President Xi Jinping of China Joint Press Conference | Kigali, 23 July 2018
Image: Flickr/Paul Kagame
By Garrett Ehinger
In early 2022, Taiwanese guns fired warning shots at a Chinese military drone following a series of military drills that have ratcheted up Chinese-Taiwan tensions. The United States has continuously monitored the fragile peace between the two states for decades and has shipped billions of dollars in weapons and tech to Taiwan to deter a Chinese invasion.
Regional powers like Japan, South Korea, and Australia similarly bolster Taiwan’s defense. Such military support of Taiwan is a clear obstacle to a successful Chinese invasion, which China might have avoided if China had been more subtle about its plans for the small island nation.
Instead, China publicly announces its intentions to control Taiwan. This boldness begs the question: what makes China so obsessed with controlling Taiwan, and why are they not more secretive about their plans?
Previous Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders may have locked current leaders into a more costly strategy. In the past, Taiwan’s strategic location, repeated assassination plots against CCP leaders, and its rush towards nuclear weapons may all have demanded a strong People’s Republic of China (PRC) rhetoric, which has only cemented over time. Alternatively, the CCP may be setting expectations for invasion in the hopes of lessening international shock and backlash in the event of an attack.
In either case, the United States should continue encouraging regional allies to take on more prominent roles in Indo-Pacific security. It should also strive to pursue a strategy centered around deescalating cross-straight tensions so that it might prolong soft-power influences such as the Taiwan/Chinese exchange programs.
Why China Wants Taiwan
Taiwan is only about 100 miles off the coast of China, and much like how the United States felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, China perceives military and strategic threats from a US-aligned Taiwan. But there are other qualities of a democratic Taiwan that cause it to chafe the PRC.
Taiwan has significant economic value. Taiwan’s role as one of the United States’ largest trading partners was made painfully evident during the supply chain failures during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. This position makes Taiwan a potentially powerful tool for gaining more influence over the US economy and regaining lost stakes in the global tech sector since the pandemic.
Taiwan’s continued independence also creates a frustrating and subversive “freedom effect.” Much like Hong Kong for the whole of the 20th century, Taiwan represents an alternative to communism and is parked right outside China’s doorstep. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have studied in Taiwan. Many of these individuals have been disillusioned with the stringencies of the CCP by their experiences of unrestricted internet access, freedom of speech, and a government beholden to the people. Realities experienced by Chinese citizens in Taiwan also often contradict CCP propaganda, weakening the people’s trust in their homeland government.
Such exposures to freedom are among the driving forces behind China’s growing domestic dissatisfaction, as demonstrated by crowds of unruly Chinese protestors chanting “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” and demanding changes to the CCP administration.
China’s Lack of Subtlety
One of the original reasons China was hardly silent about its plans for asserting dominance over Taiwan may have originated with Taiwanese aggression. Taiwan actively maintained invasion plans known as Project National Glory well into the ’70s and even launched several botched attempts to recover the mainland, in which disastrous naval engagements killed hundreds. Taiwan was under martial law by a regime intent on invading China until as late as 1987.
On top of these invasion plots, Taiwan was aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, which if not for the valiant efforts of covert CIA informants and quick US action, may have actually come to fruition and potentially led to a Pacific version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Taiwan also staged assassination attempts, such as the 1955 bombing of CCP second-in-command Zhou Enlai’s plane, in which he barely escaped with his life, but the explosion killed some sixteen other members of his envoy.
These conflicts may have forced the CCP into responding in kind with initially violent countermeasures and continuing strong rhetoric, a position they cannot now abandon without appearing weak next to the United States.
Another reason may be that international backlash would be extremely severe in the event of an abrupt full-scale invasion, likely making it a politically costly victory in the long run. The CCP may believe that by establishing expectations of an attack, the world may have a more tempered reaction when that day comes.
While it is doubtful that just one of these explanations is the sole reason behind Chinese aggression, it is safe to assume that China will not abandon its long-held policy of reunification with Taiwan anytime soon (or at all, for that matter).
Taiwanese cultural, business, and educational exchanges are a potentially powerful countervailing force to Chinese propaganda. This fact, combined with Taiwan’s previous aggression, economic importance, and geostrategic positioning, makes controlling that small island a high priority for both the PRC and the United States. In the face of these irreconcilable differences, it is in America’s best interests to avoid escalation by maintaining strategic ambiguity while also encouraging assertive posturing among regional allies and openness towards Chinese exchange programs from the Taiwanese government.
Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.