Taiwan has received well-deserved plaudits for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far. Taipei acted early and resolutely to ensure that it would not face an epidemic on its own shores. There is a long way to go, but thus far that effort seems to be paying off. Even so, there could be perilous days ahead.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) drove that point home last week, when it sent fighter jets and early warning aircraft into airspace off Taiwan’s southwest coast for nighttime exercises. Taiwan scrambled its own jets in response—the third time it has done so in 2020. The novel coronavirus, it seems, has not dulled Beijing’s taste for putting the screws to Taipei. Indeed, whether complicating Taipei’s efforts to bring home citizens from Wuhan or throwing up roadblocks to Taiwan’s engagement with the World Health Organization (WHO), Beijing has sought to use this crisis to isolate Taiwan and weaken President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) domestically.
On the one hand, Chinese exercises in the skies around Taiwan are nothing new. On the other hand, the context has changed significantly. That new context features domestic crises in the PRC and in the United States (not to mention in numerous other major economies) as well as significantly escalating US-China tensions.
What has not changed, however, is Xi Jinping’s hunger for unification. He has made clear that unification with Taiwan is a key aspect of his promised “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He has, moreover, evinced little flexibility in his approach to cross-Strait relations, making clear that Beijing, and Beijing alone, can set the terms for engagement.
This would all be worrying under normal circumstances. But today, circumstances are anything but. Given the new reality—one that will hopefully be temporary, but might be longer lasting—it is worth considering what challenges may lay ahead for Taiwan’s security. Where does the peril lie? Here are four possible hazardous scenarios, three short-term and one longer-term.
Scenario 1: Abortive Recovery in China
According to Chinese data, the PRC is on the road to recovery from COVID-19. If the data are accurate—always a big if when it comes to China—Beijing has succeeded in stopping the virus in its tracks. After suffering more than 3,000 deaths and 80,000 infections, China is slowly but surely attempting a return to normalcy. Lockdowns are ending, domestic flight capacity is growing, and people are heading back to work. Hopefully, China is over the hump and the Chinese people can return to living their lives absent the fear of a new outbreak.
But as Chinese citizens emerge from their lengthy period of self-isolation, one imagines they must be holding their breath, much as outside observers are. If there is a second outbreak, plunging China back into the nearly nationwide lockdown of the past two months, Xi Jinping might well face greater difficulties than during the first quarter of this year. Whether dealing with a challenge to his leadership from within the Chinese Communist Party or real concerns about the trajectory of public anger, Xi could well be tempted to take action that would both divert attention externally and unify the Party. With the United States distracted and—at least momentarily—weakened, Taiwan might well look like an appetizing target.
I have argued elsewhere that a major Taiwan Strait crisis could be coming down the pike. The novel coronavirus could well accelerate that timeline.
Scenario 2: A Return to Health, But Not to Wealth
Even if China’s recovery from the virus is a lasting one, its economic rebound is no sure thing. To be sure, economic activity will tick up as consumers once again begin buying cars, eating out, and replacing their cell phones. But with the rest of the world now grappling with a pandemic, demand for Chinese exports is sure to suffer. If China’s major trading partners, including the United States, fail to effectively slow the rate of infections, weakened demand for exports could stretch from a period of a few weeks to one of a few months or longer.
Xi would be able to claim victory over the virus at home, but many in China will recognize that the early negligence of Party officials in responding to the outbreak is at least partly responsible for the global pandemic. Moreover, an arrested economic recovery, especially if foreign difficulties persist, will complicate Xi’s efforts to fulfill his promise of greater prosperity for all. After all, 2020 was the year by which the CCP was supposed to have completed its task of transforming China into a “moderately prosperous society.” Xi can claim success, but will China’s people buy it?
Just as in Scenario 1, Xi Jinping may find he has ample reason to employ the PLA against Taiwan, whether for invasion, blockade, or other operation short of war.
Scenario 3: Xi Tests the Waters
Opportunism, rather than desperation, could also drive Xi Jinping to move against Taiwan. With the United States and all of its allies focused internally due to viral outbreaks, China’s leaders may wonder if America’s ability, readiness, and willingness to come to Taiwan’s aid are presently diminished. Might Xi manufacture a crisis over the Taiwan Strait to test US responses?
There are numerous ways he could do so. Chinese fighter jets could circumnavigate Taiwan, sitting just outside Taiwan’s airspace and well across the median line when in the Strait. A Chinese pilot could intentionally cause a collision or down a single Taiwanese aircraft. A PLA naval vessel, or China’s maritime militia, could cause a collision at sea; just last week, a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Taiwan Coast Guard cutter. Artillery batteries ashore could drop ordnance just off the coast of Jinmen or Matsu or, in a replay of the last crisis, the PLA Rocket Force could launch missiles into waters north and south of Taiwan.
Xi Jinping may think that he can control escalation in the event that the United States—or Taiwan, for that matter—reacts strongly. He may be wrong.
Scenario 4: COVID-19 Tanks the Defense Budget
The US Congress is closing in on an economic stabilization bill that would include USD $1.8 trillion in new spending. For Fiscal Year 2018, federal outlays amounted to USD $4.1 trillion. Defense spending came in at USD $623 billion. The budget deficit that year was USD $779 billion. The nearly $2 trillion package is likely necessary, but it will have budgetary consequences going forward.
David Larter, a naval reporter for Defense News, noted in a tweet that, in the event the bill becomes law, “we can all move on from the idea that we are going to even see flat budgets moving forward in” the Department of Defense. He suggests that we will need to “rethink the US military’s role in the world” or “pretend nothing is wrong and rack up readiness deficits.”
Put simply, even if the United States succeeds in containing the spread of the virus and mitigating its economic effects in the short-term, Washington’s longer-term ability to effectively wage strategic competition with China will face constraints. The near-term potential hazards to Taiwan outlined here may not come to pass. But if the coronavirus leaves the United States internally focused to an extent not seen in decades or with far less wherewithal to shape the security environment in regions distant from American shores, annexing Taiwan will look increasingly feasible to the PLA.
It is possible that none of the scenarios described here will play out in actuality. But it is also likely that the current pandemic will have profound and lasting consequences. For both Taiwan and the United States, it is worth thinking through what those consequences might look like, their likelihoods, and how to best stave them off or prepare to deal with them.
The main point: The current pandemic will have profound and lasting consequences for Taiwan, the United States, and China. Amidst rapidly changing circumstances, Taiwan may be facing dangerous times ahead.