Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power at October’s 20th party congress has profound implications for growing military tensions across the Taiwan Strait in the coming year, analysts told a recent online symposium.
“The relationship across the Taiwan Strait has been quite turbulent in recent months, and, indeed, over the past several years, as indicated … by the increased military activity that we’ve seen by the People’s Republic of China around Taiwan,” Scott L. Kastner, professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, told the Global Taiwan Institute seminar.
“This has in turn led to a growing sense among many … that the risk of military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait is growing,” he said.
Coverage of Taiwan — a democratic island that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China — has become far more prominent in mainstream U.S. media in recent years, alongside growing public awareness of the possibility of military conflict, Kastner said.
The threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan “has really been put into focus by the war in Ukraine,” he said.
Xi Jinping repeated Beijing’s threat to invade Taiwan, should it deem it necessary to achieve “unification” by annexing the island, in a speech to the 20th National Congress in October. That may be an indicator that he has a personal timetable in mind for taking control of the island, Evans Chen, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told the panel.
“We can see during and after the 20th party congress, Xi Jinping’s power is much stronger … and I think also more concentrated than before,” Chen said. “That means that the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army and Xi Jinping could be more aggressive on the Taiwan issue.”
Chen pointed to the recent appointment of Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia to the Politburo, alongside He Weidong, a former member of the Eastern Theater Command.
“You can see that Xi Jinping [is] putting top-ranking PLA officers in the political arena,” he said, adding that the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine could weigh in Xi’s decision whether or not to invade Taiwan.
“If Russia is more successful in the Ukraine battlefield, Xi Jinping might be more willing to … invade Taiwan, but if Russia is unsuccessful, I would argue that China would be more conservative,” he said.
But he added: “It’s hard to say … how Xi Jinping and the People’s Liberation Army will calculate this.”
Kastner said there are certainly reasons to be concerned about a Chinese invasion.
“It’s possible to imagine a time, looking forward, in which the People’s Republic of China could launch an attack on Taiwan with some kind of reasonable prospect of success,” he told the seminar.
“Xi Jinping has … at least given hints that he views Taiwan as a priority and that he wants to see progress on unification, and obviously he has really consolidated power in the aftermath of the 20th party congress,” he added.
“There certainly are some reasons to be concerned … Most obvious is the rapid shift in recent years in the military balance of power … in [China’s] military capabilities,” Kastner said.
Learning from Ukraine?
Meanwhile, June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami in the United States, said the Russian invasion had largely failed, citing recent comments from top British military brass in the Financial Times.
“Is Ukraine a model for China? Is it going to see this as a deterrent?” Teufel Dreyer said. “I think they’re saying we can learn from this and we can do it better.”
She said Taiwan has been neglecting its own military development in recent years, while China has been building up its own capabilities.
“Taiwan has been neglecting its military for decades and decades,” Teufel Dreyer said. “The period for enlistment is shockingly low, because when you’re dealing with more advanced weapons you need more time training [for] them [and] there are better jobs in high-tech than in the military.”
“If the decision is made to invade, the PLA have big advantages,” she added. “The major points … are all close to China. There’s no doubt that the Chinese could impose a successful blockade on the western side. The ports on the eastern side Su’ao etc are not capable of absorbing what is needed to sustain Taiwan, and … once you get the equipment in you need to get it over the mountain hump to the western side … and that is not going to be easy.”
She cited military experts as saying that it should be possible for China to blockade Taiwan indefinitely, but added that Taiwan still has its cutting-edge semiconductor industry as a form of protection.
“There’s no such thing as a surgical strike against Taiwan that would not damage [the global supply of semiconductors],” she said.
“High-end chips are going to continue to be made in Taiwan, and that is a good idea just in case the United States should turn fickle,” she added.
Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of politics at Taiwan’s Soochow University, said most of the current factors contributing to tension across the Taiwan Strait will remain into next year.
“Growing Taiwan identity”
“The structural factors will remain the same. U.S.-China competition will remain the same,” he said. “China’s pushing for unification and the pressure on Taiwan will stay the same.”
He said domestic public opinion among Taiwan’s 23 million people is also highly unlikely to change much. “My interpretation of the status quo is that … we want to maintain our way of life, and that there’s a growing Taiwan identity,” he said.
“Maybe one or two decades ago, people might have debated the identity issue, but now it’s no longer an issue because … about 70 percent of people identify as Taiwanese only,” Chen said.
“And if you look at the younger generation, that number goes up to 80 or 90 percent.”
Kastner said both Beijing and Washington view the situation in the Taiwan Strait with “some degree of pessimism” due to shifts in public opinion in Taiwan itself.
“From the U.S. perspective there’s great reason to be concerned about the shifting balance of military power, but from China’s perspective there’s also reasons to be concerned, most notably about political and social trends in Taiwan,” he said.
“Increasingly, people in Taiwan over the past couple of decades don’t really identify as Chinese any more. They self-identify as Taiwanese.”
He said it was hard to imagine any presidential candidate winning an election on a platform of rapprochement with Beijing or eventual “unification.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster