To be honest, I have never paid much attention to the Taiwan Strait situation. I have always believed there is a basic strategic balance in the area. As long as all parties are rational, that balance will not be easily broken. But recently almost all the foreign media and experts are discussing the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait, which pushed me to re-examine the situation. What has happened here, and what will happen in the future?
I would like to raise a question first: Who on earth wants to see a war break out in the Taiwan Strait? Is it the Chinese Communist Party? The Biden administration? The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in Taiwan?
I don’t think any of three parties currently in control of the situation really want to fight a battle at any cost. For obvious reasons, they all have a lot of worries about the possibility of war and will not easily launch a conflict.
Although the U.S. government has repeatedly emphasized its full ability to defend Taiwan, ordinary Americans, after the disastrous end to the war in Afghanistan, may not be hungry for another war abroad. Are they still willing to take risks in Sino-U.S. relations? Obviously maintaining the strategic balance, not war, can maximize the United States’ interests.
Similarly, while the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen government emphasizes that Taiwan’s defense forces should not be underestimated by the CCP, it is impossible to expect them to gain greater benefits in a cross-strait war than they currently have. Maintaining the status quo is also the best option for them.
That leaves the CCP.
It’s more and more common for foreign experts to argue that the CCP wants to launch a war on Taiwan. Western media offer two explanations: First, Xi Jinping hopes to resolve the Taiwan issue during his tenure, thereby establishing his historical legacy, and second, U.S. officials have predicted there will be a war in the Taiwan Strait within six to eight years.
In my opinion, these are not very strong reasons to expect war. Not only Xi, but also Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and other Chinese leaders certainly all hoped to complete China reunification during their tenures. That has also been expectation of the vast majority of Chinese people in the mainland for decades. But wanting to see China’s reunification does not necessarily mean war is the only way to achieve that goal. Otherwise, why has China let unification remain unfinished for more than 70 years? To be realistic, the actual situation does not allow military power to solve this problem. It’s not only that the United States would probably intervene in any military action against Taiwan, but also the Chinese people and Chinese society are not ready for war.
Of course, China has been preparing for the worst, but it is not fully prepared yet, as recent events made clear.
In early November, China’s Ministry of Commerce issued a notice in which it mentioned that people should be advised to store some daily necessities. Originally, the notice was referring to the chance that some places might come under a sudden lockdown after an outbreak of the COVID-19, but many Chinese people actually interpreted it as a signal that a war on Taiwan was imminent. As a result, there was a run on supermarkets across China. Even in Beijing, many people rushed to supermarkets to panic buy basic living supplies such as rice and cooking oil. In the end, the Ministry of Commerce had to clarify through the state-owned media that the Chinese public should not misunderstand the notice. China has enough daily necessities and there is no need to panic buy, the ministry urged.
This notable incident shows that China’s social psychology is extremely fragile, and the people have no mature understanding of war at all. This is probably beyond the imagination of Chinese officials. After all, China has not been at war for more than 40 years. This is completely different from the United Sates, which has been fighting continuously since 2001 and quite frequently for decades before that.
Therefore, foreign analysts cannot look at China simply by making military comparisons to the U.S. military or NATO, just looking at the rapid development of China’s military strength and thereby concluding that Xi will definitely use military means to solve the Taiwan issue. If we are looking only at the level of China’s military development, even a war now may not be a difficult task, let alone fighting against Taiwan in five or six years.
But military issues are only one aspect of understanding the situation in the Taiwan Strait. The mentality of the Chinese people and social stability are more important issues that China must consider before it decides major military policies.
When the U.S. government and the U.S. military make judgments and predictions about China, they must notice more factors and aspects. What do ordinary Chinese people think? What is the view of the Chinese elite? What is the influence of Chinese public opinion toward a change in the status quo?
This is the point I have always mentioned in articles published in The Diplomat in the past few years: it is necessary to look at China in a comprehensive manner, especially to pay more attention to Chinese public opinion.
Don’t treat China as a country like North Korea. To a certain extent, the Chinese government’s decision-making is more similar to that of the Western governments, which means it will increasingly consider the attitude and endurance of the ordinary people, instead of acting solely on what Xi himself thinks.
This is a basis for understanding China issues, and it is also a perspective for looking at the future situation in the Taiwan Strait.
If the CCP does not want to go to war, why is China now taking many policies that seem to be preparing for a war with Taiwan?
In my opinion, this is a strategy of “maximum pressure” by China on Taiwan, similar to the pressure on Iran by the United States and Israel. Whether China is going to fight or not depends on how the opponent reacts.
In recent years, the United States and Israel have been putting great pressure on Iran. The aim is not necessarily attacking Iran, but to prevent Tehran’s policy from breaking through the international bottom line by continuing its nuclear development.
China’s policy toward Taiwan is similar. The goal is to use strong deterrence and clear warnings to stop the risk of Taiwan’s possible independence and Western support for Taiwan, and not allow them to break through Beijing’s bottom line.
Having said so much, I think I can answer the original question: Who on earth wants to see a war break out in the Taiwan Strait?
There are three groups who would: Some Westerners who want to use war as a tool to stop China’s development; some Taiwan pro-independence figures who are too idealistic about the future; and some naïve patriots in China.
The first group is those who are pointedly and provocatively helping Taiwan, from the United States, Europe, even Japan and some Southeast Asia countries. This is not a conspiracy theory, but a conclusion that can be drawn from logical judgment: For some parties with no skin in the game, a war over Taiwan is simply seen as an excuse to incapacitate China. The immense human cost of war does not enter into their calculations; sadly, some Americans are all too willing to sacrifice lives “over there” if it improves the U.S. position.
Once China fires its first shot, Western sanctions will be imposed. At that time, China will be isolated by the international community, economic development will be severely damaged, internal changes may occur, and it will be difficult to catch up with the United States and Europe in military, technology, and economic fields.
Therefore, the Chinese government regards U.S. military and Western military forces in the South China Sea and the East China Sea as a provocation. They are deliberately provoking China. Once China really strikes Taiwan, they will profit from it.
I have published several articles in the Chinese media arguing for China not to use force on Taiwan easily, otherwise China will fall into a trap. Even though the United States and Europe have strengthened their ties with Taiwan over the past years, the CCP has not directly resorted to military solutions as some people expected.
The second group is similar to those in Iran who are blindly optimistic about the intentional situation and vigorously pursue nuclear weapons. There are also some idealistic people in Taiwan who believe that even if Taiwan becomes independent, Beijing will not dare to use force because the price is too high. Coupled with the help of the Americans, Taiwan will be affected but the long-term benefits will outweigh the disadvantages – or so independence advocates believe.
These voices also ignore Chinese public opinion. They must know once Taiwan is de facto independent, the Chinese people will push the CCP to solve the issue at all costs. At that time, it is no longer a question of whether the Chinese government wanted to fight a war or not, but a question of losing the hearts of the Chinese people if they did not fight.
If we continue the Iran analogy, the third group – extreme patriots in China – is similar to the most hawkish group of people in Israel, those who are filled with hatred toward Iran and believe military force can solve everything. In their minds, all Chinese patriots must support war on Taiwan. Although the losses in a war may be relatively large, as long as Taiwan is conquered, it will be worth it to this group. They believe that the obstacles made by Western countries to China’s development will be magically removed in the event of reunification. Therefore, they continue to agitate and publicize the benefits of war on various occasions, including social media. Why did the notice of Ministry of Commerce of China trigger a surge of panic buying in many supermarkets across China? Because many Chinese people have already been influenced by this third group.
These three groups of people are very keen on fighting, but the international community and foreign media should not be misled by them. A war in the Taiwan Strait will definitely affect the safety of billions of people. We must avoid repeating the fiction that war is imminent, which only satisfies the interests of these few groups of people.
There is no denying that the current situation in the Taiwan Strait is indeed very dangerous. The above three groups are working hard to promote a war. We should be highly vigilant.
In the past few years, the Chinese government’s “ultimate pressure” policy on Taiwan seems to be less successful than imagined. Instead, Taiwan and the West have reacted strongly to this, perhaps more forcefully than predicted by Beijing. As a result, China has increased its military deterrence against Taiwan. However, this only makes Westerners believe that China is stepping up preparations for war on Taiwan, so they continue to express their support for Taiwan.
I have always believed China does not want to use military force easily, but it has to react even more to the increased interaction between Taiwan and the West. In this way, all parties have misjudged each other, which is very dangerous because it has formed a “vicious circle” of mutual cause and effect.
How do we break it?
I think Beijing, Washington, Taipei, and other parties all need to calm down. There should be a mediator to coordinate positions with all parties to cool the situation and relax the severe atmosphere. Similar to the Iranian nuclear issue, a platform for exchanges between all parties is needed, and this could possibly even result in an agreement.
This would require finding a mediator that has connections with all parties and can gain the trust of all parties. Perhaps Singapore is an option. After all, in the 1990s, representatives from Beijing and Taipei reached “the 1992 Consensus” in Singapore, which allowed cross-strait security to be kept steady for decades. Moreover, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly reminded the world of the risks in the Taiwan Strait in the past, which shows Singapore probably also has the motivation to make efforts to ease the situation.
Of course, this is just a suggestion. It is unknown whether all parties (including Singapore) can accept it.
But in any case, I still believe China is pursuing a policy of maximum pressure rather than preparing for war. Whether there will be war in the future depends on Taiwan and the West’s response to that pressure.