Recent media attention has focused on China’s military actions and threats against Taiwan and its general bellicosity towards both Taiwan and the US. Some Western and all Chinese commentary blame Speaker Pelosi’s brief trip to Taipei as the provocation and also a violation of the “One China Policy”. Beijing also believes that the West’s continuing refusal to recognize Beijing’s right to recover Taiwan (considers it a lost province), fully justifies its rhetoric and military actions. But War?
Xi’s likely near term motivations: (1) remind the globe the PRC is a super power, (2) distract unhappy Chinese from the increasing economic and Covid lock-down problems as well as from (3) the tighter control Xi is slowly exerting over them and their lives. Younger Chinese now project a growing militant nationalism as Xi absorbed Hong Kong and militarily pushes China’s claims on Taiwan. His mantra “America is declining, China is rising” continues to feed these feelings.
Xi is applying to Taiwan, a strategy similar to Putin’s against Ukraine: face it with an overwhelming military force, calculating Kiev/Taipei will be cowed into submission. It didn’t work for Moscow and I doubt it will succeed for Beijing. The question becomes: will Xi decide to invade Taiwan as Putin did Ukraine?
The Hong Kong Precedent:
In 1997 the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC, ending 156 years of its colonial status. Great Britain had conquered Hong Kong in 1841 during its Opium Wars with China. However, the 1997 agreement also contained Beijing’s acceptance of a 50 year transition period, during which Hong Kong’s government would be democratic and would follow a rule of law protecting individual rights. This arrangement was labeled “One China, Two Systems”.
However, Xi’s patience did not extend to 2047 when the 50 year two systems approach would have naturally ended. Thus, starting in 1919 he forcefully put down Hong Kong residents’ frequent large, demonstrations protesting Beijing’s attempt to impose a draconian national security law. In August 2022, Beijing directly, totally controls the former colony, over which it received sovereignty in 1997.
Xi unilaterally abrogated the 1997 agreement with London, generating loud objections from the West and Taiwan. As a consequence, Hong Kong’s long standing role as Asia’s financial hub, is ending. .
How Legitimate is Beijing’s Claim to Taiwan?
Taiwan’s legal situation is quite different from Hong Kong’s because Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong was not in question after 1997. However, China ceded its Taiwan sovereignty to Japan in 1895.
In 1945, Japan surrendered to the US and its Allies, ending WWII, but the documentation left the issue of who “owned” Taiwan, unaddressed. At the time, American Forces occupied the island. Later, the Truman Administration invited its wartime ally, Chiang kai-shek, then the Chinese leader, to administer Taiwan, but unaccompanied by a legal transfer of Taiwan sovereignty to China.
The PRC holds that it was implicitly made, which would have required the US to have claimed sovereignty over Taiwan when Japan surrendered, which it never did.
If China wasn’t a credible military threat to Taiwan, Ukraine and Russia would continue to monopolize international news. However, most of the 23 million Taiwanese, are strongly opposed to and willing to defend against, becoming citizens of Communist China.
The following historic chronology traces the 500 year sequence of shifting sovereignty over Taiwan. My opinion only, but China has a very circumstantial, but not a convincing legal case, to support its assertion that Taiwan is rightfully part of China.
- 13th to early 17th Century:
- Taiwan “discovered” by Portugal (called it Formosa),
- Colonized by Dutch, lesser extent, by Spanish.
- 1683, China’s Qing Dynasty conquered/absorbed Taiwan’s Southern region into its empire..
- Various Chinese dynasties ruled it until 1895.
- 19th & 20th Centuries
- China lost first Sino-Japanese War and ceded Taiwan to Japan.
- Japan ruled Taiwan until 1945 when it lost WWII to US and Allies.
- Washington asked WWII Ally, China (then under Chaing kai shek) to administer Taiwan.
- 1949 Chiang lost Chinese civil war to Mao and Communists, moved government and contents of national museum to Taiwan.
- Until 1979, US dealt with Chiang and his Kuomintang Government, not Mao and his successors as the legitimate diplomatic representatives of China internationally.
- 1972, President Nixon first US President to visit Communist Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).
- 1979, US established full diplomatic relations with PRC and recognized its sovereignty over China, but no mention of Taiwan.
- 1980s democratic reforms in Taiwan.
- 1995 first democratically elected President of Taiwan.
- 21st Century
In 2022, Taiwan’s economy is thriving and features a major global microchip manufacturing sector. It has a large, well educated middle class and a functioning democracy equipped with police and national security forces. An observer might sensibly ask why Taiwan doesn’t just declare its independence. The answer: it might drive Xi to actually invade the island, and lead to a wider Pacific war. This is a fear shared in Taipei, Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and Seoul
Will the PRC attack Taiwan?
Unlikely in the near term, i.e. 1- 2 years, despite the fact the PRC in 2022 bears no resemblance to the country Nixon visited 50 years ago and appears competent to do so. It has a number of billionaires, a large, well educated middle class and a nuclear armed military. It’s GDP is second only to America’s and it is an industrial power house with a huge export market. But, it has problems.
The looser domestic grip Xi’s immediate predecessors allowed, which welcomed foreign investment and international businesses, is chilling in the wake of Beijing’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, his efforts to control multinationals combined with his expansionist actions in the South China Sea and military threats to Taiwan, have created an unpredictable economic/commercial environment. The result: a number of foreign firms are moving their production facilities and jobs out of China.
The Pandemic has killed millions of people and substantially disrupted global trade and economies. China’s zero Covid policy has exacerbated the pain in China through massive lock-downs of large cities, citizens restricted to their homes, fences erected around apartment complexes and closure of factories, banks and other businesses. Xi’s Zero Tolerance Covid policy clearly evidences his objective of creating a highly concentrated, strong man rule.
To repeat, I do not believe Xi will invade Taiwan unless something unexpected occurs, e.g. a referendum is held and Taiwan declares its independence or North Korea sends missiles into Seoul,Tokyo or Guam and the US retaliates or a major political or economic or natural disaster occurs in the US, absorbing Washington’s attention.
The reasons are the following: (1) The US and the West have not shrugged their shoulders at China’s militant moves as they did when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, possibly emboldening Putin; (2) the Chinese military has never fought a full scale war, whereas the US is seriously battle hardened and very experienced; (3) the Chinese people have a lot to lose now if the PRC goes to war. Xi does not enjoy an unassailable power position comparable to Mao’s or Stalin’s. Thus, he cannot be totally confident the public won’t challenge him should body bags and huge economic demands to support a war, arrive. Such an eventuality could encourage another competing power clique to replace or remove him and (4) Xi doesn’t appear to be irrationally obsessed with recreating some earlier, larger Chinese empire.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.