For all the talk about the inevitability of the eventual “reunification” of Taiwan and China and bluster about China’s determination to accomplish the “China dream,” ongoing trends in the Taiwan Strait have made it clear that Beijing’s approach to Taiwan is failing. Short of military conquest, there is very little in the current set of options available to Beijing suggesting that “peaceful unification” is even remotely possible.
For a while, Beijing seemed to have a strategy, and if one did not look too closely it even seemed to be succeeding. Occurring at a time of shifting balance of economic and military power in the Taiwan Strait, the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the “Beijing-friendly” Kuomintang (KMT) in the 2008 elections, followed by the signing of a series of agreements and indications of political rapprochement, led many analysts to conclude that the Taiwan “question” was, at long last, on its way to peaceful resolution. Moreover, the seeming passivity of the Taiwanese public in the early years of the Ma administration seemed to indicate general support for his efforts.
After years of sticks and a misguided military show of force in the mid-1990s, Beijing’s carrots suddenly appeared to be working, winning hearts and minds and creating dependencies that, it hoped, would draw Taiwan closely enough to China’s center of gravity that it would become impossible for the democratic island nation to escape.
All that détente, however, was illusory. Although a pragmatic Taiwanese polity was amenable to liberalized ties with China, desire for a political union with the People’s Republic of China—especially among Taiwan’s youth—was next to nil. Paradoxically, closer relations with China only exacerbated the sense of a distinct identity in Taiwan, resulting in the complete rejection of what from the very beginning had always been China’s strategy: eventual unification.
Beijing’s hopes of a resolution on its terms came crashing down during the Sunflower Movement in March and April 2014, whose actions neutralized the Ma administration and opened the doors for a transition of power two years later, with the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The forces unleashed by the Sunflower Movement continue to reverberate today, deepening the desire across society to maintain the liberal democratic way of life that defines Taiwan today regardless of their voting preferences.
The reaction in China was one of confusion and, in certain circles, a sense of betrayal. The strategy had failed. Not only was Taiwan not returning China’s “goodwill,” years of ostensible rapprochement had in fact propelled the two in opposite directions. Officials in charge of cross-Strait affairs under presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping were accused of bungling the strategy, and some were targeted by Xi’s anti-corruption drive. But many knew that the problem was much more fundamental than a few incompetent officials failing to properly distribute China’s economic largesse across Taiwan.
Money had failed. Persuasion, often through propaganda and political warfare operations that intensified even as ties seemed to be improving, has failed. And now it is becoming clear that coercion—seemingly Beijing’s only strategy since Ms. Tsai’s election in January—is also failing. Isolating Taiwan by blocking its participation at international forums, kidnapping its nationals in third countries, publicly attacking “pro-independence” artists and punishing it economically pretty much sums up what is left of Beijing’s Taiwan strategy. Rather than break Taiwan’s will, however, all of this has only fueled the will of the Taiwanese to resist by rallying around the flag, as is typical whenever a nation faces an external threat.
Beijing, no doubt, will continue to groom potential allies in Taiwan, such as Hung Hsiu-chu, the current chairperson of the KMT along with (aging) members of the pro-unification New Party, but those individuals are increasingly marginal in Taiwanese politics, so much so that Hung, a failed would-be presidential candidate for 2016, is now engaged in a war of words with President Ma over “one China.” Come 2017, it is very likely that Hung will be shoved aside as leader of the KMT and replaced by someone whose stance on cross-Strait relations better reflects the reality in Taiwan, where the KMT must, after all, compete for votes. Furthermore, there aren’t enough potential compradors in Taiwanese politics and within the business community to generate the kind of momentum necessary to force Taiwan in a direction not of its choosing.
The ensuing frustration has resulted in a marked hardening in the rhetoric. Analysts such as Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of the Nanjing military area command, now often appear in the pages of the hawkish Global Times calling for PLA exercises targeting Taiwan and outright preparation for war. Meanwhile, the more moderate commentators across China, those who know that more of the same will only continue to fail, have fallen silent.
While nuclear-armed China could undoubtedly annihilate Taiwan by force if it chooses to do so, as General Wang himself argued a few years ago in an indignant response to an article in this publication, and notwithstanding the fact that on a quantitative basis the PLA has a clear advantage over its much smaller opponent, the power ratio only tells part of the story. It might make sense as an intellectual exercise for war strategists, but in reality, here too Beijing’s coercive options targeting Taiwan are limited.
In their recent book The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power, authors Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell make a strong case for the limits of revisionist powers, including China. While a strong rival may seek to undermine an alliance (or encourage outright abandonment) between a powerful security guarantor (in this case, the United States) and its weaker ally on the outer frontiers (Taiwan) through “probing behavior,” such behavior rarely translates into a direct military assault on the core interests or center of gravity of the weaker party, due in large part to the likelihood that such action would compel the security guarantor to take forceful military action of its own. Probing is therefore generally limited to indirect means, including the reliance on civilian assets rather than, say, the PLA, and targeted at the weaker party’s peripheral interests.
In a Taiwan Strait scenario, such tactics—as General Wang would argue—include live-fire drills on outlying islands near Taiwan, PLAAF sorties near the media line in the Taiwan Strait, the mapping of ideal submarine routes for a naval assault on Taiwan and so on. However, both as a probing effort meant to test the United States and a means to coerce Taiwan, such activities will only have limited, and in the Taiwan case counterproductive, effect. To be more effective, PLA activities would have to be more threatening, such as, say, a takeover of Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the South China Sea, which is controlled by Taiwan. However, more kinetic action increases the risks of the security guarantor (the United States) intervening on its ally’s behalf and therefore of direct military confrontation between China and the United States, something that the weaker revisionist power would normally seek to avoid due to the inherent high uncertainty of success and the high costs of defeat. And it would further turn the Taiwanese public against China, closing once and for any possibility of a “peaceful unification.”
Thus, it is highly unlikely that the PLA would follow General Wang’s advice of using uninhabited Pingtan island near Kinmen for live-fire military exercises and, in time of conflict, “turn its weapons towards Taiwan and the shelling could cover as far as Hsinchu, Taoyuan and even Taipei in Taiwan,” a declaration of war that conceivably would prompt a strong response from Taiwan’s security guarantor and allied nations in the region (e.g., Japan).
Additionally, while on paper remote Taiping Island might seem like a good candidate for escalatory probing by the PLA targeting Taiwan’s peripheral rather than core interests (the Taiwanese mainland plus outlying islands), seizing the contested islet—which it could easily do—would undermine Beijing’s claim that Taiwan and China are both defending territory belonging to China against external aggressors. In other words, by displacing Taiwan in the South China Sea, Beijing would negate its own “one China” principle by permanently decoupling Taiwan from its historical claims to the region.
Everything else having failed, and even its military options forcing it to choose between continued but ineffective probing on the one hand and the extreme of total war, costly occupation and the high risk of a U.S. intervention on the other hand, Beijing’s strategy to win Taiwan over by means “peaceful” or coercive is a shambles. As a retired Western diplomat who has spent several years in China told me recently, Beijing doesn’t know what to do with Taiwan. It has painted itself into a corner by claiming that the “China dream” passes through the “reunification” of Taiwan and “the mainland,” but it has nothing at its disposal to make that become reality. The facts just don’t support the argument.
“China,” he said, “doesn’t have a Taiwan strategy.”
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, UK, and associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. He is the author of Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: The Illusion of Peace?, published by Routledge in September 2016.