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Op-Ed: Has the Chinese military invasion of Taiwan countdown clock started?

Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen. (Voice of America/Released)
January 30, 2019

China has recently carried out a number of military acts that have demonstrated its power to Taiwan, or the Republic of China, a self-governing island nation. In a speech to Taiwan in January 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China’s determination to reunify Taiwan with China will never change, and Beijing will never give up the option of using force to resolve the issue. He also ordered the army to prepare for military struggle. China’s official media, the Global Times, said that after Xi’s speech, Beijing officially put unification on the agenda, and the countdown has begun.

Whether through peaceful means or force, China must do its utmost to resolve the Taiwan issue as soon as possible. Various factors indicate that China’s demands for regaining Taiwan are becoming stronger and more urgent, making Beijing more likely to attack Taiwan by force.

Since 2016, relations across the Taiwan Strait have continued to be tense; official exchanges between China and Taiwan have ended. In China’s eyes, Taiwan’s political situation is increasingly that of “de-China-ization.” Beijing has gradually lost its confidence in peacefully reunifying Taiwan and stepped up its preparations for actively using its military to do so. Chinese official media and military generals have consistently claimed that China is fully capable of using force to achieve Taiwan’s reunification.

Compared with several other top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi’s call for reunifying Taiwan is much more urgent. He has repeatedly stated that he expects to resolve the Taiwan issue during his term of office. He did not want to pass on the issue from generation to generation; he does not want to hand it off to his successor.

From a geopolitical point of view, Taiwan is a stronghold for the West Pacific waterway and a battleground for Chinese military strategists. For China, the passage to the Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca will be unimpeded. In the eyes of Beijing, it is not an impossible problem for China to capture Taiwan – it is only a matter of time.

At present, Sino-U.S. relations have deteriorated sharply because of the trade war, which has caused the nationalist sentiment within the CCP to rise and the hard-line conservatives have become more vocal. If Sino-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate due to geopolitics, and lead to a sharp decline or even collapse of China’s economy, Xi will most likely capture Taiwan to show China’s dissatisfaction and the CCP’s grievances – and those of the entire Chinese society. If the CCP believes that other parties or countries want Taiwan to remain independent, the risk of China using force on Taiwan likely increases even quicker.

Once Beijing has completely lost confidence in peaceful reunification and is determined to use force to recover Taiwan, it is the United States and its allies who can prevent this violation.

In recent years, the relationship between the United States and Taiwan has improved. For example, President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Law and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Law, increased the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan, and encouraged senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan. The United States also helped Taiwan build its own submarines, as well as dispatched warships to cruise the South China Sea.

Notably, these moves by the United States do not exceed the scope of their past policy toward China. Washington mainly stressed that Taiwan needs to improve its self-defense capabilities.

Whether the current military status and strategic intentions of the United States can completely deter China’s military operations in the Taiwan Strait, and even the South China Sea, is still a question to be answered. According to the Taiwan Relations Act, if Taiwan is attacked, the United States is committed to protecting Taiwan. A defense analyst at U.S. think tank Rand Corporation said that if the U.S. military does not modernize and upgrade its armaments, it will be difficult to defeat China in the Western Pacific by 2025 or 2030. If China really has the ability to capture Taiwan within a few days, the United States’ desire to protect Taiwan may become a bubble.

The possibility of Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan is indeed increasing, although China’s capture of Taiwan is not necessarily inevitable. But if U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate, Xi’s determination to recover Taiwan as soon as possible likely remains unchanged. Beijing and Taipei are gradually drifting away from one another because of political differences, and because the United States and its allies can’t necessarily prevent China from using force against Taiwan, the possibility of China using force increases, and Beijing’s attack on Taiwan will even be inevitable.

Dr. Phil Tao Peng is an editorial writer and a senior columnist for the World Journal in New York. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan (a research fellow of MOFA Taiwan Fellowship). From 2010 to 2016, he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration and Management of North Rhine-Westphalia (FHöV NRW), in Germany. And in 2006, he obtained his doctorate in political science and sociology at the University of Münster (WWU-Münster) in Germany.

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