How pressing is the Chinese threat to Taiwan? Is Beijing’s eagerness to consume the democracy a long-term challenge to be managed, or a short-term challenge requiring an urgent response? My colleague Oriana Skylar Mastro, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has crafted a valuable contribution to this ongoing debate, in which she argues that “although a Chinese invasion of Taiwan may not be imminent, for the first time in three decades, it is time to take seriously the possibility that China could soon use force to end its almost century-long civil war.” Mastro effectively contends that the threat to Taiwan has grown more urgent, even if invasion is not in the immediate offing, but her analysis also raises questions requiring further study.
A True Believer and His Mighty Military
Mastro highlights two recent developments that should reshape the debate over whether to consider China’s military threat to Taiwan as something that will manifest over a span of years or decades. First, she makes the case that Xi Jinping (習近平) is a true believer when it comes to the question of unification. Most tellingly, Xi has tied “Taiwan’s future to his primary political platform,” the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In 2019, Mastro notes, “he stated explicitly that unification is a requirement for achieving the so-called Chinese dream.”
Along similar lines, Mastro points to official Chinese statements that are suggestive of greater willingness to use force against Taiwan. She recalls, for example, Xi’s January 2019 speech in which he “called the current political arrangement ‘the root cause of cross-strait instability.’” In that speech, she might have further noted, Xi offered a “one country, two systems” arrangement for China and Taiwan that was more restrictive than previous formulations. What is more, he tacitly linked “one country, two systems” and the so-called “1992 Consensus,” prompting pushback from both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) and the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) in Taiwan. That he did so after years in which Beijing had been slowly but consistently stripping away Hong Kong’s freedoms strongly suggests that Xi had already given up on peaceful unification—he must have known that Taiwan would not buy what he was selling.
Indeed, Mastro links developments in Hong Kong to views in Taiwan, describing the June 2020 enactment of the National Security law as “the death knell for peaceful unification.” She does not provide evidence that Xi, too, has concluded that peaceful unification has already seen its “death knell” come and go. He certainly has not said as much, at least in a public setting. But proof is in the pudding, and Beijing’s utter disinterest in winning hearts and minds in Taiwan says quite a bit.
The second important development Mastro highlights is the shifting cross-Strait and US-China balances of military power, fundamental changes from the turn of the century. China’s recent displays of force near Taiwan, Mastro argues, make plain that “Xi is no longer trying to avoid escalation at all costs now that his military is capable of contesting the US military presence in the region.” Contacts in Beijing, according to Mastro, “acknowledge that Xi is surrounded by military advisers who tell him with confidence that China can now regain Taiwan by force at an acceptable cost.” If these sources are to be believed, we have now reached a point at which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is telling Xi, “yes, we can do this,” instead of “no, we cannot.” This represents a tide change, as Xi now has (or believes he has) viable military options that were not available to earlier leaders.
But how likely is Xi to resort to those options in the coming years? Mastro thinks the risk is significant. “Once China has the military capabilities to finally solve its Taiwan problem,” she writes, “Xi could find it politically untenable not to do so, given the heightened nationalism of both the CCP and the public.” This thought-provoking conclusion merits scrutiny. It assumes that, all else being equal, Xi will face significant domestic challenges if he opts not to launch a military campaign aimed at seizing Taiwan.
But such a campaign would entail substantial risks, even given PLA military superiority. As Richard Bush, Bonnie Glaser, and Ryan Hass argued in April, “anything short of quick and absolute unification would risk undermining Chinese Communist Party legitimacy at home.” Nor do the risks stop there. “China’s use of force against Taiwan,” they contend, “also would poison China’s image in the region and the world, alert neighboring countries to the threat China poses to stability and lead to diversion of resources and focus from Xi’s pressing domestic priorities.” Bush et al. see Beijing as having “chosen a different path.” Rather than gearing up for military action, “China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.”
In their piece, Bush et al. do not consider what might prompt that calculus to change. But the “heightened nationalism” Mastro cites might not be sufficient in their eyes. Still, even if the threat to Taiwan is less urgent than Mastro suggests, one could be forgiven for approaching it with less sanguinity than do Bush et al.
Last March, as China was grappling with the aftermath of the novel coronavirus’ emergence, the director-general of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau was asked in a legislative hearing about the likelihood that China would use force against Taiwan “tomorrow” as a means of distracting from domestic challenges. His answer: 6 or 7 out of 10. Although he was wrong in the moment, that does not invalidate his concern. Next year, Xi Jinping will head into waters unchartered in recent decades as he likely seeks to secure a third term in office. The Chinese economy has arguably been stagnating for some time, making it difficult for him to deliver on promises of greater prosperity for all by mid-century. Results of the latest census—which reveal an “aging, slow-growing population”—will only make China’s continuing rise a more challenging proposition.
Could domestic political difficulties lead Xi Jinping to reassess his interests vis-à-vis Taiwan? M. Taylor Fravel has convincingly made the case that party unity is a necessary precondition for shifts in military strategy. Although Fravel was writing primarily about how and when the People’s Republic of China has made changes to military strategy, similar logic may well apply to elective external military action. (See Fravel’s excellent book, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, for a fuller explication of this argument). But if domestic difficulties for Xi Jinping do mount during the coming years, past may prove not to be prologue.
A key change from past decades, as Mastro notes, is the emergence of a highly capable and highly confident PLA. A second development has been Xi’s efforts, as Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders put it, “to revitalize Party control and discipline within the PLA,”—and more than that, to ensure the PLA’s loyalty to Xi: “Central to restoring Party control was elevating Xi’s own status and authority within the PLA.”
What is more, as Xi has worked to modernize, reform, and exert his authority over the PLA, Beijing has also invested ever greater resources in the People’s Armed Police (PAP). Over the nine-year period from 2010 to 2018, the PAP budget averaged 6.5 percent annual growth. During that timeframe, spending on the PAP more than doubled from 66.3 billion RMB to 141.4 billion RMB. From 2007 to 2017, according to data compiled by Adrian Zenz, Chinese spending on domestic security averaged 13.6 percent annual growth and has exceeded spending on external defense since 2010.
Taken together, these three developments—a modern, capable PLA; Xi’s authority over the PLA; and a more robust domestic security apparatus—may contribute to a set of circumstances in which party disunity makes external action more appealing to Xi. The shift in the balance of military power gives him military options that would have been unavailable to his predecessors. The domestic security apparatus reduces the need to rely on the PLA for maintaining internal stability. And Xi’s authority over the PLA—and its apparent loyalty to him—makes it a viable tool for him to use in the event of internal difficulties.
In such an eventuality, Xi could well foment a crisis in the Taiwan Strait while cracking down at home to secure his position atop the Chinese party-state. That Xi covets Taiwan and that the PLA is increasingly in a position to take it may not be sufficient to warrant significantly heightened concerns about the prospects for invasion, as Mastro posits. Rather, heightened concerns are merited because Xi covets Taiwan and the military balance is shifting at a time when China may face significant internal pressures.
Can China Be Deterred?
Given the growing threat, Mastro argues, the United States should take steps to better ensure it can deter Chinese aggression. She makes a number of constructive suggestions, but those suggestions raise even more questions about how best to head off the use of force.
Mastro is not optimistic that Washington can or will find a way “to alter China’s calculus on Taiwan.” Mastro frets that “an enhanced US military and intelligence presence in the Indo-Pacific would be sufficient to deter most forms of armed unification, but it wouldn’t prevent China from using force altogether.” She worries that China could still use missile strikes, for example, “to convince Taiwan to bend to its will.” This speaks to the importance of Taiwan’s own efforts to invest in resiliency and self-defense, a question that Mastro leaves unaddressed.
Mastro does believe military tools can be used “to deter all Chinese military aggression,” but that requires the United States “to be prepared to destroy China’s missile batteries—which would involve U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland.” She worries about the United States “igniting a war by mistake” in response to Chinese military exercises, but an arguably greater concern is that retaliatory strikes on Chinese territory will lead to a general war between China and the United States in which escalation will be difficult to manage.
On the question of escalation, moreover, Mastro eschews a discussion of nuclear dynamics. Do nuclear weapons play a role in deterring China from attacking Taiwan (or deterring the United States from intervening in a cross-Strait conflict)? Should they? What role do nuclear weapons play in bounding (or not) conventional operations? How likely is nuclear use in the event of a conflict? As strategists and analysts think through how to maintain the peace in the Taiwan Strait, these questions will require far more consideration.
Finally, Mastro contends, “the most effective way to deter Chinese leaders from attacking Taiwan is also the most difficult: to convince them that armed unification would cost China its rejuvenation.” Unfortunately, many potential partners simply will not “risk their economic prospects, let alone a major-power war, in order to defend a small democratic island.”
In this, Mastro may be right. Although some US allies are growing concerned about stability in the Taiwan Strait—notably Japan, Australia, and South Korea, but also, to a lesser extent, countries in Europe—they are far from ready to participate in an effort to sever economic and other ties to Beijing, let alone threaten to do so. For the Biden administration and its successors, solving that puzzle should be as much of a priority as righting the balance of military power in the Pacific.
The main point: The PRC threat to Taiwan is growing more urgent because Xi covets Taiwan and the military balance is shifting in China’s favor at a time when China may face significant internal pressures. Unfortunately, deterring Chinese aggression is only getting harder.