When Chinese President Xi Jinping said last week that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China, he meant it. In a speech marking 40 years since Beijing’s call to end the military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, Xi warned that China reserved the right to use force to bring about a reunification. The next day, Xi met with the Central Military Commission to prepare for armed conflict. In the current geostrategic environment in East Asia, such comments and actions are only a further signal of what may be approaching by 2020 and 2021.
Taiwan’s anti-unification President Tsai Ing-wen countered by saying that Taiwan would never accept reunification with China under any terms offered by Beijing. She said: “I want to reiterate that Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems.’ The vast majority of Taiwanese public opinion also resolutely opposes ‘one country, two systems,’ and this is also the ‘Taiwan consensus’.”
Importantly, for almost 70 years, Taiwan has maintained self-rule. Yet Taiwan’s de facto independence comes at the cost of denied recognition from and membership of the UN instigated by Chinese claims of sovereign rights over the island. By pulling multiple levers, Beijing has discouraged governments around the world from officially recognizing Taiwan or forming any official diplomatic relations with the administration in Taipei. As a result, Taiwan only enjoys full diplomatic relations with fewer than 20 UN member states.
Despite failing to receive recognition as an official state, Taiwan has become one of Asia’s biggest traders and holds a position in the top category of computer technology producers. Taiwan’s role as an important gateway to trade investment in East Asia and mainland China has helped it slowly develop deep economic relations around the world.
Xi’s speech means that Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula, which would make Taiwan like Hong Kong in terms of administration and economy and thus allow China to tap into its industrial advantages, is still a “go” regardless of Taipei’s outlook. Taipei will have nothing to do with Xi’s project for national rejuvenation, where Taiwan represents a lost province refusing to go along with a mainland philosophical requirement concerning “One China.” Tellingly, in the age of interconnectivity, the presidential confrontation is creating a vicious debate, not only on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, but also among the ethnic Chinese diaspora around the world.
With just two years to go until the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, combined with the Taiwanese presidential election in 2020, Beijing seeks to bring Taiwan back under the mainland’s umbrella through reunification. As we know, such a plan is vehemently opposed by Taiwan itself, but also by the US, which has a robust defense relationship with Taipei.
China’s toolkit is wide ranging, depending on the type of pressure Xi intends to bring upon Taiwan at the expense of relations with the US and other Pacific neighbors. China has the most active navy in Asia and has been thinking, practicing and building its armed forces around a scenario involving Taiwan.
The toolkit also sees China sending aircraft and naval vessels across Taiwanese territory and harassing Taiwanese assets and capabilities on a regular basis. Beijing also forces certain notable Taiwanese with business on the mainland to publicly admit they are Chinese and supporters of reunification. China has also encroached on Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic ties, and strong-armed foreign airlines to locate Taiwan as a province of China.
China uses various tactics through information operations to influence Taiwan’s political parties, while also psychologically preparing the Taiwanese populace for reunification. Beijing is arguing that the Han ethnic group in Taiwan is very unhappy about Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) politicians trying to erase their identity. It is a calculated and assertive program that is now being egged on further by Xi. Cultural identity within the Chinese populations across the Taiwan Strait is a powerful driver that sees the mainland able to push this agenda with ease against a democratic system that is subject to scandal and personal interests.
For the US, the China-Taiwan scenario is front and center because of the shifting nature of the US global defense posture to focus on East Asia. Importantly, we must recall that Donald Trump’s decision to be the first US president/president-elect to speak with a Taiwanese leader since the 1970s unleashed anger in mainland China. Now locked in a tariff war with Beijing and a heightening of rhetoric surrounding intense Chinese maritime activity, the Trump administration is increasingly getting ready for a potential China confrontation.
What the above all means is that geopolitical analysts cannot ignore the risks of the following potential scenario. It’s 2020 and the Trump administration’s pro-Taiwan foreign policy prompts officials in Taipei to declare independence on the heels of its presidential election, resulting in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcefully reuniting Taiwan on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Within three days, the PLA captures the island and secures it under Beijing’s control, creating ripples throughout the entire Pacific region and beyond.
Significantly, there is a Middle East twist. Although this “China storms Taiwan” scenario would unfold far from the region’s shores, Middle East states must maintain awareness of the Trump administration’s policy toward the ongoing dispute and be cognizant of Chinese moves and motives on and against Taiwan, especially if and when there is political and economic fallout for the future of the Trump presidency.
Finally, a key question is whether or not the Arab states will see eye-to-eye on Trump’s use of Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China. With Trump, the Middle East faces a different geo-economic reality, with the US continuing its aggressive style with China and vice versa. Consequently, the stakes are very high indeed.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former Advisor and Director of Research for a number of UAE institutions. Dr. Karasik was a Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, Middlesex University Dubai, and the University of Wollongong Dubai where he taught “Labor and Migration” and “Global Political Economy” at the graduate level. Dr. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. Throughout Dr. Karasik’s career, he has worked for numerous U.S. agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religio-political issues across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism. Dr. Karasik lived in the UAE for 10 years and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles.