US and China on opposite sides of two conflicts, amid worries about a third
Taiwan is always a top priority when the world’s two most powerful people meet. On November 15, at their first meeting in a year, the US and Chinese leaders talked about the self-ruled island Beijing wants back under its control, by force if necessary. The US should stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification, Xi Jinping told Joe Biden. “China will realise reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
Xi noted he’d heard reports that China was planning for military action against Taiwan in 2027, or 2035, according to a US official. He expressed exasperation at such reports, insisting that there were no such plans and that no one in the Chinese system had talked to him about them, said the official. But Xi also warned, “at some point we need to move towards resolution more generally.”
As China’s commander-in-chief, Xi previously set the PLA a deadline of building a “world-class force” by 2027, the Chinese army’s 100th anniversary. While that massive modernisation project continues, new conflicts in other parts of the world always stir speculation that Beijing could strike when the US government is distracted from its eastward pivot, and its military overextended.
The Israel-Hamas war has renewed fears of a Taiwan invasion that surfaced after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022. A year later, then foreign minister Qin Gang urged countries to “stop making an uproar by shouting ‘Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan’. He also warned that “the pressures and attempts to contain China, coming from the outside, are getting stronger and stronger…posing a serious threat to China’s sovereignty and security.”
The world of Chinese politics is so secretive that Beijing is yet to offer an official explanation of why Xi removed Qin, and defence minister Li Shangfu, this summer. But the Communist Party’s conviction that the West is hell-bent on slowing China’s rise remains firmly in place, as does Xi’s ultimate goal of rejuvenating China through the “reunification” of Taiwan.
Will the order to attack come this year or next?
We doubt it. While the US has significantly strengthened its military posture in the Middle East, it isn’t badly overextended, with no assets, for now, directly engaged in the Middle East or Ukraine. Meanwhile,Xi has too much to lose at present, with his military still too weak in key areas, and the high political risks of failure not currently worth the gamble. He also faces pressing economic problems that demand smoother ties with the US and its allies.
Xi is unlikely to have the capability to conduct a successful invasion of Taiwan by 2027, according to a top Taiwanese security official. “I don’t think it will happen in the near future or at least within one to two years,” said Wellington Koo, head of the National Security Council, on November 13. “If China needs to carry out amphibious landing operations to take Taiwan, I don’t think it will have such capabilities by 2027.”
The top US military official expressed doubt on November 10 that China wants to invade Taiwan. “I do think that Xi Jinping doesn’t actually want to take Taiwan by force. He will try to use other ways to do this,” General Charles Brown, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said in Tokyo. Highlighting the difficulty of the beach landings required to bring invasion troops to Taiwan, Brown said the US and allies must pay attention to Xi’s other efforts to increase pressure “militarily, diplomatically, economically”.
The massive scale of military preparations necessary to invade Taiwan should prove impossible to disguise from US and Taiwanese surveillance. Yet Israel’s intelligence failure prior to the Hamas attacks on October 7 highlights the need for Taiwan to heighten both combat readiness and monitoring of the Chinese military’s activities and capabilities.
The defence ministry quickly set up a task force to monitor the situation in the Middle East, and enhance Taiwan’s ability to forecast possible threats. Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng admitted to the legislature on October 12 that it would be “impossible” for Taiwan’s military to block a saturation rocket attack similar to the one launched by Hamas. The US is “using all possible ways to help us, no matter if it’s in training or the build-up of asymmetric fighting capabilities,” added Koo on November 14.
Vote for war or peace
“Whatever stage of development it may reach, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, and will never impose its will on others,” Xi told Elon Musk and other business executives at a San Francisco gala dinner. “China does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone.”
In Beijing’s eyes, taking Taiwan doesn’t count as expansion but merely a domestic matter for Chinese people alone to resolve. While Xi looks set to rule for life, Taiwan’s leaders face regular fights at the ballot box, and the next round, looming large in January 2024, will increase cross-Straits tensions if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins an unprecedented third term in power.
That looks more likely after a week of dramatic twists and turns concluded on November 24 with the two main opposition parties (both more China-friendly than the independence-leaning DPP) registering separate candidates on deadline day. Their proposed unity ticket had imploded a day earlier on live TV, much to Beijing’s frustration as an alliance seemed a better bet to unseat the DPP. Both parties, and Chinese officials, label the DPP frontrunner William Lai a “warmonger”.
Despite the smiles and handshakes in California, Xi Jinping remains committed to extending the motherland’s embrace, and thereby ensuring his legacy reaches parity with PRC founding father Mao Zedong. As a report to the US Congress warned, in the week Xi visited America, China now appears to view diplomacy with the US “primarily as a tool for forestalling and delaying US pressure over a period of years while China moves ever further down the path of developing its own economic, military and technological capabilities.”