Pessimists who argue that a cross-Strait war might break out recently, particularly during the Trump-Biden transition, base their arguments on two beliefs. First, unlike the Trump administration that was overly supportive of Taiwan and antagonistic toward China, the new President, Joe Biden, is likely to be more friendly to and, relatively, more tolerant of China’s hostile actions toward Taiwan. Second, the new administration could be just too busy to keep cross-Strait relations in check. Before the inauguration, the new administration was still bracing for the impact of a divided nation and was worried that similar incidents like the capital invasion could strike again. At the same time, American casualties from the pandemic were continually hitting record highs. China could undoubtedly have seized the moment for a surprise attack.
These reasons for believing they could have, or may still act, are cogent. True, in recent weeks, we did see China ramping up its military actions toward Taiwan, such as invading Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) repeatedly and excessively. However, close examination reveals that China crossing the median line is not new behavior; in fact, it seems so ritualized now that it could generate less anxiety than the new scares of a coronavirus outbreak in Taiwan. Simply put, for the Taiwanese public, these Chinese military “demonstrations” are symbolic and largely meaningless as they do not sway public attention and insert fears.
We do not believe that a cross-Strait hot war will happen anytime soon. In fact, several reasons are leading us to believe that such a possibility is unfounded. For starters, though not exactly on par with the United States, China’s international status has ascended significantly in recent years. In international politics, hegemons are supposed to care about their reputation; China should not be an exception. As Washington reneged on international agreements and scraped multilateral deals in the past several years, Beijing took the advantage to step in as a provider of the common goods to many countries (e.g., The Belt and Road Initiative). While this new role gives China more global influence, it inadvertently forces it to behave somewhat like a hegemon. In fact, to effectively replace America’s role, China needs to cultivate an image of a benign hegemon if it intends to prolong this status.
Note that we are not saying that China will become a benign hegemon, just like the United States. Instead, we argue that to continue to advance its national interests and win cooperation from others, especially Western democracies such as European states, China will likely want to present or at least feign an amicable and accommodating image. We are not making assumptions about China’s intentions in international politics. In fact, China may well be harboring a revisionist agenda based on aggression (looking at how Beijing is dealing with domestic dissidents and border disputes). These claims may well be true. However, on balance, to continue its global quest for supremacy, China would have to at least seriously consider being viewed as a cooperative rising hegemon by many, especially to European and other major powers, which could still block its rise. This rationale also explains why China vehemently objects to claims that accuse it of spreading the coronavirus worldwide. Over the past decade, China has been effortlessly trying to convey a benign image to foreign countries through its soft power and diplomatic and media means. This is known as the “Grand External Propaganda Strategy,” which was initiated in 2009 and emphasized by Xi Jinping. Simply put, China is undoubtedly making substantial efforts to shape its positive image worldwide.
The implications for a reputation-conscious China on a cross-Strait war is that it would force China to think twice or thrice before acting. A cross-Strait war—for the purpose of national unification while obliterating the efforts of self-determination of citizens in Taiwan and a solid democratic state in East Asia—is likely to wreck China’s effort at building its reputation of peacefully rising, especially if Taiwan does not provoke the conflict by proclaiming de jure independence. Regardless of how China might justify its actions (e.g., internal affairs), the invasion would certainly be viewed as an act of expansionism and norm-breaking by the international community. Thus, we predict that a shooting war is unlikely to materialize in the next several years, although existing military actions such as sending aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ are likely to continue, as they show the Chinese domestic audience that China is still attempting to unify Taiwan. Nevertheless, those actions are variants of a paper tiger.
Some might argue, however, at times, the internal pressure within China, such as ethnic tensions or economic strains, might lead the Chinese Communist Party to resort to diversionary use of force against Taiwan. But if history could provide examples, we could not find any. In fact, Taiwan is a poor target for several reasons. First, it would hurt China’s reputation, as stated before. Second, diversionary action and success in military action depend on nationalism targeted at a common external party/threat. Whereas strong nationalism against Japan was seen in the early 2000s, nation-wide protests asking the government to invade Taiwan were rare or nonexistent. Anti-Taiwan sentiment often becomes visible only when Chinese leaders covey messages to Taiwan’s administration, as a coercive signal, and when Chinese netizens and other digital “50 Cent Party” paid trolls are directed to flood into Taiwanese internet outlets. For these reasons, we doubt that Chinese authorities would be willing to muster popular support for a diversionary war against Taiwan.
In fact, for China to divert domestic criticism, logic would dictate that the United States would be the prime choice. The ages of humiliation, unfair treatment throguh trade and commerce, and even requests to improve its environment and human rights by the United States are ready narratives to construct a common Chinese foe; such an action might even be necessary for a Sino-U.S. hegemonic transition. However, China is reasonably hesitant to select the United States as a target as Beijing understands that, once successfully triggered, the mounting nationalism, anti-Americanism, and the U.S. retaliation might backfire to destabilize the regime. Thus, to strike a balance between the effectiveness of diversion and management of escalation or risks, China might instead resort to a target with more confidence to deal with, such as Japan or India, where negative public sentiments could be managed with more ease. But again, with India being a nuclear power and Japan under the mutual defense treaty with the Washington, China really should refrain itself from the use of force, no matter how severe the domestic turmoil is.
On top of the above reasons, do not forget that the U.S. implicit security commitment to defend Taiwan, stemming from the concept of strategic ambiguity, is likely to stay during Biden’s presidency. Strategic ambiguity has been and will continue to be a strong deterrent to China with the intention of maintaining the status quo. Although the U.S. does not explicitly utter the conditions under which it would come to Taiwan’s defense, both the U.S. and China know that the U.S. is likely to intervene in a cross-Strait conflict if China starts this war. It is undeniable that the U.S. still holds a significant military advantage, and China is very aware of this situation. In addition, compared to the Trump administration, the new administration is buoyed by a bi-partisan consensus on the U.S. relationship with China. In addition to maintaining its credibility at assisting Taiwan, the new administration can help keep cross-Strait relations at peace by including the issue in a multilateral framework. As the United States is preparing to reenter multilateral agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and international organizations (e.g., the World Health Organization), there will be ample opportunities for America and China to exchange ideas, build confidence, and defuse tensions when it comes to Taiwan issues. There will be layers of buffers before each side meets each other on the battlefield.
In conclusion, despite numerous preoccupations that paint a bleak picture of cross-Strait relations, war is unthinkable and unlikely to happen for the following reasons. First, it would hurt China’s international reputation. Second, Taiwan does not serve as a good target for diverting domestic problems; there simply might be no viable options for China. Third, the war may attract unnecessary attention from the United States and force it to alter its strategic ambiguity policy. Keep in mind, as China continues to gain status and influence in the international society, it has to be more conscious of its reputation and avoid actions that tarnish it. Before the hegemon transition completes, if that day ever arrives, China would not want to be bogged down in a conflict that hurts its legitimacy. If the United States wants to contain the rise of China, instead of employing Trump’s style of confrontational and unilateral approach to China, it will need to gain a higher ground of reputation by reemphasizing its longstanding positions on democracy, human rights, and freedom. Policymakers and international observers certainly need to keep an eye on the future progression of cross-Strat relations, but for now, do not let the possibility of a cross-Strait wait keep you awake at night.
Charles K.S. Wu ([email protected]) is PhD candidate of Political Science at Purdue University. Twitter: @kuanshengtwn