Much is made of China’s obsessive need to “redress a national humiliation,” as a banner around a watch tower on the Great Wall trumpeted shortly before the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. The humiliation referred to was the forced domination by foreign powers of sovereign Chinese lands and ports during the 19th and 20th centuries, as countries from Britain to Germany to Japan tried to break down China’s barriers to foreign trade.
That humiliation, as potent and politically powerful as it is, doesn’t come close in the Chinese consciousness to the affront rendered upon the Communists as the Nationalist (KMT) forces of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The audacity of the retreat, combined with the KMT’s increasing success in establishing a government-in-exile on Taiwan, became a festering wound in Beijing as the Nationalists, ruling under martial law, were able to sit on China’s southeastern coast and sneer back at the mainland for 38 years.
When martial law was lifted in Taiwan and democratic reforms put in place, in some senses the situation became worse for the Communist Party in China. Now they had to contend not only with their old foe, the KMT, but with new enemies in the form of political parties that might just declare Taiwan’s independence.
Every leader of the People’s Republic from Mao onward has vowed reunification with Taiwan. It can be argued, however, that none have had the resources to consider taking proactive action on the issue, until now. It would be better to assume that Xi is ultimately planning to address the issue, than not. If he does, what would he do? Invade? His military and naval advisors will tell him that’s a fool’s mission. But they might not be so quick to dismiss another option. They might lend their support to a blockade of Taiwan, now that much of the infrastructure and resources needed for one are falling into place. There are other telltale signs that China may be planning a blockade of Taiwan, if Xi decides to resolve the Taiwan issue.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has its own internal motivations and goals, among which securing resources is its prime mover. But the resources of relationships are just as important for China. Lenders and donors generally find themselves immune to criticism from their borrowers and beneficiaries. Is a country in Asia or Africa, as the recipient of a road, a bridge, an airport, or a loan to build such infrastructure, likely to criticize its benefactor when they strike to resolve an “internal” affair? Likely not. BRI establishes relationships that are very much in China’s favor, lessening or even neutralizing the possibility of pushback from those quarters if and when China makes a decisive move to bring Taiwan into the fold.
In addition, Xi has shown that he is not averse to a leading role for China’s military — indeed, he is very much committed to it. China’s defense budget for 2019, though not seeing the double-digit increases that were evident from 1989 to 2015, still enjoyed a healthy 7.5 percent increase in 2019. China’s navy is ranked as the third most capable in the world.
Regarding that navy, what are China’s goals for such a mighty maritime military capability? I posited in my last article that the peacetime buildup of a navy can only be for eventual combat. There is, however, one other word that can finish that sentence: blockade.
Along with its navy, China’s determination to dominate the South China Sea, with little concern for international pushback, lends credence to the idea that it must have some use for the virtual sovereignty it claims through what are clearly – and legally – international waters. If China decides to blockade Taiwan, it needs the control and flexibility in the South China Sea that it is fiercely carving out for itself.
On top of that, China’s economy is slowing, and is poised to take further hits, if ongoing trade war issues are not resolved, and BRI commitments prove to be over-demanding. What better time to turn the country’s attentions away from financial woes and toward a cause under which the whole nation can galvanize?
But nothing is more important in the equation than the character of Xi Jinping himself. He has been willing to break with much CCP tradition, despite his return to a strict, austere party line. He has become a reformer of a corrupt party, a world adventurer, a fellow willing to challenge old paradigms. He is clearly not willing to let China “bide time” in showing its strength, as Deng Xiaoping urged the party to do.
Finally, Xi has declared his intentions. In his New Year’s Day address earlier this year, Xi said, “We are willing to create a vast space for peaceful unification, but we will never leave any room for any sort of Taiwan independence or separatist activities…We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures.” Every leader since Mao has reiterated the “use of force” threat if Taiwan should claim independence, but combined with other signals, Xi’s use of the warning carries additional weight. Xi is a man on a mission.
Benjamin Fan lays out the case that Taiwan should be honing its defenses against a blockade rather than for an attack by sea and air. Among many potent points, perhaps his most compelling is this one:
“A blockade may be less likely to prompt foreign military intervention. The international community could consider a blockade of Taiwan to be a ‘milder’ form of Chinese military action than an invasion.”
As Lieutenant Commander Gregory Keeley (Ret.) wrote in The Hill in 2017:
“Like sanctions, blockades are designed to slowly choke the recalcitrant nation to submission. Unlike sanctions, a blockade provides the capability to monitor, intercept and enforce restrictions on what can go in and out of the target nation while providing a powerful psychological and diplomatic instrument…A naval blockade also serves to choke export income…”
Taiwan and its defenders would be well-advised to look at the totality of the situation in China, the signals that China is sending, the capabilities it has developed, and the leader who is in charge of it all, and judge whether a forewarning of China’s intentions exists. A case can be made that it is time for Taiwan to invest in anti-blockade technologies, strategies, and preparedness.
From China’s perspective, Taiwan’s situation is unsustainable and an aberration that must be righted. It is part and parcel of the mandate of any Chinese leader to make strides toward that goal. Globally, Xi Jinping is taking China into waters inconceivable even ten years ago. Why, then, wouldn’t he take the most important historical imperative of the Chinese Communist Party, reunification with Taiwan, and solve it in the waters of the Taiwan Strait?
The author thanks her husband and China Channel partner, Roland Evans, for his input, insights, and inspiration for this article. Roland holds a BSc in Marine Technologies from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.