at conflict prevention and peaceful approaches to addressing issues related to Taiwan’s complicated status. 


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