Did China Just Swerve?

In October 2020, Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley received intelligence indicating that Chinese leaders feared that the U.S. sought to prod China into a war over Taiwan as a means for shoring up President Donald Trump’s political fortunes. Milley called his Chinese counterpart to assure the Chinese that U.S. intentions were peaceful.

Yet this brief moment of reassurance has not dissuaded the two superpowers from ramping up their game of chicken over Taiwan over the past year. President Biden has continued to raise the level of U.S. official contact with Taiwan’s government. Biden approved a major new arms package for Taiwan while deploying U.S. war ships through the Taiwan Strait and conducting naval and air exercises with Taiwanese and allied forces. Biden has openly courted Japanese and Australian engagement in future military contingencies involving Taiwan’s defense. Most recently, news reports revealed the secret deployment of a small contingent of U.S. Marines on a training mission to Taiwan over the past year.

For its parts, China has dramatically upped the tempo of PLA war planes crossing through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and carried out threatening missile tests in the waters off of Taiwan. After a decade-long military buildup, American and Taiwanese analysts believe that China’s is now capable of successfully invading and occupying Taiwan, even if U.S. forces come to Taiwan’s assistance. China’s rhetorical warfare against Taiwan’s current policies and leadership has also reached new heights, with Chinese President Xi Jinping threatening in July to “smash” any Taiwanese move toward formal independence of the mainland.

Yet amidst these unprecedented tensions, Xi gave a relatively conciliatory speech on October 9 in which he declared: “achieving unification through peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots.” Xi avoided repetition of his past insistence that Beijing reserves the right to use military force to resolve what the Chinese Communist Party regards as an internal matter that engages China’s sovereign rights. Moreover, Chinese spokespersons responded rather mildly to the explosive news of U.S. Marines stationed in Taiwan and apparently tamped down nationalist responses on social media.

Why the shift in tone? In part, Xi is no doubt responding to prior American moves that signal Biden’s desire to reduce tensions. These include a phone conversation between the two presidents in which Biden restated America’s commitment to a “one China” policy that recognizes the CCP as the sole government of mainland China. U.S. prosecutor’s also reached a deal that led to the release of Meng … by Canadian authorities and her return to China.

From another perspective, however, Xi’s apparent shift from threat to conciliation is illusory. From Beijing perspective, independence and unification are two very different things calling for differing responses. The CCP threatens military force as a tool to deter Taiwan from taking formal steps to declare independence from the mainland. Whenever Taiwan appears to be inching toward formal independence through incremental steps, the CCP responds with dire warnings and displays of military power.

While describing unification as “inevitable,” on the other hand, Xi and the CCP leadership consistently express a desire that this end be achieved through peaceful means. Moreover, Xi has refrained from setting a deadline for fulfilling the goal of unification. Taiwanese independence, in other words, must be resisted at all costs, including those entailed by war. Unification, however, can wait. The ambiguities of the status quo are tolerable, even if unsatisfactory from Beijing’s standpoint.

Xi understands that even a successful invasion of Taiwan would be tremendously costly and raise the risks of nuclear war.

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