TAIPEI — There has been no shortage of recent warnings about China trying to take over Taiwan by force. The May 1 cover story of The Economist called Taiwan: "The most dangerous place on earth."
Against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait is an intensified Sino-U.S. confrontation. Washington's frequent use of the Taiwan card to contain China has sparked military intimidation from Beijing in the past two years. The tensions are a reminder that there is no longer anything like the "1992 Consensus" that had established a diplomatic challenge across the Strait, ever since Tsai Ing-Wen became Taiwan's president.
And yet an even more fundamental cause of the rising conflict is that China's growing might is shifting the structure of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Xi Jinping has set national rejuvenation as one of his goals since he came to power. No matter how great his achievement may be, unless Taiwan is joined to the mainland his stated ambitions would be ultimately judged as empty talk by history.
And to boldly predict this, the ultimate deadline for fulfilling this goal is likely to be set for 2050 when China will have achieved the so-called Socialist Modernization, and when it is also the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's establishment of the People's Republic of China.
However, considering the age of China's leaders and the schedule of the handover of power within the party, it is possible that China will attempt to advance the timing for taking over Taiwan to around 2030. Certain experts in the U.S. also agree that this is the likely timetable.
In other words, Beijing is most likely to try to force Taiwan's reunification between 2025 and 2030. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander, testified before Congress in March saying he fears that Beijing could try to take control of Taiwan as early as 2027.
The likelihood of a peaceful reunification is quite low.
The problem for Chinese authorities are the costs of reunification. The way Xi Jinping has handled Hong Kong in the past two years has led to weaker and weaker support in Taiwan for the idea that "There is only one China, but the two political entities can differ on its definition" touted by Nationalists, let alone the principle of "One country, Two systems" supposedly applied in Hong Kong and which could be followed by Taiwan.
In other words, the likelihood of a peaceful reunification is quite low — despite China becoming the world's No. 1 economic power, or has even democratized. For most Taiwanese people, particularly the younger generations, Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China. Why should Taiwan be ruled by China?
Thus, the logic follows, that leaves the only option of invasion. And this of course has its own costs. Not just because there's a risk this can fail, but also because it is very troublesome to manage a place after a war, particularly one strongly opposed by the international community.
Apart from Xi's ambition, whether China will attack Taiwan in the next decade depends mainly on whether the cost of a Sino-U.S. or Sino-West confrontation is as great as the cost of occupying Taiwan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in Xichuan County, May 13, 2021 — Photo: Ju Peng
If Beijing judges that the two costs are equal, a war is almost certain to occur. This is because even if the U.S. interferes, China may have the military capabilities to succeed. Beijing has always envisaged cross-Strait warfare with the hypothesis of US participation. Its vigorous efforts in modernizing its military is squarely aimed at Washington.
In the conflict simulations conducted by the Pentagon, if the U.S. sends troops when a Taiwan conflict breaks out, they are increasingly likely to be defeated. It's unpredictable to what extent Sino-U.S. antagonism will grow in the next ten years. Consequently, it's hard to say whether the new Cold War will evolve into confrontation between China and the entire West, thus almost driving Beijing to the point of fighting a war.
Nonetheless, in my personal view, the possibility that China attacks Taiwan in the next five years can be excluded. China's primary tasks right now are to build the durability of its economic system and to make up for technological shortcomings. For Taiwan, Beijing has rather opted for the idea of an "integrated development" while containing "Taiwan independence" at the same time. Unless Tsai Ing-wen's government openly declares Taiwan's independence a cross-Strait war can be ruled out for the moment.
Nevertheless, it's a lot harder to predict the situation beyond five years' time. If Beijing's technology strategy fails and its semiconductor industry, especially the chip sector is still subject to the U.S. ban, then Taiwan's advanced semiconductor industry may be deemed worthy of a risky use of force by Beijing.
Rarely do we hear the role that Taiwan can play mentioned.
In the hypothesis where America's political division and partisan struggles continue to deepen under President Joe Biden's administration, and that his major infrastructure plan does not achieve the expected success, Donald Trump (or another similar leader) is likely to make a comeback. This could turn the country's current China policy even more confrontational. In this case, Beijing may again turn its anger against Taiwan.
In almost all scenarios of China's possible aggression towards Taiwan, rarely do we hear the role that Taiwan can play mentioned. This is not because experts deliberately ignore Taiwan, but because Taiwan, in comparison with China, is too small in size and unable to guard against China's force just by itself. Still, Taiwan shouldn't just wait to be captured. Even if it cannot ultimately protect itself, Taiwan can probably postpone the arrival of a possible invasion.
The Taiwanese government is unlikely to make excuses or justifications to encourage Beijing to attack the country. Yet, Taiwan should also not get caught up in stoking hatred toward China. This is a test of wisdom and patience for Taiwan's ruling administration and for the Taiwanese people.
The United States and the West will clearly continue to oppose Beijing's use of force in taking Taiwan. Even if this doesn't necessarily deter Beijing, such a clear statement should be a moral responsibility.
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