Taiwan still flashing red despite US-China ‘thaw’

A restoration of high-level official meetings between US and People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders following the spy balloon crisis of February 2023 has fueled cautious optimism that US-China relations are improving. 

The most important event in this purported “thaw” was the meeting between Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in California on November 15. Xi appeared to offer the Americans assurances that China was not preparing to wage war against Taiwan.

But while the Xi-Biden summit was modestly successful, the chance of a conflict is scarcely if at all reduced because Taiwan, the most likely trigger for war, remains as much a flashpoint as ever.

The most encouraging item from the summit on the Taiwan issue is that Xi reportedly told Biden that China had no plans to take military action against Taiwan. This, however, is only superficially encouraging.

First, it tells us nothing new. War would be a terrible option for Beijing. Either a blockade or invasion could fail, and any “victory” would be Pyrrhic for the Chinese, with huge losses of lives and treasure, serious and perhaps regime-threatening economic disruption, and decades of difficulty trying to govern a hostile Taiwan population. 

Therefore we can assume Xi would opt for war only as a last resort, prompted by a trigger that has not yet occurred, such as Taiwan’s formal declaration of de jure independence.

Xi seemed to be refuting speculation that Beijing has already decided to attack Taiwan, perhaps as early as 2024. And we already knew that a major PLA combat operation against Taiwan would require many months of unusual and visible preparations.

Second, the credibility of any public statement by Xi is questionable. His government denies persecuting Uighurs, denies government-sponsored industrial cybertheft, denies bullying other countries, insists that the spy balloon was a “weather balloon” – I could go on.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden at a summit meeting at the Filoli Estate, San Francisco, November 15, 2023. Photo: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In any case, it would be a mistake to interpret Xi’s comments too literally. In 2015, Xi told then-US president Barack Obama that “there is no intention to militarize” China’s artificial island bases in the South China Sea. After the Chinese government packed those sandbars with military facilities and equipment, government propagandists explained that militarization for self-defense purposes does not count as “militarization.”

Even if Xi has not ordered his military to attack Taiwan by a particular future date, neither can we take his statement to mean that he will never attack Taiwan. Both Xi and the PRC leaders who came before him have stubbornly refused to rule out the possible use of force against Taiwan. 

They see this threat as essential to deterring Taiwan independence. Therefore Xi does have a plan, even if he has not yet decided to implement it.

During the retaliation for the Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan in 2022 and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the US in April 2023, PRC forces carried out military maneuvers around Taiwan that showcased capabilities and missions specifically germane to a war to conquer Taiwan, as if to douse any doubts that such a plan exists.

Even Xi’s meager assurance during his California visit may have gone too far. Xi’s own government quickly discounted it. 

On November 21, Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, complained that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te had been using Xi’s statement to discredit the assertion by the opposition Kuomintang Party that electing a DPP president would lead to a China attack on Taiwan. 

Chen said Lai was taking Xi’s statement “out of context” and “creating excuses for continuing provocations.”

Other statements by Xi were less assuring. He reportedly demanded that the United States “take real actions to honor its commitment of not supporting Taiwan independence” and that the US “stop arming Taiwan.”

This reiterates Beijing’s recent position that while claiming to follow a “One China” policy, Washington is in practice pushing Taiwan toward permanent formal independence as a means of “containing” or suppressing China.

Xi’s comments in California indicate no reduction in Beijing’s fear that America is abetting Taiwan’s independence. This fear is the main factor increasing the risk of a Taiwan Strait war. Xi also suggested that there is a limit to how long Beijing will refrain from using force if peaceful attempts at “unification” are not working.

Biden did not promise to stop selling arms to Taiwan and Xi did not promise to halt his military intimidation of the island. Since Xi returned home from California, PRC military aircraft and ships have continued menacing Taiwan, just as they had been before the summit. 

Picking the low-hanging fruit does not necessarily make the high-hanging fruit more accessible. Indeed, Beijing often argues the opposite: that China will not cooperate on issues of obvious common interest until after the more contentious issues are solved.

A helicopter flies a Taiwanese flag in Taoyuan, Taiwan. Photo: Asia Times Files / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto via Getty Images

After the Pelosi visit, for example, Beijing suspended cooperation with the United States in

  • combating illegal drug trafficking,
  • mitigating the negative effects of climate change and
  • avoiding unintended military incidents.

This expansive linkage of issues is also the premise of increasingly frequent Chinese economic coercion against trade partners: normal economic activity cannot continue until the trade partner demonstrates respect for a PRC “core interest,” often Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.

Despite the frothy good feeling of the Xi-Biden summit, the US-China relationship remains in a serious downturn. The steps the two countries took toward recovery in the latter part of 2023 are welcome but fragile. They could be swept away easily by the next crisis over Taiwan, which still seems inevitable.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow of the East-West Center, Honolulu.



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