China’s Taiwan Nightmare Has Come True

China J-20 Fighter Taiwan
January 1, 2024 Topic: military Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaTaiwanCCPChinese Communist PartyXi Jinping

China’s Taiwan Nightmare Has Come True

Taiwan has undergone a seismic demographic and political transformation in recent decades—a transformation that virtually precludes pacific unification between Taiwan and China. 

Imagine that. Constant bombast coupled with daily armed provocations is no way to endear yourself to audiences overseas. Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it recently, “China confronts a new political reality in Taiwan: no friends.” The Journal’s brief is compelling. Taiwan has undergone a seismic demographic and political transformation in recent decades—a transformation that virtually precludes pacific unification between Taiwan and China. 

China’s Taiwan Challenge 

If China enjoys no support among Taiwan’s political parties, there’s little prospect a China-friendly president will take up residence in the Presidential Office in Taipei following this month’s elections. Without a China-friendly president and legislature, China stands vanishingly little chance of achieving its paramount goal of gaining control of the island without fighting. It will have to deploy armed force, with all the hazards and costs warfare entails. 

And Chinese Communist Party officialdom has no one to blame but itself for this sad state of affairs. Its diplomacy seems almost deliberately designed to drive away prospective friends and unite alliances and coalitions to defeat the party’s aims. 

Admittedly, demographics is not China’s friend in the Taiwan Strait. As recently as twenty years ago, sentiment among islanders was roughly evenly divided between advocates of unification with the mainland and advocates of independence. At the extremes, around ten percent favored immediate unification, and another ten percent favored immediate independence. The middle eighty percent seemed more or less content with the cross-strait status quo, voicing support for unification or independence but on no particular timetable. Moderates were happy to kick the can down the road indefinitely rather than undergo the upheaval from drastic political change. 

Since then, things have deteriorated from Beijing’s standpoint. It’s an iron law that generational change happens as older generations pass from this earth and that a society’s attitudes may change as youthful generations molded by different formative experiences take charge. 

Since the turn of the century, the proportion of “mainlanders” who fled to Taiwan in the wake of defeat in the Chinese Civil War and who define themselves primarily as Chinese has shriveled to under three percent of the populace, according to the Journal. That’s not a meaningful constituency in favor of a cross-strait union. No one caters to three percent of the electorate. 

Youthful islanders define themselves chiefly as Taiwanese, not Chinese. They display little affinity—let alone allegiance—to China. Unsurprisingly, then, none of the three parties vying for the island’s presidency has made unification a major theme while barnstorming for votes. Just the opposite, in fact. Even the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, which has cozied up to Beijing in the past, has muffled any advocacy of closer cross-strait ties into near-silence. That’s how electoral politicking works. 

You would think even communists would grasp the basic vagaries of democratic politics. You would be wrong. Indeed, China’s conduct vis-à-vis Taiwan amounts to diplomatic malpractice. It’s a self-defeating policy, and foreseeably so. Beijing’s failure to woo the islanders is part of its larger turn away from “soft power” toward raw coercion and intimidation. It wants to overawe rather than allure. 

For Joseph Nye, who coined the phrase, soft power is a power of civilizational attraction. It helps the leaders of a society that’s attractive to others get their way when negotiating with foreign leaders. Soft power encourages others to want what you want. 

For America, talismans of soft power include the United States’ relative openness to outsiders, founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and pop-culture products such as movies and music. China can appeal to its long history, impressive art and architecture, and venerated historical figures like the philosopher Confucius or the Ming Dynasty diplomat-admiral Zheng He. Beijing used to understand all of this. Not so long ago, Chinese emissaries pursued a soft-power offensive, a.k.a. “charm offensive,” toward China’s Asian neighbors. And they premised their outreach on Zheng He’s exploits while voyaging in maritime Asia during the fifteenth century. 

Zheng He commanded the Ming “treasure fleet,” then the world’s largest, most technologically advanced navy, during a series of expeditions to Southeast and South Asia. The voyages weren’t entirely nonviolent in nature—the fleet battled piracy near Malacca, for example—but they were not voyages of territorial conquest. That Zheng He abstained from conquest cast the keystone for Communist China’s charm offensive six centuries later. 

Beijing invoked Zheng He’s journeys to portray China in a positive light compared to predatory Western empires that trampled Asian sovereignty for half a millennium. Spokesmen contended that China’s true, ineluctable, anti-imperial nature had manifested itself through the treasure voyages. The narrative reassured Asians that they could trust a strong maritime China not to wrest territory from them. Here’s the thing, though: when you sketch a narrative that supposedly depicts your society’s intrinsic culture, you set a standard for your future conduct. Foreign audiences will hold you to that standard. They will notice if you deviate from it. Future soft-power appeals will fall flat if you do. 

False storylines will do that. 

There were worrisome signs even during the heyday of China’s charm offensive. Beijing enacted an “Anti-Secession Law” in 2005, vowing to use force against Taiwan should the island’s leadership move toward formal independence from the mainland. In 2009, the party leadership submitted a map to the United Nations claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over waters and landmasses within a “nine-dashed line” enclosing the vast majority of the South China Sea, including swathes of exclusive economic zones belonging to China’s neighbors. In 2012, it seized Scarborough Shoal, a feature deep within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In 2013, it took to manufacturing artificial islands in the South China Sea. Etc. 

So much for China’s claim to be an innately self-denying, innately trustworthy seafaring power. Bullying is now a daily routine for China’s navy, coast guard, and maritime militia. And Chinese soft power lies in the wreckage. 

Not that Xi Jinping & Co. seem to care. They jettisoned a mode of diplomacy that offered promising results and directed Chinese representatives to comport themselves like jackasses toward foreign interlocutors. Jackass diplomacy is diametrically opposed to Zheng He diplomacy, which aimed at conciliating others. Nor has Beijing’s turnabout escaped notice in Asian and Western capitals. Its swerve to heavy-handed means alienates potential sources of support for Taiwan, fuels arms buildups in countries fearful of Chinese predations, and herds rival powers into hostile alliances, coalitions, and partnerships. 

Why engage in behavior that seems consciously calculated to guarantee that China wins no friends? You have to think domineering conduct is engraved on Chinese habits of mind and deed and thus on Chinese political and strategic culture. If so, officialdom is acting on ingrained ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. Beijing is captive to longstanding and highhanded traditions. Party chieftains can’t help themselves. 

Now, there’s a narrative that explains much about China’s past, present, and potentially future actions. Prepare accordingly.

About the Author

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.