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In Starker Terms Than Ever, China Threatens War Over Taiwan

At a recent conference, China was defiant and confrontational and the Biden administration continued to be ambiguous and uninspiring.

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China’s defense minister threatened to go to war over Taiwan at the Shangri-La Dialogue Conference in Singapore last weekend.  

The annual conference was organized by the United Kingdom-based International Institute of Strategic Studies and aims to bring Asian and Western defense ministers together to discuss security issues through friendly dialogue. But it was less a dialogue and more a war of words. China was defiant and confrontational and the Biden administration continued to be ambiguous and uninspiring, but Japan surprisingly stepped up its game.

The Chinese delegation was led by China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe, who insisted that the “Development of the military of China is never intended to threaten others or to seek hegemony. China is never a threat and has never threatened any others.” Yet Wei quickly discredited his own talking point by repeatedly threatening war over Taiwan.

In his meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sideline of the Singapore conference, Wei declared, “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost.” He further vowed that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “smash to smithereens any Taiwan independence plot and resolutely uphold the unification of the motherland.” International observers, including Taiwanese officials, pointed to Wei’s defiant language as evidence that China is in fact “the source of major unrest in the region.”

Unprecedented War Talk

Then Wei used his speech on the conference’s final day to reiterate that Taiwan “is a province of China … If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs. And we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.” Furthermore, Wei said Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China is an “historical trend that no one or no force can stop.”

Communist China drawing a red line on the Taiwan issue was nothing new. Beijing has long insisted that Taiwan is part of Communist China’s territory. But Chinese government officials usually deployed war-like language on the Taiwan issue only when addressing a domestic audience. To an international audience, Beijing’s official line on Taiwan had always been that China would seek a “peaceful” reunification with Taiwan, but wouldn’t rule out using force to make it happen. 

No other Chinese officials have made an explicit threat of war over Taiwan on the international stage, especially in front of American officials, like Wei did. That’s why Wei’s remarks became headline news around the world.

War Preparation

Wei’s belligerent war talk isn’t an empty threat. The Chinese government has stepped up its war preparations. The PLA has built the world’s largest navy, measured by fleet size. Since 2020, the PLA has sent thousands of military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone, including 30 such incursions in last month alone.

In addition to harassing and intimidating Taiwan’s air defense, China’s Air Force sent fighter jets from one of its militarized islands in the South China Sea to intercept Australian and Canadian military planes over international waters, resulting in dangerous encounters. The PLA has conducted several military exercises near Taiwan, with each exercise amounting to a full-scale rehearsal of an invasion of Taiwan. 

China has also expanded its nuclear weapons development program rapidly in recent years, including developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry multiple nuclear warheads and hit the continental United States. China has kept its nuclear program in secrecy and refused to join the United States in nuclear arms-control talks. Wei claimed that China’s nuclear arsenal buildup was justified for self-defense, but The Wall Street Journal, quoting people familiar with Chinese leadership’s thinking, said China’s nuclear weapons buildup is driven by a possible clash with the United States over Taiwan.

Muted U.S. Response

In contrast to Wei’s unmistakable threat, U.S. Defense Secretary Austin offered a rather muted response. He reiterated that Washington remains committed to the “one-China policy.” Furthermore, he stressed that the United States stands “firmly behind the principle that cross-strait differences must be resolved by peaceful means,” but would continue to fulfill its commitments to Taiwan. He didn’t explain what those commitments are.

While Austin’s words were technically correct, they sounded weak and uninspiring. He missed a great opportunity to forcefully push back China’s war threat and clarify U.S. policy on Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. His lack of clarity failed to reassure U.S. allies in Asia.

It also didn’t help that three times, President Biden publicly declared that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, only to have his aides walk back his statements, suggesting he didn’t mean what he said each time. In the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead wrote that America’s traditional allies such as Indonesia are “tuning the Americans out” because they perceive the Biden administration has a credibility issue.

Japan’s Strong Response

Surprisingly, Japan demonstrated how to inspire confidence in allies and stand up to China convincingly. Given the geographical proximity of Taiwan and Japan, Japan regards a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as a direct threat to Japan’s security. Influential Japanese politicians such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been vocal about defending Taiwan.

One of the Singapore conference’s highlights was Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcement that Japan would “fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities within the next five years.” Citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early this year as a wake-up call for Japan, Kishida warned that “Ukraine today may be the East Asia [of] tomorrow.” Without naming China directly, he said, “We must be prepared for the emergence of an entity that tramples on the peace and security of other countries by force or threat without honoring the rules.”

Kishida promised to dramatically increase Japan’s defense budget,  referring to the defense target of NATO members, 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as Japan’s new goal. Currently, Japan’s defense spending is close to 1 percent of its GDP. Kishida also pledged to provide aid to Indo-Pacific countries, spending “at least $2 billion over the next three years for maritime security equipment, including patrol vessels, and to support maritime transportation infrastructure.”

One important lesson the world should learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that we must take war threats from autocracies seriously. Putin had warned the West for years that he intended to invade Ukraine. He was emboldened after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 met a muted response from the West.

Last year, Putin released a manifesto to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But few governments, including the Biden administration, took Putin’s threat seriously. A few months later, Putin did exactly what he vowed to do, and the West was still caught unprepared and scrambled to respond.

China has always been very transparent about its intentions toward Taiwan. Wei’s war threat in Singapore offered further clarification of what Beijing plans to do. Ignoring China’s repeated warnings would be a grave mistake.