Taiwan’s Defense Minister, former general Chiu Kuo-cheng, stood in front of the island’s legislature last week and made a dire prediction – by 2025, China will be able to mount a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan.
The dramatic statement came after China sent its highest number of warplanes yet into the skies above waters southwest of the island. But despite the rhetoric and the military saber-rattling, analysts agree China is unlikely to invade Taiwan anytime soon, with one expert adding the chance of invasion in the next 12 months is “close to zero.”
Beijing has cast waves of aggression toward the island ever since the former Nationalist government fled there at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
In the early 2000s, for instance, experts said Beijing could move to take Taiwan within that decade. Then in 2013, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry estimated the Chinese government would have the capability to invade by 2020 – neither came to pass.
Despite Beijing’s most recent aerial maneuvers, life goes on as normal in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. The public is largely unconcerned about the threat of invasion, and the regular incursions barely warrant a mention on the front page of newspapers.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for alarm.
Beijing is piling military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan to achieve its longterm goal of “One China” – a single united country including the island.
And experts worry that if Chinese Communist Party leaders believe they have no hope of a peaceful “reunification,” they may turn to more drastic measures to fulfill their ambitions.
China’s ‘red lines’
In the first five days of October, more than 150 planes from China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the area surrounding the island where Taipei says it will respond to any incursions.
The maneuvers began on China’s National Day on October 1, a holiday commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic and a natural moment for acts of military posturing. But that wasn’t the only reason for the record-breaking drills – they capped months of heightened tensions between China and Taiwan.
Experts said the deteriorating relations are due to two things – an increasingly assertive and confident Taiwan, sparked by warming relations between Taipei and Washington, and domestic Chinese politics.
Although Taiwan and China have been separately governed for more than 70 years, Beijing views the democratic island of 24 million people as part of its territory and has regularly stated its aim of “reunification,” despite the fact Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
To try to force Taiwan’s hand, Beijing has spent the past 40 years trying to isolate the island by chipping away at its diplomatic allies with offers of support – Taiwan now only has full diplomatic relations with just 15 countries.
But despite Beijing’s best efforts, Taiwan has gained more global influence since early 2020.
Countries around the region are defending Taiwan’s right to self-governance like never before. Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told CNN that Tokyo would “respond accordingly” to any attempt by China to take Taiwan by force, while Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne committed to forging stronger ties with the island.
And the support extends beyond Asia-Pacific. For example, in September, Lithuania became the first European nation in decades to allow Taiwan to have a diplomatic mission under its own name.
Taiwan’s closer relations with the United States have emboldened it on the world stage. Under the Trump administration in 2020, Taiwan welcomed some of its highest profile US visitors in decades, and to Beijing’s frustration, the Biden administration has not reversed that trend.
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with Global Institute Taiwan, said the growing tensions between the US and China had also helped Taiwan boost its profile.
“Taiwan realizes that the international community is becoming a little bit more accommodating to Taiwan, more understanding of the role that Taiwan as a liberal democracy has to play in this growing clash of ideologies,” he said.
Rather than a prelude to an invasion, the increased Chinese flyovers are a symbol of Beijing’s frustration and a reminder to Taiwan and the US not to cross China’s “red lines,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
She said those red lines, which if crossed could spark a military escalation from Beijing, include campaigning for formal Taiwan independence or a decision to deploy large numbers of US troops to the island.
“China wants to keep Taiwan in a box and it is using more and more coercion against Taiwan … They want to intimidate Taiwan,” she said.
But Beijing’s audience isn’t only in Taiwan and the US – it’s also at home.
By putting pressure on Taiwan, President Xi Jinping is trying to shore up support ahead of the 2022 Chinese Communist Party Congress. That’s when Xi’s second term ends, though it’s almost certain he’ll stay on as President.
Wen-Ti Sung, a fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University (ANU), said Xi also wants to garner support ahead of a meeting of the Communist Party in November where a shortlist of candidates for higher office will be finalized.
A strong policy on Taiwan could determine how many allies he can place in top positions for the next five years.
“At a moment like this, using some show of force to drum up nationalist sentiment, create a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, is usually a good thing for the incumbent, for the commander-in-chief,” he said.
And the Communist Party has major priorities over the coming year which an invasion of Taiwan would dramatically complicate – a smooth-running Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February and the imminent 20th party congress.
China’s ‘peaceful reunification’ goal
One of the clearest signs of Beijing’s reluctance to invade Taiwan came from an unusual source – Xi himself.
In a speech on October 9, the Chinese President emphasized his desire for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, and appeared to imply he was prepared to wait for the island to voluntarily comply.
“When I read what Xi Jinping says about Taiwan I’m struck at the lack of urgency,” Glaser said.
Aiming for a peaceful resolution to the standoff over the Taiwan Strait makes sense – experts have long said that any attempt by Beijing to forcefully take the island would be a hugely costly endeavor, with an uncertain outcome.
In extensive war games held by the US earlier this year, the American forces were able to thwart a simulated Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the year 2030 – just. According to Defense News, exercises estimated it would be a Pyrrhic victory with massive loss of life.
But experts said it is hard to see what path remains for Beijing’s vision of unification.
Support for moving toward “independence” for Taiwan, meaning pursuing a future formally separate from mainland China, is at its highest point in decades, according to surveys by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center.
In June, a poll of 4,717 people in Taiwan found 25.8% want to move toward independence, while fewer than 10% want “unification” with mainland China. The majority opinion was to stick with the status quo for now.
The sentiment for a move toward independence has more than doubled since 2018, the survey found.
Sung attributed the rise to Beijing’s brutal treatment of Hong Kong, a major financial hub that was promised 50 years of semi-autonomous governance, only to have its civil liberties severely curtailed by Beijing after major pro-democracy protests in 2019.
“In light of the Hong Kong crisis, I think the appeal of a peaceful unification under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ scenario in Taiwan is very, very low,” he said.
Beijing has several reasons to hope Taiwan will eventually unify voluntarily. The newly-elected leader of Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, Eric Chu, has agreed mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same country. He has also promised to restart communication channels with Beijing if the KMT is elected in 2024.
Taiwan invasion may be counterproductive
Any Chinese invasion of Taiwan won’t come without warning, experts said.
Before any military action against Taiwan’s main island, there would likely be an attack on Taiwanese-administered islands in the South China Sea or potentially a blockade of international trade with the island, they said.
In the meantime, the Chinese government is determined to pile the pressure on Taiwan.
China regularly opposes Taiwan’s involvement in any international forums, sometimes going to extreme lengths to dissuade countries from including the island.
Even at the height of the pandemic, Beijing refused to allow Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, concerned it might give the impression the island was not part of China.
When the issue of Taiwan’s membership came up at a meeting in May, China’s ambassador to the UN Chen Xu said countries should stop “politicizing health issues and using Taiwan issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Both China and Taiwan have put in applications to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement between Pacific Rim countries pioneered by the US. Beijing has come out strongly against Taipei joining the pact.
Even forms of economic coercion are being put in place. Taiwan’s fruit, including the nation’s iconic pineapples, has been banned from Chinese markets, with the government saying “harmful creatures” could present a biosecurity risk to the country.
But some experts said it is possible Taiwan has already passed the point of no return for Beijing and any “reunification” is unlikely, barring a massive change in either the Communist Party’s stance on civil liberties or Taiwan’s position on China.
And Cole, from Global Institute Taiwan, said that in itself might be the most worrying thing. If it becomes clear there is no chance of unification, and Xi’s reputation or hold on power is at stake, the Chinese President could resort to drastic measures.
“At that point, I fear that he could be compelled to, to resort to force or other course of measures against Taiwan, if only to demonstrate once again to the … Chinese people that he has things under control,” he said.
Sung, from ANU, said all the diplomatic, economic and military coercion might backfire against Beijing and undermine its own objective of “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan.
Instead of creating an atmosphere of fear and helplessness as intended, the Chinese Communist Party is building a stronger sense of identity and community for Taiwan, he said.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the more you highlight that shared experience, the more you accentuate Taiwanese national identity. And the more you diminish support for unification with China,” Sung said.
CNN’s Ben Westcott reported from Hong Kong and Eric Cheung reported from Taipei.