After Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States last week and held a brief meeting in California with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, China predictably responded with a show of force in the Taiwan Strait. Over three days of military drills, its fighter jets, naval vessels, and even an aircraft carrier carried out what Beijing called “simulated precision attacks,” that serve as dress rehearsal for a military encirclement of the island state that might one day lead to an invasion. Once the exercises were complete, China’s military declared itself prepared at any time to “smash ‘Taiwanese independence’ separatism and external meddling in any form.”
It’s no surprise then that Western media have covered this story as a potential emergency, particularly since it comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are bad and getting worse. China’s President Xi Jinping has gone further than his predecessors in declaring that Taiwan will be returned to the People’s Republic of China by any means necessary, and President Joe Biden has said multiple times that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked – though representatives of his own administration have walked back some of his past comments.
It would be foolish to ignore China’s provocations, for several reasons. With this much hostile hardware moving through narrow lanes of air and water, accidents can happen, and any incident that increases the risk of direct armed conflict between the two most powerful countries on Earth must be taken seriously. Second, China’s maneuvers amount to a rehearsal. Though China will not show Taiwan, the U.S., or anyone else exactly how it would launch a full blockade or invasion of Taiwan, China’s armed forces find it very valuable to practice. After all, Chinese troops haven’t faced a shooting war since a brief conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Finally, Taiwan will hold national elections next year. Though China’s latest intimidation may not lead to military conflict anytime soon, it may have an effect on how Taiwan’s voters imagine the future.
All that said, the actual risk of imminent Chinese military action against Taiwan remains low. Beijing always flexes military muscle when highest-level U.S. and Taiwanese officials meet face to face. Yet, though Speaker McCarthy’s visit with Taiwan’s president marks the highest-level U.S.-Taiwan meeting on US soil since 1979, China’s latest response was less militarily threatening than its reaction to last summer’s visit to Taiwan by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi – and Beijing is well aware that Washington will notice that.
More importantly, Xi is spending considerable energy these days on playing a larger role on the global stage, particularly as a peacemaker. He has offered a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine he hopes will encourage others to see China as a global mediator, even if this particular plan has no chance of success. This past weekend, Xi welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission Chairman Ursula Von der Leyen to Beijing for discussion of the Ukraine war and the future of China’s relations with Europe more broadly. Though Xi didn’t promise his European guests to lean harder on Russia, the Chinese and French governments issued a joint statement pledging they would work together to bring Russian and Ukrainian negotiators to the bargaining table.
This follows the remarkable visit to China of the foreign ministers of Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, where they agreed under China’s mediation to improve their historically contentious relationship. Most importantly, just days ago, Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou became the first current or former Taiwanese leader to visit the mainland since Taiwan broke away in 1949, and during his visit he spoke of the “common inheritance of blood, language, history and culture” between the two sides, raising hopes in Beijing that reunification can still be achieved without risking a potentially catastrophic conflict. In short, Xi Jinping wants to be (at least perceived as) a peacemaker, and though Taiwan’s future remains of far more importance to him that any of these issues, China’s president is unlikely to reverse all these diplomatic victories by stumbling into a costly war.
There are more basic reasons why China is unlikely to move against Taiwan soon. Xi has watched carefully as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has provided a vivid demonstration of just how unpredictable, costly, and humiliating an ill-conceived war can be. Taiwan, backed with generations of sophisticated and powerful American weapons, has been preparing for a possible Chinese invasion even longer than Ukraine has prepped for a full-frontal assault from Russia, and given the complete lack of Chinese combat experience over the past 44 years, Xi understands that the risks of Pyrrhic victory – or even of defeat – are real. At a time when China is emerging from the world’s most draconian lockdown and its worst economic slowdown in decades, Xi is likely to be extra careful about the fights he picks. At least for now.
There’s also the critical issue of semiconductors. About 90 percent of the world’s most sophisticated computer chips are made in Taiwan. Aware of the risk this creates, China, the U.S., and others are working as quickly as possible to lessen the risk of economic catastrophe that would result if that production were dramatically slowed or even halted, but self-sufficiency in chip production is years away for every country. China is loath to risk conflict that would leave its economy without access to the 21st century’s most important economic resource.
One day, China may invade Taiwan, triggering a war with global implications. But that day isn’t soon. When and if it does, the timing will be determined by China’s leader, not as the result of any diplomatic provocation, but by his own calculation of benefit and cost. For now, it’s still possible to hope that cooler heads can one day find a diplomatic solution to avert a war that would have disastrous implications far beyond Asia.
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