Of all the possible conflicts on the borders of China, Taiwan is the most important to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is also the most likely, and its consequences are hard to understate.
Its centrality to the PRC isn’t about the weary old language of Chinese communist propaganda like the “sacred territory of the motherland.” The long history of the PRC ceding territorial claims to consolidate alliances — to the Soviets in 1949 when the PRC was founded, to North Korea before the Korean War, to North Vietnam before the Vietnam War, and to the newly re-minted Russia in the early 1990s, on a territory twice the size of Texas, which the Manchu Empire lost in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — goes to show that China’s communists have never held any of its lands as sacred.
Nor is it about the “rejuvenation of Chinese people,” since war would bring devastation and suffering to Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Neither is it about Taiwan’s dominance of the high-end semiconductor industry, as the PRC can easily intimidate Taiwan to get adequate supplies.
It is, first and foremost, about the domination of the Chinese-speaking world, to confer exclusive and uncontested legitimacy to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state. All the policy aphorisms, from “one country, two systems,” “one country, two governments,” “the 1992 Accord,” and the latest, “two coasts are close as one family (倆岸一家親),” go to demonstrate this point; because they are all predicated on accepting the principle of “one China.” Second, it is designed to make China the dominant power in Asia. Last but not least, it is about challenging the United States, and asserting the primacy of a CCP-controlled superstate.
CCP leaders are known to favor the long game and yet a Taiwan crisis is now imminent. Why?
The party has used the consistent language of “one China” since the first and subsequent Shanghai communiqués signed with the United States in 1972, 1979, and 1982. Turning those words into action becomes likelier and more tempting as China gets stronger. Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the CCP, needs a major success to secure the mantle of paramount leader. Taking Taiwan, either by force or by guile, would count as a huge success. Yet the combative Xi is now 68, and he doesn’t have the time to play the long game (much like Vladimir Putin, who is 70 this year.) The two met and announced a new security alliance at the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4.)
More important, there is a window of opportunity now. Xi, or anyone for that matter, can see the disunity between Europe and the United States, as well as within Taiwan, and within the United States.
There are two ways Xi can attempt to bring the island under communist rule. The first is to attack from within, something the CCP hopes to achieve with the espionage-influence operations of its United Front strategy, working — among other things — to deepen disagreements among and within democratic states.
This is the preferred approach. An invasion risks an international crisis of enormous gravity and even international intervention. Whatever the military outcome, Taiwan would be totally devastated.
The risks are high for the US too. Fighting a conflict over Taiwan would be far from easy and China might win. That would leave America’s Asia pivot without one of its major hinges, and its credibility badly damaged. What would be Japan’s response to a bellicose and newly bloodied CCP eager perhaps to pursue some of the myriad other territorial disputes which litter the region? Japan is already expressing deep unease over China’s plans for Taiwan and is raising defense spending, noting that 90% of its energy supplies pass close to the island. US leadership of anti-CCP states is not foreordained.
For democratic states, the better course is to deter China, though that too means some very tough choices, especially in depriving the PRC of its ability to wage war.
Yet Taiwan is very difficult to defend, not only because the PRC is a behemoth, but because Taiwan isn’t politically united in the one area that is critical to its survival — national security.
The Nationalist Party (KMT), the formerly dominant political party of Taiwan, has already accepted the “1992 Accord” with its “one China” principle.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the current ruling party, has managed to sidestep the “one China” trap; but it focuses on symbolic recognition from the United States and the international community, more than on taking concrete steps to defend Taiwan. You might think that a small country faced with a bellicose neighbor would significantly increase its defense budget and mobilize the population for self-defense. Instead, the DPP raised Taiwan’s defense budget by just 4% in 2022 (and 10% the previous year) and has not mobilized the population at all.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s leaders have been naïve about the CCP, its deadliest enemy. In fact, Taiwan led the world in reviving the PRC’s economy, beginning in the 1980s, with investment totaling $188.5bn from 1991-2020. Currently, 44% of Taiwan’s exports head for the mainland market, making it extremely vulnerable to sanctions and blockade. Two million (of about 24 million) Taiwanese live and work in China and all of them will be hostages, should war break out.
Taiwan’s leaders are curiously hazy about the CCP’s United Front tactics and personnel, and seem not too concerned that United Front agents have already penetrated Taiwan at myriad levels of government, military, and civil society. Examples abound — around 80% of the island’s media is pro-PRC, with China’s allegedly spending $56m in a covert media campaign to help the pro-China KMT; or take the murky gang leader Chang An-lo, known as White Wolf, who leads the Chinese Unity Promotion Party (CUPP) in Taiwan and who spent 10 years in US prisons following a narcotics conviction. As a democracy, Taiwan’s government is just one Manchurian candidate away from being in CCP’s grip, with numerous in-place agents ready to do the party’s bidding.
Unless Taiwan’s population is informed and mobilized, the island could be taken without an invasion, and all the military preparedness and willingness of the international community to help might be for naught. In national security terms, Taiwan simply has to do far more to help itself.
Unless the population is mobilized and informed, all the military preparedness and willingness of the international community to help Taiwan may be for naught.
As the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves. Taiwan should reflect on that, with some urgency.
Dimon Liu was born in China and fled at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. An independent commentator, she has written for the Asian Wall Street Journal and numerous other publications.