On October 16, at the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping gained an unpreceded third term. The CCP gathering has consolidated Xi’s grip over the party and perhaps a reflection of that was evident in his unabashed triumphalism, particularly vis-à-vis Taiwan. Xi remarked, “We will safeguard the overall interests of the Chinese nation and take resolute steps to oppose “Taiwan independence” and promote reunification. Resolving the Taiwan question is that must be resolved by the Chinese,” he asserted and added, “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary”.
There are also reports that Xi has issued orders to the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) to be prepared to attack the island by 2027. However, the US intelligence community believes that Beijing may change its plans and annex Taiwan by as early as 2024, which might coincide with the Taiwanese presidential elections scheduled to take place in January 2024, an event that Beijing believes may give further impetus to the pro-independence sentiments. In 2017, President Xi speaking at the 19th Party Congress had stated that “complete national reunification is an inevitable requirement for realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – a possible cue towards the 2049 deadline. In 2019, the Chinese leader reiterated the formula that Taiwan be incorporated into China under the idea of “one country, two systems” – the same formula applied to Hong Kong.
Tensions between the two countries reached their peak earlier this year when US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August. A furious Beijing coerced Taiwanese government, launched cyber attacks against Taipei and launched the largest ever military exercises around the island nation. It also termed Pelosi’s visit as a “dangerous, reckless and irresponsible provocation”. China and the PLA forces introduced several threatening “firsts” to deter Taiwan, including joint firepower exercises in seven areas surrounding Taiwan and inside the island nation’s territorial seas, unprecedented over flight of Taiwan by numerous Chinese short-range ballistic missiles and largest number of Chinese aircrafts till date, i.e. 30 that crossed the centreline of the strait. Latest capabilities like flying drones over the Taiwan-occupied Kinmen and Matsu islands were also deployed this time.
At a time when its ‘Werewolf diplomacy’ has brought brickbats from the global community, China has chosen to leave no stone unturned to mount pressure on Taiwan. Beijing has always vowed to unify Taiwan into the mainland forcefully. Towards this end, it has also sought to weaken Taiwan’s democratic polity, which stands in sharp contrast to China’s one-party authoritarian Communist rule. China has been isolating Taiwan by enticing many countries to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in return for Chinese aid and investment promises. Taiwan has accused China of bribing politicians in some countries to recognise China over Taiwan, as was evident in the Solomon Islands and Guatemala cases.
However, since the ascent of Madam Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency in 2016, Taiwan has rebuffed China’s moves by upgrading its military capabilities. To counter China’s maritime aggression, Taiwan is investing in a national submarine capability. President Tsai has also increasingly gotten close to the United States. Under the Taiwan Relations Act 1979, the United States is committed to making sure that Taiwan can defend itself. Under the Biden administration, Washington has toughened its approach towards China vis-à-vis defending Taiwan’s sovereignty. Repeated statements from the top tier of the US administration have hinted that Washington will defend Taiwan even militarily if at all a war breaks out.
In response to China’s cross-Taiwan Strait adventurism, the US has expanded its assistance to Taiwan. It is supporting Taiwan’s submarine development programme by allowing U.S. defence companies to sell technology. Besides, the US has plans to offer more weapons. The Biden administration recently notified Congress of its plan to offer more than $1 billion in weapons and military support to Taiwan. Washington has also sought to substantially expand the Taiwan military training exchange to cover army and naval training programmes.
The US has also been advocating “international space” for Taiwan in forums like G-7, the Quad and other international groups. Although some voices suggest that the US should not set forth a military projection of power in response to Beijing’s acts, the majority of the scholars agree that the US should work with Taiwan to strengthen the bilateral relationship and solidify Taiwan’s international standing. Beijing’s growing attempts to pressurise and threaten Taiwan on all fronts – be it diplomatic, economic or military – have led to a wide-ranging international awareness of the situation of Taiwan. Taiwan is a crucial player in the global value chains since it produces the highest percentage of the world’s semiconductor chips and the geopolitical tensions are disrupting those supply chains.
If the statements made by Xi at the Party Congress are any cue, then one can only speculate that Beijing’s adventurism will only grow in the East China Sea to coerce Taipei to toe its line or face the consequences. The growing pro-freedom/anti-unification sentiments in Taiwan, as reflected in its domestic political discourse, are only likely to fuel China’s anger. The relative success of Taiwan’s democracy and its increasing economic prosperity only aggravate Chinese threat perception. Likewise, the growing nationalistic Chinese domestic public opinion may also spur the Chinese Communist Party to act. Given this increasing assertive and nationalistic posture from China, Taiwan can no longer afford to drop its guard.