When General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterated that China will “not renounce the use of force” to unify Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, he received prolonged applause from the 2,300 delegates. “Complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can, without doubt, be realized,” Xi later thundered.
However, seven months earlier in March 2022 during the annual “Two Sessions,” namely the simultaneous convening of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Taiwan was mentioned only briefly, in reference to the “one China” policy.
Both in the government work report presented by the outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to the NPC on March 5 and in the CPPCC work report presented by its chairman Wang Yang the previous day, the Taiwan issue, including unification, was downplayed in a surprisingly uncharacteristic manner. This deemphasizing was particularly significant when viewed in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had started just a week before the convening of the Two Sessions.
Remember, within days of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the media and many observers globally started arguing that Taiwan could be the next Ukraine, with China playing the role of Russia. Interestingly, the cross-strait affairs analysts in Taiwan did not agree.
Most Taiwanese analysts were down-to-earth and realistic in interpreting the rhetoric coming from the 2002 Two Sessions. The Two Sessions were absolutely forthcoming in that China did not consider Taiwan and Ukraine comparable. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi further dismissed the comparison between the Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue as “baseless speculation.” Second, and perhaps related, compared to previous years, the Two Sessions in March 2022 were remarkable for downplaying the discussion on Taiwan.
Internationally respected IR professor Hamada Koichi , who once served as special advisor to former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of Japan, also observed that Xi is well aware that the forceful subjugation of Taiwan could well end up backfiring. “At a time when China is under severe economic pressure and growth is slowing sharply, this is the last thing it [the Chinese Communist Party] needs,” Hamada opined.
It’s undeniable that the unification of Taiwan with mainland China has been an integral component of Xi’s signature “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” goal. Yet some scholars maintain Beijing has no intention of forcing unification now or anytime soon. One recent commentary with a focus on the escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait put it plainly: “We have simply forgotten the number of times when the Xi Jinping administration has threatened to reunify China and Taiwan, even by use of force, if necessary. But one thing is clear – China won’t invade Taiwan.”
According to Professor Deng Yuwen, a council member of China’s Reform and Development Institute, rather than launching an invasion, “China will choose to put pressure on Taiwan using a combination of methods to promote unification… It may launch more preferential policies and try to initiate discussion on a ‘one country, two systems’ framework with Taiwan’s ruling and opposition parties.”
Here are 10 practical constraints making it highly unlikely that China will resort to using force.
First, a war between even a small country and a big power today is not only expensive but also not an easy walkover for the bigger side, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is finding out. With the war in Ukraine soon to complete one year of fighting, what is notable is that Ukraine has been able to sustain itself despite having a much smaller GDP and a weaker military than Russia.
Second, with China’s export markets drying up in Europe and the United States, the Chinese real estate crisis deepening further, the World Bank and the IMF predicting a gloomy economic growth outlook of 1.7 percent and 2.7 percent respectively, the immediate key priority for the Chinese leadership is not to use force in the Taiwan Strait but to strengthen the economy. China’s economy is struggling in the midst of a pressure campaign waged against it by the United States. At the same time, the Chinese economy is also slowing down sharply under the mounting pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially following the CCP regime’s reversal of the zero COVID policy. Under such circumstances, it would be foolhardy on the part of Xi, or the CCP, to burden the national economy by taking on the enormous expense of a war.
Third, regardless of the fact that Xi has locked down a third five-year term, his goal to consolidate a power base within the party is far from accomplished. It is often the case that more control only breeds more paranoia among authoritarian leaders. The fear of being unable to keep forced unification a short-term exercise might be acting as a potent deterrent for Xi – especially as Putin has already paid a heavy political price for the war in Ukraine.
Fourth, though Xi will be in favor of waging a quick war on the cheap, that may not be within his control. There is always a risk that conflict will escalate into “total war” – a phrase that became popular to describe the situation in World War II, as each side used every possible resource to destroy their opponent.
Fifth, Taiwan and Ukraine cannot be compared in military strength – Taiwan is armed to the teeth. Unlike Ukraine’s steppe-like fertile plains and plateaus, Taiwan consists of over 100 islands. Taiwan’s outer islands are dotted with missiles, rockets, and artillery guns. In addition, Taiwan’s granite hills are home to tunnels and bunker systems.
Sixth is the possibility of U.S. involvement in. While officially Washington maintains “strategic ambiguity” on the question whether it would defend Taiwan militarily if needed, none other than President Joe Biden himself has repeatedly answered directly in the affirmative. Amid the China-U.S. competition it seems more and more likely that Washington cannot afford to allow Beijing a free hand in any military campaign against Taiwan.
Seventh is the Japan dimension. The current Japanese government under Kishida has followed up on signals from the late Prime Minister Abe that Tokyo would help to defend Taiwan. Abe once said, “A Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan.” The Kishida government’s push for a more muscular defense role in the region is believed to be in part motivated by the potential for a Taiwan contingency.
Eighth, according to a Hong Kong-based expert on Chinese politics, Xi will be well aware of the West’s solidarity during the Ukraine crisis The European Union is China’s major trading partner. Running afoul of it, as well as the United States and Japan, would be dangerous for a leader who knows he must raise living standards at home.
Ninth, Taiwan may not have been included in a series of recent U.S. multilateral security and trade initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region but the island is perceived as integral to defense mechanisms such as the Quad, AUKUS, etc. For example, the Quad insists on maintaining the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, not only Japan but India and Australia might come to the rescue of Taiwan. In such a scenario, China might not want to risk facing three big military powers together.
Last but not least is the ASEAN factor. ASEAN has emerged as China’s largest trading partner and their bilateral trade is set to achieve the target of $1 trillion in a couple of years. Yet Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of China too. In a recent speech, the former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo said: “No country in ASEAN is going to turn down opportunities that come their way in China, but every country worries that too great a dependence on China will constrain our autonomy of action.” It is highly unlikely Beijing would resort to an action that will force countries in Southeast Asia to see China as an enemy.
Claims that “Xi wants to complete the task within his term of office” may be true. But there is no doubt that all of Xi’s predecessors – from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – also wanted to complete unification. All of them ultimately decided the internal and external conditions were not right. Xi, so far, has come to the same conclusion.
That said, arguing that Xi will not resort to force against Taiwan in the near future does not mean it will never happen. According to Deng Yuwen, cited above, one thing was crystal clear from Xi’s January 2, 2019 speech to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan”: The 70-year-old cross-strait separation must be brought to an end by the time the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2049. “The two sides must be unified and will definitely be unified,” Xi pledged.