China’s Dangerous Long Game in Taiwan

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen / AP

Just over twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton responded to Chinese missile tests and amphibious exercises designed to intimidate Taiwan by dispatching two U.S. aircraft carriers to the vicinity of the island, which lies about 100 miles off the coast of the Communist mainland. In January of this year, China sailed an aircraft carrier—purchased years ago from Russia and commissioned in 2012—leisurely around Taiwan. Times change.

The instigating deed in 1995 that provoked China’s military demonstrations and the strong American response was a trip by the then-president of Taiwan to speak at an alumni weekend at Cornell. China disapproves of visits by Taiwanese leaders to the United States, even though such trips have been heavily restricted since Washington switched its diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The sailing of the Liaoning through the Taiwan Straits this winter occurred following the inauguration of the independence-friendly President Tsai Ing-wen in May and a precedent-rocking December phone call between Tsai and President-elect Donald Trump.

The adage that politics stop at the water’s edge is semi-fictional in America; in the context of China and Taiwan it is meaningless. For Beijing, foreign policy is conditioned by the imperative of the Communist Party to maintain its grip on domestic power. Taiwan’s thriving commercial republic—conceived originally as the exiled government of the mainland, even if such a view is less and less popular among Taiwanese voters—is treated as a dangerous challenge to the Party’s legitimacy. For Taipei’s part, "the mainland" looms over all other political concerns, and is the most important issue that splits the conservative KMT, the island’s founding party, which still holds out the possibility of eventual reunification with China, and the liberal DPP, which arose in the democracy movements of the 1980s and flirts with independence.

Beijing much prefers the KMT to be in power, and has worked doggedly to undermine the new DPP government, which last year took control of the legislature in addition to the presidency. Pressure is exerted economically, with dramatic new restrictions on tourism from the mainland that have led to demonstrations in the streets of Taipei; diplomatically, through Chinese efforts to isolate the island’s government and ensure that its representatives are unwelcome at international confabs like those of the World Heath Assembly and the International Civil Aviation Organization; and militarily, through threatening maneuvers like that of the Liaoning—not to mention constant cyberattacks, political infiltration, and information operations conducted in part through Taiwanese media concerns controlled at a remove by Beijing.

The ultimate guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence is the United States—and what fickle friends we are. Far from being treaty allies, we do not even maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, conducting our diplomacy there from behind the veil of the American Institute in Taiwan, an embassy in all but name. (American diplomats once had to resign temporarily from the Foreign Service to be assigned there, though the practice is no longer observed.) Taiwan’s best American friends have been in the Congress, which in 1979 passed a law that requires us to provide arms for island’s self-defense. But our adherence to the law is often reluctant. Intelligence and military leaders frequently argue that our best technology ought to be held back because the Taiwanese military is thoroughly penetrated by Beijing’s intelligence apparatus. Moreover, even standard arms packages are sometimes held up entirely, typically in an effort to assuage Beijing. My colleague Bill Gertz reports this morning that exactly this happened in December, when the Obama National Security Council blocked a package that had been approved by both the State and Defense departments.

The Free Beacon’s sources expect the Trump administration to reverse this decision, and likely to improve the quality of the arms package, sometime after the president’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping early next month. Considering Beijing’s belligerent behavior in the East and South China Seas and its ongoing efforts to lay the foundations for regional hegemony, an enhanced arms deal would be a welcome aid to deterrence. Loosening restrictions on the travel of Taiwanese government officials to America and of American military personnel to Taiwan would also improve relations. Additionally, following the death of TPP, Taipei is lobbying hard for a bilateral trade deal with the United States. Along with arrangements with Japan and the post-Brexit UK, such a deal is worth considering.

All that said, American strategic planning needs to keep firmly in view the sophistication and long-term nature of China’s designs. Taiwan is a kind of belt-buckle in the so-called "first island chain" that Beijing would like to set as the outer boundary of its regional waters, eventually transforming the chain’s political units—like Japan to Taiwan’s north, and the Philippines to its south—into tributary states. Taiwan is the closest island to China, and the most vulnerable, but the likelihood of a conventional military assault by the People’s Liberation Army, with all the trappings of Normandy or Inchon, is very low in the nuclear age.

More likely is that Beijing will bide its time, waiting for American commitment in the region to diminish and for U.S. allies to grow more sympathetic to China. It will build its military capacity in the South and East China Seas, and improve its ability to deny access there to American forces through the threat or use of advanced weapons. Taking a page from Putin in the Ukraine, it will continue its efforts to manipulate Taiwan’s politics. Then, ten or twenty years from now, some precipitating incident in Taiwan will generate a political crisis. For the security of the region, etc., a Chinese blockade of the island will be declared. Taiwan, dependent on imports, does not require a D-Day to be subdued.

China’s Communist regime pursues hegemony in part because its domestic legitimacy has rested in recent decades on unsustainable economic growth. As the growth flattens out, nationalism and imperialist zeal offer themselves as ready replacements. American planning ought to grapple with the long-term dimensions of China’s actions, and on the domestic vulnerability they suggest.