War around the corner?

Many in the West appear oblivious to the reality that Chinese leadership is clearly signaling its intent to take Taiwan by force.

China’s rhetoric over Taiwan has become openly threatening, putting Xi Jinping under mounting pressure to deliver on his promise to take over the island.

In the Western world and especially in Europe, many are evoking reasons why Beijing will not use force to bring Taiwan under its control. Commentators cling to the illusion that President Xi Jinping is less nationalistic and more rational than Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and that he will therefore not risk an escalation and open conflict with the United States.

Is that really so?

Reality check

Taiwan is an island off the Chinese shore in the Western Pacific with some 24 million inhabitants. It has a highly sophisticated and productive economy. It is the world’s main supplier of microprocessors. Its largest trading partner by far is mainland China.

Mao Zedong, the first communist leader of China, already made claims to Taiwan after former President Chiang Kai-Shek and his army took refuge on the island in 1949. Up until 1971, Taiwan was considered the only legitimate representative of the Chinese state by the United Nations.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping – a great reformer and engineer of China’s economic success – coined the principle of “one country, two systems” to gradually integrate Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both Hong Kong and Macao were successfully incorporated into the two-system framework, with benefits for both sides. Taiwan, however, defended its sovereignty and system. More recently, President Xi did away with the “two systems” principle in Hong Kong.

President Xi now finds himself in the partially self-inflicted position of having to “reintegrate” the island.

Mr. Xi disrupted the course initiated by Deng Xiaoping: gain strength, power and prosperity while keeping a low political profile. The goal was to boost the economy and technology while improving international relations and defense capabilities. Now the new leader is focusing on power, nationalism and communist ideology. He removed the 10-year limit on his term in office, introduced lectures on his statements and views in schools and restricted the teaching of English. These policies will most likely prove detrimental in the long term. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current preference for more state intervention in the economy and additional privileges for state-owned businesses will certainly backfire. However, it may help Beijing reach its political objectives in the short term.

War effort 

For the CCP, modernizing the defense and naval sector is an absolute priority. For a few years now, President Xi has been increasing pressure on Taiwan. The CCP’s Central Committee has recently published a new white paper entitled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.” The document reads like an official strategy. It was presented by the party’s spokesperson as follows: “As China’s national rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability, we now have better conditions, more confidence, and greater capabilities to achieve national reunification. As China embarks on a new journey to build a modern socialist country in all respects, it is necessary to issue a new white paper on national reunification.” The wording “historical inevitability” sends a very strong message, with no room to backstep.

In previous official documents, reunification with Taiwan was described as a peaceful process. The “one country, two systems” option was envisaged (whether this was genuine has now come under question). There were no mentions of military presence, and an independent administration was considered. This stance is completely overturned by this white paper, which clearly lays out that military occupation is justified if reunification cannot be achieved otherwise. Nationalism is a key theme, and the words “one blood” are used to describe ties between Taiwan and the mainland.

In fact, President Xi now finds himself in the partially self-inflicted position of having to “reintegrate” the island. Finding a way to take back this goal would be difficult, given the extent to which his government has indoctrinated the people and the political elite.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be seen by Washington as a major threat to the U.S. West Coast.

And there are other reasons that might compel Beijing to act by force. China is prevented from accessing the open Pacific Ocean by the so-called U.S. ring of defense, formed by South Korea and Japan in the north, all the way through Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the south. These countries are all American allies – with the exception of Vietnam, but Hanoi collaborates closely with Washington to contain Beijing. 

If China intends to challenge U.S. hegemony – and it clearly has plans to do so – it will have to break through this ring. Taking Taiwan would serve this purpose. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be seen by Washington as a major threat to the U.S. West Coast.

The world is fragmenting as a result of this rivalry. China is curbing tourism. Its farsighted plan to implement a circular economy could also double as a war economy. In the global south as well as in Central Asia, China is increasing its influence, not only  in terms of economic and diplomatic presence but also naval and military might. Russia, now isolated on the world stage, has become very close to the Chinese camp.

As the world’s biggest supplier of microchips, Taiwan is an attractive prize, especially in the short term. The U.S. and Europe have finally realized that a foreign dependence on such a critical supply could prove disastrous, and they are developing plans to boost domestic production. But this could motivate China to act sooner than later, especially since it too depends on those supplies.

Europe is now understandably focused on Ukraine. A war over Taiwan would have a global dimension and would require the U.S.’s full attention. In Washington, Ukraine is seen as rather a local conflict. European countries should be prepared. If conflict breaks out in the Pacific, the burden of supporting Ukraine will shift. The U.S. will expect Berlin, Paris, London and others to step in.

Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and peaceful global democratic future have turned out to be illusions. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” appears to be prevailing.

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