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The Possibility of a Cross Strait Conflict in Taiwan

Michelle Liou

Posted on February 5, 2021 17:57

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“The US should realize that China must and will be reunified [with Taiwan], and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation must and will be achieved,” states Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, a top Chinese military official.

The relationship between Taiwan and China is complex — while Taiwan asserts complete independence from China, Beijing believes that Taiwan is its territory. Espousing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, Beijing hopes to reincorporate the island. As time passes, however, Taiwan seems to stray further away from China’s grasp.

To align with our China policy, the US has not openly encouraged nor supported Taiwan's independence. Nonetheless, the US has been backing the democratic island through arms sales and policies such as Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative and the Taiwan Relations Act. Yet, instead of deterring China, these actions seem to be exacerbating tensions and stimulating Chinese aggression. 

For example, in May of 2020, the Chinese government removed the word “peaceful” when referencing reunification with Taiwan, indicating a willingness to use force. Furthermore, Chinese military activity in the region has signaled a renewed ambition to reunify. More recently, in December 2020, Beijing enacted gray zone warfare in which the PRC military intimidates and exhausts Taiwan into submission without initiating a full-scale conflict.  

The growing risk of military escalation isn't only due to Chinese belligerence but also because of growing Taiwanese confidence. The Cato Institute states that US arms sales signal American commitment to Taiwanese independence which may encourage Taiwan “to engage in provocative behavior that aggravates China and in turn, encourages Beijing to act more aggressively.” In 2018, for instance, Taiwan took a provocative stance by sending ships and aircraft to shadow a Chinese aircraft carrier group. Also, the Pentagon reported Taiwan is developing asymmetric warfare concepts to counter Chinese military capabilities, which might further exasperate China.

Amid rising tensions, the Taiwan Strait is showing visible signs of escalation into a conventional crisis. In September, Chinese warplanes crossed the sensitive median line across the narrow strait over 40 times in three days, while Taiwan expressed intent to retaliate a month later. New reports say that Chinese jets made a record of 380 incursions over the Taiwan Strait midline in 2020, with Taiwan spending almost $900 million on its air force in response. Hence, the risk of cross-strait conflict is higher now, more than ever. 

If China is emboldened to invade Taiwan and succeeds in doing so, they would gain access to a major trading control point, have further ability to project power in the South China Sea, and strengthen their military advantage geographically. Strategic ambiguity has kept the peace for years, but is it time for the US to take a different approach to an increasingly belligerent China? Most importantly, should we call for peaceful reunification, or commit to Taiwanese independence? 

Michelle Liou

Posted on February 5, 2021 17:57

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The military drills near the Taiwan Strait comes as China accuses the US and Taiwan of "collusion".

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