The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not have agency. That is now the dominant argument among analysts arguing against strengthening US-Taiwan relations. The thesis goes like this: in the event that Taiwan moves too far along the path towards permanent separation from China (just how far is not made explicit), Beijing will be forced to send the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into action. Beijing will have no choice in the matter, so Taiwan and the United States must act accordingly. It is not surprising that there has been some pushback in response to the latest developments in US-Taiwan relations and there is, of course, much room for debate. Yet much as Beijing might wish foreign counterparts believe that Chinese actions regarding Taiwan are predetermined—indeed, that they are out of Beijing’s control—such arguments are deserving of scrutiny.
The latest round of these arguments began with a Ted Galen Carpenter article for Responsible Statecraft on September 22. Carpenter provides a master class in victim blaming. Inaccurately describing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now as “pro-independence,” he asserts that its 2016 “electoral triumph torpedoed the strategy that Chinese leaders had pursued of building robust economic ties with Taiwan in the expectation that such links would gradually make the Taiwanese people more receptive to political reunification with the mainland.” There are two problems here. First, the failure of China’s strategy was manifest in 2014, when the Sunflower Movement halted the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s efforts to continue deepening economic ties with China. Second, Carpenter is guilty of a common crime: in describing the DPP as “pro-independence” and in using the phrase “reunification with the mainland,” he blindly accepts China’s preferred framing of the DPP and of cross-Strait political ties.
Carpenter explicitly pegs the blame for rising cross-Strait tensions on what he describes as “the DPP’s continued political control.” Such “control,” it should be noted, is due to the DPP performing exceptionally well in the last two national elections. No matter. That “political control” has “impelled the PRC to redouble its efforts to poach Taipei’s small number of remaining diplomatic partners and ratchet-up confrontational rhetoric against the island [and] it has led to an increasingly menacing military posture.” In Carpenter’s telling, Beijing is not responsible for its decision to resort to diplomatic, rhetorical, and military pressure on Taiwan—indeed, there was no decision at all to be made in the halls of Zhongnanhai. Taiwan’s people voted—shame on them—and the laws of cross-Strait physics took over from there.
This is, unfortunately, a common theme among those arguing for a more hands-off American approach to the Taiwan Strait. In an article published a few days after Carpenter’s, Paul Heer, a former national intelligence officer, offered this assessment on the current status of cross-Strait dynamics:
The good news is that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Beijing is not in fact looking for excuses or an opportunity to attack Taiwan: it is looking for reasons not to do so. The danger is that Chinese leaders currently do not perceive Washington and Taipei to be providing those reasons.
Heer is almost certainly correct in noting that Beijing would prefer to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic without using force. Like Carpenter, however, he denies Beijing any agency in setting China’s approach to Taiwan. Taiwan and the United States are apparently moving closer to forcing Beijing to order the PLA into action—not because they are plotting military action against China or even moving definitively toward a declaration and recognition, respectively, of Taiwan’s independent statehood, but because the United States is adjusting and updating (per Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell) its “One-China Policy” and because “Beijing suspects Taipei as having withdrawn from the ‘One-China’ framework.” China might not like these developments, but it should have options to respond beyond pummeling, invading, and occupying Taiwan.
Heer, who at least admits that Beijing’s “views on many issues are invalid and unreasonable,” does not see things that way:
But we should be extremely cautious about dismissing Beijing’s perspective on Taiwan, or underestimating how deadly serious the issue is to Chinese leaders. It represents the unfinished business of the Chinese Civil War and thus involves the legitimacy and the survival of the Chinese Communist Party.
Of course, Washington and Taipei should take seriously Chinese views on Taiwan. It behooves leaders in both capitals to understand how those in Beijing define and prioritize their interests. Unification is, indeed, an issue on which the CCP has staked its legitimacy. Within the Party, it is surely not a political winner to advocate a softer approach to Taiwan. Heer fails to question, however, why that must be so.
The same goes for John Culver, also a retired American intelligence officer, who recently wrote for The Interpreter about the “unfinished Chinese civil war.” Culver shares valuable insights on the potential shape of a war that begins in the Taiwan Strait, but like other pieces of the genre, the article prioritizes Chinese over Taiwanese perspectives and denies agency to the PRC.
Indeed, Taiwanese perspectives are entirely absent from the essay. Does Taiwan consider itself to be in an unfinished civil war? Although Taipei remains preoccupied with the Chinese military threat, it is not at all clear that people in Taiwan see themselves as being in a continuing state of war with the PRC. If not, does that affect how Culver’s hypothetical war might come about and how it might be fought? Perhaps not, but highlighting Taiwanese views would at least put China’s perspective in a more complete context, allowing for better foreign engagement with it.
As with Carpenter and Heer, Culver is careful to avoid assigning any responsibility to China for a hypothetical conflict. “If military conflict comes to the Taiwan Strait in the next few years,” Culver writes, “the past will not serve as prologue for China’s modes, means, and goals.” It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Beijing is not the first to use force, but for Culver, war is something that just happens, rather than something China chooses to set in motion.
Like Heer, Culver argues that the CCP would see such a conflict as being “about its legitimacy and survival, and the return of China as the dominant power in East Asia.” And like Heer, Culver does not see the CCP as having choices to make: “Not contesting probably would not be an option for the CCP—indeed, it seems convinced that it has an asymmetrical interest in the outcome compared to the United States.” Culver never makes clear what exactly the CCP would be “contesting” in this hypothetical scenario—but again, it seems likely he is presuming a Chinese use of force when there is no military threat to China. This would be neither defensive, nor preemptive, nor preventive. Yet Culver and others—along with the CCP—want us to believe China will have no choice but to attack should Taiwan, as Heer put it, continue to withdraw from the “One-China” framework.
Searching for Flexibility in Beijing
The point here is not to question the importance of unification to Chinese leaders. The threat to Taiwan grows more urgent precisely because it is so important to the Party. The questions are thus: is Taiwan so central to CCP interests as to deny the CCP any flexibility in how it handles Taiwan? And if so, must that remain the case? Put another way, if Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), veteran of the Long March, could enthusiastically abandon communist orthodoxy, why must foreign observers accept that the CCP cannot change its tune on Taiwan?
Carpenter, Heer, and Culver might all argue that the United States and Taiwan must avoid backing China into a corner. But arguably, it is the CCP that has backed itself into that corner. The CCP chose to embrace and promulgate the narrative that the Chinese Civil War is unfinished, that Taiwan is part of “one China,” that it cannot abide independence. The CCP has chosen, as Dan Blumenthal put it, to compensate “for the absence of attractive political principles or ideologies by creating a new empire of fear, and offering ever-more strident appeals to an imperialist nationalism.” Xi Jinping (習近平) has chosen to make unification a key aspect of his promised “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Put simply, Beijing bears responsibility for its own predicament.
Beijing has evinced little interest in extracting itself from that predicament, but that could change. Culver notes that China believes “it has an asymmetrical interest in the outcome [of a hypothetical Taiwan Strait conflict] compared to the United States.” But China also has an asymmetrical interest in the outcome compared to Taiwan, which would be fighting for its very existence. There are steps Taiwan can take—such as revitalizing its reserve forces and training its citizens to wage an insurgency—that can change Beijing’s assessment of that asymmetry and what it means.
Culver also argues, quite reasonably, that a war that began in the Taiwan Strait would not be limited to the Taiwan Strait:
And it’s likely that, from the moment the shooting starts, it will cease being the unfinished Chinese Civil War and will become the China-US war. Taiwan would be the first battlefield of intensive combat operations between the world’s two most powerful military forces in a war that would quickly cease to be primarily about Taiwan’s autonomy, prosperity or the lives and livelihoods of its 24 million people.
It is not at all clear that in a war for all the marbles, there is an asymmetry of interests that strongly favors China. Nor is Beijing likely to enthusiastically launch such a conflagration. The risks for China are enormous. Isn’t it possible that China would shift to a less strident approach to Taiwan rather than incur those risks? Taiwanese independence may be a threat to CCP rule. A war with the United States is likely a bigger one.
The main point: A number of recent essays suggest that China will have no choice but to launch a war should Taiwan continue to solidify its de facto independent status. The CCP, however, may not be so inflexible as to put its own rule at risk.