How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
“China must be, and will be reunified,” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in a speech in January. Xi spoke of “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but he warned, “We do not forsake the use of force.” Ever since Hong Kong and Macau rejoined Mainland China in 1997 and 1999, respectively, Chinese expectations that Taiwan would follow suit have grown. When, a decade ago, the Beijing Olympics and the global financial crisis boosted China’s confidence on the world stage, those expectations redoubled.
But “peaceful reunification” has proved elusive. After Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to the presidency in 2016, many Mainland Chinese lost patience with the idea. Some Chinese nationalists now argue that China has only a brief window of opportunity to seize Taiwan. Talk of “forceful reunification” is ascendant.
China has already begun to tighten the noose. It has forced Taiwan out of international bodies, such as the World Health Organization; required airlines to replace “Taiwan” with descriptions such as “Taiwan, Province of China”; and induced five more countries to sever relations with Taipei.
Beijing seems to believe that the United States will sit by as it squeezes Taiwan. Taipei, meanwhile, has convinced itself that China has no plans to invade. And U.S. President Donald Trump seems to think he can rock the boat without consequences. All are wrong—and their wishful thinking is raising the odds of conflict.
Now that Xi has consolidated power, he seeks a legacy befitting the great emperors of old: the reunification of the Middle Kingdom. “The only thing that will make him the greatest leader in the Chinese Communist Party’s history is to take Taiwan back,” Shen Dingli, a foreign relations scholar at Fudan University, told Quartz in 2018. “If he were to achieve China’s reunification, who will say he is second to Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping?"
There are signs that Xi believes the world will sit by if China invades Taiwan.
Xi, whose “China Dream” promises to make China great again, likely agrees. “Fight a war, win a war,” is one of his signature slogans. In 2017, he presided over a military parade with a replica of Taiwan’s presidential palace visible in the distance. Chinese soldiers had constructed it to train for an invasion of Taiwan. That same year, China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, circumnavigated Taiwan twice. “The PLA is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with China by force,” the U.S. Defense Department told Congress in 2018.
There are signs that Xi believes the world will sit by if China invades Taiwan. “Xi has told people that he was impressed by Putin’s seizure of Crimea,” a Beijing insider told the reporter Evan Osnos in 2015. “[Putin] got a large piece of land and resources” and met little resistance from the West.
Many among China’s elite have embraced military action. “The possibility for peaceful reunification is gradually dissipating,” Wang Zaixi, a former deputy director of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, declared in 2017. “There will very likely be military conflict,” retired Chinese General Wang Hongguang told the People’s Daily in December.
Many ordinary Chinese agree. “If we want to take our island back, we have to use force.” reads a Weibo post from last November. Both Chinese academics and journalists argue that this sentiment is widespread. “Mainland Chinese public opinion became impatient with Taiwan a long time ago,” former director of the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Taiwan Studies Zhou Zhihuai wrote in 2017. “Mainland Chinese will be very happy to see the PLA take action to punish a ‘pro-independence Taiwan’,” a Global Times editorial claimed in 2018.
Despite this increased militancy across the Strait, Taipei has convinced itself that China will not attack. Many in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party have persuaded themselves that China is too sensible to take military action. “The mainland Chinese leader today is a rational decision maker,” Tsai claimed in 2017: Xi would not provoke a war likely to drag in Japan and the United States. Others in the DPP depict China as too weak. “China has too many domestic problems” to capture Taiwan, professor Fan Shih-Ping wrote in 2017.
Taiwan’s major opposition party, the Kuomintang, takes a rosy view of Beijing that rejects the idea that China might invade. “There is no problem,” former president Ma Ying-jeou declared last year. “Nowadays Beijing’s top strategy is peaceful rise,” the journalist Huang Nian wrote in April. “Forceful reunification would derail it.”
This complacency has led Taiwan to neglect its armed forces. Taiwan’s military suffers from a desperate shortage of officers—nearly half of all lieutenant positions are unfilled. In 2018, Taiwan made matters worse. Just as talk of “forceful reunification” was rising in Mainland China, the government ended compulsory military enlistment—but allowed felons to serve. Morale has plummeted. The United States has recommended that Taiwan consider restoring conscription. “The shift to a voluntary military was a mistake,” U.S. officials concluded. In an April 2018 poll, more than 40 percent of Taiwanese said they had “no confidence at all” that their military could defend Taiwan; but 65 percent had convinced themselves that the PRC would not take military action against the island; and only six percent believed that an attack was “very likely.”
The withering of Taiwan’s armed forces has increased Taiwan’s military reliance on the United States—just when many in Beijing are questioning the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Trump’s “America first” doctrine has convinced many Chinese that the United States is now too isolationist to come to Taiwan’s defense. “America will absolutely sacrifice Taiwan,” the Global Times insisted in 2017. “On the premise of America First … the United States is not likely to send troops to fight for Taiwan.”
For decades, a U.S. policy of “dual deterrence” has helped prevent conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Washington has warned Beijing not to attack Taiwan unprovoked, but reassured Chinese leaders that the United States would not support Taiwanese independence. It has told Taipei, in turn, that the United States would come to its defense—as long as it did not provoke Beijing by declaring independence. Making the policy work has meant treading a fine line, but for decades, dual deterrence has allowed Taiwan to enjoy de facto independence and helped prevent a war with China.
Trump has upset that delicate balance. In December 2016, Tsai called Trump to congratulate him on his victory. The incoming Trump administration then began to talk of “revisiting” the One China policy, under which the United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Beijing was outraged. Xi refused to talk to Trump until he recommitted the United States to the One China policy. In February, Trump capitulated. In a phone call with Xi, he affirmed that the United States would continue to support the “One China” policy. “Trump lost his first fight with Xi,” the Beijing scholar Shi Yinhong bragged to the New York Times. “He will be looked at as a paper tiger.”
Last year, however, the pendulum swung back toward confrontation. In February, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging (but not requiring) high-level U.S. officials to visit Taiwan, and high-level Taiwanese officials to visit the United States. In the fall, Trump started a trade war with China, generating anxiety among Chinese nationalists. They now believe Trump is using Taiwan as part of a new Cold War against China, creating a sense of urgency for reunification.
China could well move to take Taiwan before 2020, when some Chinese fear that Taiwan’s presidential election will close Beijing’s window of opportunity for military action. Many Mainland Chinese nationalists were disappointed, rather than relieved, by the pro-independence DPP’s poor showing in last November’s local Taiwanese elections. This counterintuitive reaction reveals an alarming calculus: should a weakened Tsai and the DPP lose the presidency in 2020 to a more pro-China candidate, the opportunity for “forceful reunification” would be lost. “What a pity,” one Weibo user from Beijing wrote about the DPP’s losses. “We could be further away from the day of reunification.” It is the hated DPP that gives Chinese nationalists a pretext to take Taiwan back now.
That disappointment has fed a sense of urgency among many Chinese nationalists. “I request that Mainland China issue a timetable for reunification,” one outraged Weibo user wrote in November. “Whether peaceful or forceful, please don’t drag this out again and again.”
The 2020 U.S. presidential election also looms in the minds of Chinese nationalists. Trump looks less likely to win reelection after Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms, and many Chinese worry that a Trump loss would make forceful reunification harder. Trump is seen as a businessman and isolationist willing to bargain Taiwan away. “America will sell Taiwan out in the blink of an eye,” a People’s Daily editorial claimed last year. (Few Chinese recognize the possibility that Trump might respond forcefully to an attack on Taiwan to rally support at home.) A Trump successor, “forceful reunification” advocates fear, may not be so willing to cut a deal.
Some in Beijing even think China can retake Taiwan without violence. China may “break the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” Wang Zaixi told the Global Times in 2017. Just as the Communist Party seized Beijing in 1949 without shooting a single bullet, he argued, China could capture Taiwan peacefully by surrounding the island, imposing economic sanctions, and cutting off its oil supply. “No need to shed blood,” he concluded.
The idea that China can force reunification without fighting is delusional and dangerous. Tightening the military or economic noose around Taiwan would likely provoke a reaction from the United States. Given popular nationalist pressures, Beijing would then feel compelled to respond. Things could get out of control fast. All sides need to wake up to the dangers of backing into a conflict that few want.