How China’s Aggressive Taiwan Policy Undermines its Reunification Goals

Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capabilities.
Image: Flickr/Times Asi

By Anthony Toh Han Yang

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was not without repercussions. As her trip compromised the hallowed “One China” policy, China responded with increasingly assertive behavior towards Taiwan. Certainly, China’s increasing assertiveness can strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the eyes of its domestic population. However, it can also backfire by expediting Taiwan’s efforts at bolstering deterrence, undermining China’s prospects of reunification.

China’s Increasing Assertiveness Towards Taiwan   

A day after Speaker Pelosi left Taiwan, Beijing conducted military exercises around the island that analysts note was unprecedented in proximity and scale. Also unparalleled, China conducted military exercises over the median line, where China utilized several sophisticated military technologies. Concurrently, Beijing imposed hefty economic sanctions on key Taiwanese products such as natural sand and citrus fruits.

On August 10, Beijing released a new white paper titled The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era that reiterated its claim on Taiwan. Remarkably, the white paper emphasized China’s unique ability to resolve the Taiwan question compared to two decades ago. With China ramping up military, economic, and political pressure on Taiwan, there is no doubt that China has become more assertive toward Taiwan. But what are the consequences of China’s increasing assertiveness?   

Buttressing CCP’s Political Legitimacy 

With a state-led patriotic education campaign alongside the Chinese government’s totalitarian control over propaganda and information censorship, it is not a surprise that the prevailing discourse in today’s China focuses on the sacrosanct linkage between Taiwan reunification and China’s unity. One study finds that the majority of Chinese citizens hold congruent views with the Chinese government regarding the importance of the Taiwan issue.

Given how deep said convictions are about the inviolability of the Taiwan issue and China’s vital interest, how would the Chinese public react to Beijing’s increased aggression towards Taiwan? As China’s escalating behavior in the wake of Pelosi’s visit demonstrates the CCP’s resolute determination to defend China’s national interests, this will undoubtedly embolden the Chinese masses to rally their support behind the CCP and bolster its legitimacy. Although China’s increasingly assertive posture towards Taiwan can boost the CCP’s legitimacy, it can also generate animosity against the Chinese government.

Accelerating Taiwan’s Deterrence 

China’s threat has pressured Taiwan into prioritizing self-defense. For instance, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration proposed a military budget of NT$523.4 billion for 2023, an unprecedented double-digit increase of 14.9 percent from 2022. This budget includes purchasing new combat jets and “special funds” for upgrading its conventional defense. In addition, Taiwan purchased $1.1 billion worth of Harpoon and Sidewinder missiles alongside logistical packages to refine its surveillance radar system. 

Recently, President Tsai announced Taiwan’s mass production of precision missiles and naval vessels while also working towards acquiring highly mobile tactical weapons. Moreover, to increase military manpower, Taiwan extended its four-month compulsory military service while organized civil resistance took shape. Amid China’s saber-rattling, tycoon Robert Tsao pledged NT$1 billion to build a “civilian defense force” comprising 300,000 personnel to assist the Taiwanese military alongside another 300,000 personnel armed with sniper skills. 

Paramilitary groups such as Taiwan Military and Police Tactics Research and Development Association (TTRDA) continue to lobby the government and public to create a credible, volunteer-based territorial defense force. Granted, Taiwan cannot match or surpass China’s military superiority, but increasing its fortification efforts will significantly strengthen its deterrence capability, bearing severe implications for China’s reunification goal.

Undermining China’s Reunification Goal? 

As Taiwan is taking national defense seriously, China’s attempt to use peaceful or forceful means to reunify is undermined.

China has always been vocal about its preference for peaceful reunification. For China, peaceful unification meant either persuading Taiwan to voluntarily join the mainland under the “one country, two systems” framework or using its soft power to co-opt Taiwan. Since 2016, when Tsai became president, experts have gravely doubted the efficacy of using “peaceful” means to reunify Taiwan. However, now that Taiwan pursued an all-out military modernization, it is inevitable that the prospects of China utilizing non-military measures to achieve reunification are as good as dead. 

Taiwan’s extensive military modernization involves painful transitions. Naturally, allocating more resources for national defense means fewer resources for socioeconomic development. With no plans to raise taxes, alongside an increasing defense budget that occupies much of Taiwan’s annual expenditure, this will adversely impact basic necessities such as jobs, education, and housing. 

Likewise, to tackle Taiwan’s manpower shortages, the government is forced to make an unpopular reversal on a nearly two-decade-long policy to revive Taiwan’s conscription system and to extend the military service to more than four months. More importantly, Taiwan’s attempt at strengthening military defense demonstrates an unbreakable will to defend its sovereignty.

Given the painful adjustments Taiwan endured to bolster its self-defense to protect its democratic way of life, there is no amount of economic and cultural soft power China can rely on to achieve peaceful reunification.

The alternative to China’s peaceful reunification is coercive reunification. If China chooses forceful reunification, it will surely ensure it carries such a plan out with minimal cost incurred. To achieve this, China needs to secure three strategic goals:

  1. China must be able to inflict a full surprise first strike without giving Taiwan any chance to react.
  2. It must be able to conduct a permanent blockade to cut Taiwan off from external aid.
  3. It must ensure that its troops can quickly capture and hold Taiwanese cities. 

However, achieving these objectives is a lot harder now, as Taiwan invests heavily in upgrading its surveillance radar system for early detection of long-range missile threats. Taiwan’s investments in its defense capabilities make China’s offensive first strike significantly less effective as Taiwan still has time to prepare necessary counter-responses. 

Taiwan’s purchase of Harpoon anti-ship missiles alongside its mass production of high-performance naval vessels also gives Taiwan the capability to target enemy naval vessels quickly. This capability will make it harder for China to pull off a permanent naval blockade over Taiwan to completely starve it of external aid. With organized civilian resistance forces gathering momentum in Taiwan, it will be much harder for China to occupy and control Taiwanese cities to gain battlefield dominance swiftly. 

Taiwan’s intense efforts at bolstering its defenses may not rule out forceful reunification, making it harder and costlier for China to achieve reunification through violent measures. Reunification through the use of force is China’s last resort, and losing a grip on it will compromise the CCP’s ruling mandate. As such, the CCP will likely increase military spending to close this gap, prompting similar actions from Taiwan.

With China and Taiwan tightening their military arsenal to hold each other off, cross-straits tensions are unlikely to relax any time soon.

Anthony Toh Han Yang is an international relations graduate from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research interests include cross-strait affairs and ASEAN. He may be contacted at atoh019@e.ntu.edu.sg.

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