The Taiwan Question: Part One

Like a jigsaw puzzle that affects millions of lives, the Chinese Communist party is nearing completion of its plan to  subjugate all of its territorial claims. Tibet, Inner Mongolia and now Xinjiang are all more or less under its control, while Hong Kong lays crippled by Beijing’s infamous national security law. As part of its plan to fully exploit each region,  the CCP has become more unrelenting in its demand for a homogenized, state-wide culture at the expense of ethnic minorities. 

While its strategies to that end range from banning the use of regional Cantonese dialects in Hong Kong’s television networks and schools, much more severe examples exist: kidnapping a 6-year-old child, the 11th Panchen Lama, as a means of undermining the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and controlling the head of Tibetan Buddhism, and instituting the now-infamous “re-education” camps for Uighur Muslims.

With most regions no longer being volatile for the most part, the CCP can redirect its focus toward the last and most challenging piece of the puzzle: Taiwan. Although the nation’s early years were spent in the grip of its own dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan began a gradual but robust push toward total reform in 1987. Today, it’s the first Asian nation to legalize gay marriage with a population that takes pride in their liberal democracy. 

Should China retake the island by force however, this progress will all come crashing down quickly enough. Although Taiwan has held its own until now with imported American weaponry and technology, mainland Chinese analysts have reported that the People’s Liberation Army, mainland China’s military, could efficiently mount an attack in the next year or two. U.S. experts think the actual timeline would fall toward the end of the decade, with 2028 being the most commonly cited number. 

Regardless, an all-out invasion would draw international backlash to a certain degree, something China has tried to avoid in its immense efforts to moderate its public image. It would also lock in a certainty that the already-nationalistic Taiwanese citizens would rebel against the CCP’s wishes to a magnitude far greater than we saw in Hong Kong. 

Beijing, it seems, is going for a softer, fear-based tactic instead. With U.S. politicians scrambling to deal with COVID-19 and the upcoming elections, China has already made naval excursions throughout the South China Sea including Taiwanese waters, reaffirming their territorial claims. Other options in President Xi Jinping’s arsenal include instituting a temporary naval blockade of Taiwan, occupying the uninhabited Pratas islands (a couple hundred miles south of  Taipei) or launching cyberattacks on Taiwan’s infrastructure.

I’d also argue that the Hong Kong national security law, which criminalized public dissent for the government, was a way for China to further test what the international community will turn a blind eye to. Given most nations’ mild responses, as few countries would be willing to sabotage their relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, Taiwan might not be able to expect much support in the future either. 

Regardless of external factors, the goal of this approach is to scare the Taiwanese government and its people into a “semi-autonomous reunification agreement” with the mainland. After seeing the early termination of Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy, which was scheduled  to last until 2047, Taiwanese citizens are far more wary of the CCP’s false promises. It seems that for now, the two sides have come to a stand still.

However, I foresee two scenarios that might sway the CCP to pursue all-out war. Firstly, if there is great enough civil unrest within mainland China, say after the housing market bubble collapses and sends millions into poverty, the army  might be deployed to Taiwan in the hope that conquering the island will distract  Chinese citizens from their domestic woes, using nationalism to restore people’s faith in the government.

 While obviously not a direct comparison, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher employed this strategy in 1982, taking back the Falkland Islands despite the economic disadvantage, which drastically boosted her party’s performance in the following year’s elections. 

The second scenario is if Taiwan were to outright declare its own independence. Despite having their own elections and governing body, Taiwanese politicians have danced around China for decades to avoid provoking action. Today it only has diplomatic relations with 14 other countries and hasn’t pushed Beijing very far. 

As much as China values its public image, it has increasingly felt a need to declare sovereignty against “growing Westernization” and would consider retaking Taiwan as a nationalism-driven show of force. The Taiwanese people, for their part, have been fairly careful to avoid poking the sleeping bear, making this scenario far, far less likely, although still worth mentioning. 

There is, however, always a very important third-party to evaluate as well: the United States.