China’s dramatic rise over the last several decades has ramifications for the world in almost every conceivable area, from economic globalisation and climate change to human rights, democracy and national security. Few places are more susceptible to China’s newfound power and associated ambitions than Taiwan, the democratically ruled society that Beijing considers to be a renegade province.

Taiwan flag Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Taiwan Office of the President, via Flickr.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which separates the China mainland from Taiwan, are increasing. Last month, China sent menacing waves of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping reaffirmed that Taiwan will be reunified with China, sooner rather than later. Before long, China will possess the military capability to implement Xi’s ambitions – it may well have that capability already. The question might be when, rather than whether, it will use it.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has responded with her own declarations, arguing that Taiwan will not be bullied by communist China. She has inspected parades of Taiwan’s military hardware, although few observers are convinced that it is much match for China’s. Perhaps more significantly, she has repeatedly reminded the world that Taiwan is on the frontline of confrontation with an increasingly authoritarian, aggressive and uncompromising China.

Tsai announced that US military trainers are working in Taiwan, and she has declared her faith that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid if it were to be invaded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act declares American support for the “preservation of human rights of the people of Taiwan” and requires US presidents to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity.”

President Tsai was, in effect, reminding American and Chinese officials of those obligations, while also overstating them, and perhaps harkening back enviously to the 1950s, when Taiwan and the United States had a mutual defence treaty.

American President Joe Biden could not avoid getting involved in recent cross-strait tensions. When asked last month whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence, he declared that it would. His advisors backtracked on his declaration, arguing in briefings that longstanding US policy on Taiwan had not changed.

For half a century, that policy has been intentionally vague: it does not officially support Taiwan’s independence, but there’s no disguising informal American sentiments in favour of the Taiwanese people holding sovereignty instead of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Washington maintains that any resolution of disputes between Beijing and Taipei, including over whether or when the two sides might be unified, should be resolved peacefully.

Joe Biden
United States President Joe Biden. File photo: Adam Schultz/ White House, via Flickr.

Longstanding observers of Taiwan Strait tensions could be forgiven for believing that recent events add up to a tempest in a teapot. We’ve been here before, they might say: tensions between Beijing and Taipei rise and fall, but since 1949 the two sides have traded threats, and occasional violent skirmishes, without changing the status quo. Recent events are no different, or so the argument might go.

But such a view fails to comprehend how China has changed under Xi’s increasingly nationalistic leadership. Xi’s China is determined to right what it perceives to be historical wrongs, and to do so before he leaves office (a date that is indeterminate because all indications are that he intends to remain in office for as long as he wishes, potentially for life). The biggest wrong, from Beijing’s perspective, is Taiwan’s failure to submit to CCP rule.

For anyone who doubts China’s invigorated determination to control Taiwan, the experience of Hong Kong may be instructive. For more than 20 years following the British handover of Hong Kong to China, Chinese officials hoped to win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people. The ruling formula for Hong Kong – so-called one country, two systems – offered a measure of autonomy and, most significantly, freedoms and human rights not enjoyed on the China mainland. That formula was supposed to be an attractive model for Taiwan.

October 20 mask ban china extradition protest
Hong Kong people take to the streets in 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

However, at every opportunity, whether through local elections, millions-strong marches or anti-government protests, Hong Kong people repeatedly demonstrated that they were opposed to anything short of genuine democracy.

Beijing lost patience in 2020, imposing a strict national security law and arresting hundreds of opponents (after arresting more than 10,000 protesters not long before), including nearly all prominent pro-democracy politicians (apart from a few who fled overseas before the arrests got underway).

Through these and other actions, Chinese officials have sent a strong message to the world: they have abandoned trying to win the affection of Hong Kong people, and they no longer care what the world thinks. They will implement “comprehensive control” regardless of the blowback. By cracking down in Hong Kong, Beijing is also sending a message to Taiwan: join us voluntarily or suffer the same fate – or worse.

Beijing seems intent to put Taiwan in a redesigned one-country, two-systems style of straight-jacket. It appears unlikely that the majority of people in Taiwan would welcome such an outcome. Consequently, through its actions in Hong Kong, Beijing has left Taiwan with fewer options. China’s hard line in Hong Kong is not conducive to voluntary unification anytime soon, hence the increasingly menacing threats toward Taiwan, in both words and actions.

Xi Jinping China
Chinese leader Xi Jinping. File photo: RwandanGov. via Flickr.

Recent sorties of PLA air squadrons near Taiwan are partly training for an invasion and partly an attempt to intimidate Taipei into surrender. The former is to be expected; the latter may be wishful thinking on the part of Chinese officials. History provides many examples of how threats of invasion, and even years-long bombing campaigns, have only strengthened the resolve of those under attack. Indeed, increasing threats from Beijing in recent years may help to explain President Tsai’s landslide re-election in 2020.

Again, Hong Kong is instructive: the tighter Beijing turned the screws, the more popular politicians critical of China’s authoritarian rule became, to the point where the only way that a pro-government majority could win local elections was to disqualify all pro-democracy politicians from running.

Only carefully screened pro-Beijing candidates – “patriots” in the official lexicon – are now allowed to hold elected office in Hong Kong, putting an end to “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” – an official slogan that was commonplace for decades – and giving rise to “patriots administering Hong Kong.”

As the drums of war become audible across the Taiwan Strait, can tragedy be avoided? It is not in the interests of people in Taiwan for there to be an invasion by the PLA. Neither is it in the interests of China for that to happen. While the status quo is undesirable for Beijing, the consequences of a major attack on Taiwan would very likely set back China’s economic and political rise, and it might very well lead to a wider war that could halt that rise altogether.

Carrie Lam Erick Tsang Teresa Cheng Roy Tang election electoral overhaul
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) and other government officials meet the press on April 13, 2021 about the city’s electoral overhaul. Photo: GovHK.

One route to peace would be a change of government on either side of the strait. The CCP won’t relinquish power, and Xi looks set to be in office for many years yet, possibly decades. That leaves any prospect of governmental change to Taiwan.

It’s possible that the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party and its allies could regain control. Because the KMT has been sympathetic to eventual unification with China, such a change would likely reduce tensions and allow for enough obeisance to Beijing to avert military conflict. However, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which officially asserts that Taiwan is already independent from China, may continue to garner more electoral support than the KMT precisely because of China’s actions.

Paradoxically, another route to preventing war may be found among China’s war planners. No doubt the PLA has gamed every imaginable outcome were it to invade Taiwan. The problem with such planning is that it’s impossible to anticipate accidents and unintended events.

Under current circumstances, it seems unlikely that the United States would automatically send the Seventh Fleet to rescue Taiwan were it to suffer a Chinese invasion. The PLA has all manner of new weapon systems specifically designed to deter such a US response. However, US warships frequent the Western Pacific Region, including the seas around Taiwan. In a conflict, those ships would have instructions to proactively defend themselves against perceived threats, including those from the air.

Those who doubt the proclivity of US warships to act on such instructions may wish to consult the families of the 290 people aboard an Iranian airliner that was shot down over the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes in 1988. If a Chinese warplane were to be downed after venturing too close to a US warship, how would the PLA respond? One assumes that it would not do nothing.

Taiwan military air force
Members of Taiwan’s military. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

What if a US submarine, operating in international waters near Taiwan, were to be mistaken for a Taiwanese submarine and sunk by Chinese naval forces? We should not forget that America’s “global” wars – the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II – were precipitated in large part by the sinking of US ships, as were several other instances of US military action around the world.

One can imagine many other scenarios whereby Chinese and American military forces come to blows, despite no desire in Beijing or Washington for that to happen. The possibility that such scenarios might arise during an invasion could, or at least should, give pause to China’s war planners. If so, the status quo across the Taiwan Strait may remain tolerable to enough of Beijing’s top leaders to avert violence.

These potential avenues to preserve relative peace across the Taiwan Strait are internal to the cross-strait conflict: they require something to happen or some decision to be made in China or Taiwan. Is there anything the outside world can do to bolster the relatively peaceful status quo? Certainly, all concerned governments could remind the parties of the costs of a Chinese invasion.

Taipei could be reminded not to declare formal independence. The United States might go so far as to make such a reminder public. The current Chinese leadership has backed itself into such a tight corner that a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence from “one China” would result in war.

Beijing could be notified by its major trading partners that all commerce would come to an immediate halt in the event of an invasion. China would face approbation and diplomatic isolation far worse than anything it experienced following the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.

Reminders such as these to both sides could be helpful, but they may not be persuasive enough, at least when it comes to China. Indeed, the reminders themselves would be perceived by Chinese officials as interference in China’s internal affairs.

This brings us back to Biden’s declared intention to defend Taiwan and his advisors’ backpedalling. Such waffling by US officials has worked since the US diplomatic opening to China half a century ago.

But it may now be inadequate. The US president may have to clarify exactly what he means. To do that, he could state unequivocally (and other US officials could reiterate) that if any US ship or aircraft were to be attacked, or if any American were to be killed, during a military attack on Taiwan, he would immediately ask Congress to declare war on China.

While US officials won’t admit it publicly, the military trainers in Taiwan do more than help it prepare for its self-defence; they also serve as a tripwire, much as US troops did in West Germany during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, when any Soviet attack there would invariably kill American troops, forcing the United States to come to Europe’s defence. The PLA would almost inevitably stumble over this tripwire during an invasion.

If that were to happen, and especially if a US warship were to be sunk by the PLA, Congress would be chomping at the bit to declare war on China. If history is any guide, the American people might rally around the flag and give their support. Such support might be irrational and ultimately extremely harmful to US interests, but rationality has not stopped the US from getting into many wars (most of them not formally declared by Congress) since its founding in the late eighteenth century.

China air force military PLA.
Chinese fighter jets. Photo: China Ministry of Defence.

It’s anyone’s guess where an American declaration might lead. It is likely that a number of democratic allies would join the United States in waging such a war, while few countries would be likely to side with China militarily.

A violent clash between today’s superpowers would certainly hinder China’s rise. It might be the trigger for World War III. The prospects of such outcomes might be real enough to dissuade China’s leaders from invading Taiwan. At the very least, such prospects might make the status quo look tolerable to them. But for that to happen, Biden’s declaration would have to be unequivocal, supported by prominent members of Congress, and repeated by his predecessors. It would be more persuasive if accompanied by similar declarations by other countries, such as Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom.

In the event, Biden would retain the choice of whether to actually seek a war declaration from Congress and, if he were to get it, whether to order the US military into combat. China’s ability to kill millions of Americans in a matter of hours by using nuclear weapons would be a disincentive to actual war.

Nobody loves the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. China despises its lack of control over Taiwan. The more powerful China becomes, the more that lack of control grates on the nerves of its leaders. But the status quo is surely better than a local war that could quickly blossom into a global conflagration.

Taiwan National Day military helicopter flag
Photo: Taiwan Office of the President, via Flickr.

Taiwan wants to be free of the omnipresent threat of invasion by the PLA. The people of Taiwan are practical; 87 per cent of them want to retain the status quo in some form, despite very few of them identifying as Chinese. Beijing should welcome this because it means that there is still hope for gradual rapprochement, and maybe even comity, sometime in the future.

China’s rise means that peace across the Taiwan Strait is increasingly threatened. China seems to have set itself on a path to war if Taiwan does not submit relatively soon to rule from Beijing. Going down that path would be bad for China and for Taiwan, and very possibly for the world.

Despite Beijing’s protestations, other countries may have little choice but to do more to bolster the imperfect – but relatively peaceful – status quo and to do what they can to bring the war planners in China to their senses. The people of both China and Taiwan may ultimately be thankful. What’s best for China and Taiwan is peace, however imperfect.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.