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Beijing Is Still Playing the Long Game on Taiwan

18 16 20

Concern is growing in Taiwan, in the United States, and among U.S. allies in Asia that China is preparing to attack Taiwan in the near future. Testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee last year, Admiral Philip Davidson, then the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned that Beijing might attempt to seize the island in the next six years. Unifying Taiwan with mainland China is a key element of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream.” And as the political scientist Oriana Skylar Mastro has argued in these pages, Xi wants “unification with Taiwan to be part of his personal legacy,” suggesting that an armed invasion could come before the end of his third term as secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party in 2027 and almost certainly before the end of his probable fourth term in 2032.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has intensified these concerns. Xi’s announcement just before the Russian invasion of a “no limits” partnership with Moscow, coupled with his failure to condemn Putin’s actions and the Chinese media’s endorsement of Russian propaganda, seem to signal Beijing’s support for Russia’s territorial aggression. Beijing may see a strategic opening now that U.S. political and military resources are tied up in Europe. Moreover, Chinese leaders may have interpreted the West’s response to the Russian attack as an indication that the United States will not intervene militarily to defend a country to which it is not bound by a defense treaty, especially against a nuclear-armed adversary. As David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued, “Chinese policymakers may conclude that Russia’s nuclear arsenal effectively deterred the United States, which would be unwilling to go to war with a nuclear power over Taiwan.”

But fears of an imminent Chinese attack are misplaced. For decades, China’s policy toward Taiwan has been characterized by strategic patience, as has its approach to other territorial claims and disputes—from India to the South China Sea. Far from spurring China to jettison this approach in favor of an imminent military assault on Taiwan, the war in Ukraine will reinforce Beijing’s commitment to playing the long game. The price Moscow has paid, both militarily and in the form of international isolation, is but a fraction of what China could expect if it were to attempt to take Taiwan by force. Better to wait patiently for Taiwan’s eventual surrender, as Beijing sees it, than to strike now and risk winning the island at too high a cost—or losing it forever.

Fear that China will attack Taiwan had been growing well before Putin invaded Ukraine. As Robert Blackwill and Philip Zelikow observed in a 2021 report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Taiwan is “becoming the most dangerous flash point in the world for a possible war that would involve the United States of America, China, and probably other major powers.” In addition to its historical and economic motives for controlling Taiwan, Beijing feels the need to prevent other powers from using the island as a base to pressure China militarily or subvert it politically. For its part, the United States has strong motives for insisting on what Washington has referred to since 1972 as the “peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue”—which, given the anti-unification sentiments of the Taiwanese people, means an open-ended and perhaps permanent state of de facto autonomy for the island. Although there is much emotion on both sides—for China, nationalism; for the United States, commitment to democracy—what makes the Taiwan issue truly nonnegotiable are the two countries’ security interests.

In 1979, when the United States........

© Foreign Affairs

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