Is Beijing Preparing for Backdoor Military Aggression Against Taiwan?

This article appeared on The American Conservative on June 8, 2020.
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The recent behavior of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on multiple issues should be setting off alarm bells throughout the international system.

Beijing’s duplicity and attempted blame‐​shifting regarding the coronavirus pandemic is one example, but the decision to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong is even more troubling. That measure greatly dilutes, if not eliminates, Hong Kong’s promised autonomous status. On the heels of that move, the PRC government appears to be turning its malevolent attention to Taiwan.

In a speech on May 21, Premier Li Keqiang noticeably left out the word “peaceful” in referring to Beijing’s intention to “reunify” with Taiwan. That omission signaled an ominous policy shift, even as Beijing’s ties with Taipei already were on a downward spiral. Relations between Taiwan and the mainland have become increasingly tense ever since the landslide victory of Tsai Ing‐​wen and her pro‐​independence Democratic Progressive Party in the island’s 2016 elections. Tsai’s even wider re‐​election victory in January 2020 increased Beijing’s frustration and anger. Among other provocations, Taiwan complains about growing PRC military harassment since the coronavirus pandemic began, with fighter jets and naval vessels regularly approaching the island on drills.

Confirmation that Beijing is no longer committed to “peaceful” reunification came just days after Li’s speech. Speaking on the 15th anniversary of China’s Anti‐​Secession Law (a 2005 measure directed at Taiwan), Gen. Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department and member of the Central Military Commission stated bluntly that China will attack Taiwan if that move becomes necessary to stop it from seeking official independence. Such a statement from one of the PRC’s most senior military leaders indicates that Beijing’s patience on the Taiwan issue is wearing very thin.

Direct military action against Taiwan remains unlikely, however. President Xi Jinping and his associates know that such a move would create a dire crisis with the United States. Washington undertook an obligation under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to regard a PRC attack on Taiwan as “grave breach of the peace.” In addition, the United States has continued to sell Taipei “defensive” weapons (with “defensive” being very broadly defined) throughout the four decades since Washington switched its diplomatic relations to Beijing. The Trump administration has taken multiple new initiatives, with enthusiastic bipartisan congressional support, to strengthen U.S. support for Taiwan. Given that track record, it is highly probable that the United States would respond militarily to a PRC assault on Taiwan.

But U.S. action regarding more indirect coercive measures is less certain. What would happen, for example, if PRC forces moved to take over Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu (two tiny islands just a few miles off the mainland coast), but Beijing emphasized to Washington that it had no intention of moving against Taiwan itself? Even when the PRC repeatedly shelled those islands during the 1950s, Eisenhower administration officials never clearly decided what to do if matters escalated and China actually invaded those islands. At the time, Taipei had strong military garrisons to slow any such attempt, but now Kinmen and Matsu are virtually undefended, and a PRC takeover could occur in a matter of hours with little or no fighting. Would such a provocation (and a fait accompli) over very modest stakes be serious enough for U.S. leaders to risk a full‐​scale war with China?

Beijing has an opportunity for an even more indirect measure that still would humiliate Taipei and send a blunt message about Beijing’s determination to prevent Taiwan’s independence. Taiwan claims two sets of tiny islands in the South China Sea, the largest of which is Taiping in the Spratly chain, and those claims have served as a source of national pride. This summer, China plans a major naval and air power exercise in the immediate vicinity, and speculation exists that those forces could move to seize control of those islands. Most military observers dismiss that possibility, noting that the islands lost whatever strategic value they might have once had for Beijing when the PRC built several artificial islands nearby. However, a takeover would not be primarily for military reasons; the coercive political symbolism would be the driving motive.

Even more than a PRC move against Kinmen and Matsu, such a peripheral provocation would put Washington in a bind. Despite the virulently anti‐​China state of public opinion in the United States, would there be reliable congressional and public support for a U.S. military showdown with China to back Taiwan’s claim to a few miniscule islets in the South China Sea? Such a reservoir of support seems unlikely.

If Xi’s regime wants to test the resolve of Taipei and Washington without incurring an extremely dangerous level of risk, a move against Kinmen and Matsu—or even more tempting, against Taiping and the other remote islets—would be the way to go. Trump administration officials, members of Congress, and the American public all need to ponder what U.S. policy should be if such a challenge materializes. And a decision needs to be made now, not in the midst of a crisis.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.