This past weekend, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began her highly anticipated trip to Asia. A Chinese nationalist’s tweet calling the People’s Liberation Army to shoot down Pelosi’s plane if she visits Taiwan had people speculating if World War III was about to happen.
Such a reaction was overblown, but undoubtedly, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping is determined to take control of Taiwan. He is unlikely to do so at the moment, however, due to domestic challenges.
Xi’s Domestic Challenges
There is a lot of speculation regarding Xi’s plans to invade Taiwan. From a military perspective, Xi is well prepared. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has the world’s largest navy, measured by fleet size, including a recently launched third aircraft carrier. Since 2020, the PLA has sent thousands of military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone. Additionally, the PLA has conducted several military exercises near Taiwan, amounting to rehearsals of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
Besides war preparation, the Chinese government has stepped up its aggressive rhetoric over the past year. At an international security conference in Singapore this past June, China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe warned, “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost.” China’s ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, reiterated a similar stand during his fireside chat at the Aspen Security Forum last month.
Xi has the political will and military power to invade Taiwan, but his most urgent task right now is to ensure he will have a third term as the leader of China at the 20th Party Congress in the fall. Should Xi attain a third term, his reign would be in contradiction with the two-term limit written in China’s Constitution by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.
Although Xi faces no apparent challengers, he is not likely to involve China in a significant military conflict before a major political maneuver. Some predict that after he secures his third term, “Xi will be back with a vengeance.” He is more likely to invade Taiwan once he has “uncontested authority and the full power of the Chinese state behind him.”
China’s current economic challenges might have also dissuaded Xi from attacking Taiwan. China’s economic growth fell to 0.4 percent in the second quarter of this year, caused by the government’s harsh zero-Covid policy that has kept millions of people and businesses under strict lockdowns.
For Xi, invading Taiwan amid this growing social-economical instability at home is unwise. He is assertive and determined but not crazy. Suppose Pelosi visits Taiwan. Xi has many options to respond without triggering a war with either Taiwan or the United States. Xi could send more fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, send a Chinese aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, and launch military exercises. Right on cue, as Pelosi began her trip to Asia, the PLA conducted live-fire drills near Taiwan’s coast and even posted videos of missile strikes.
Such actions will allow Beijing to live up to its promised intimidation and allow Chinese leadership to save face on the international stage by displaying its displeasure when Xi has other more pressing matters to deal with.
Why Is the CCP Obsessed with Taiwan?
That Taiwan is safe for now doesn’t mean it will be safe for a long time.
The Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with taking over Taiwan has been driven by political, national security, and economic factors. The separation between the mainland and Taiwan was the legacy of China’s Civil War, fought between the ruling Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
After losing the Civil War, the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, bringing the government of the Republic of China with it. The CCP regards a separate governing in Taiwan as a threat to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Taiwan’s thriving democracy today has also exposed the CCP’s lie that democracy is incompatible with the Chinese people and culture.
Taiwan, like a mirror, constantly reflects the flaws of the one-party political system in mainland China. The CCP doesn’t want mainland Chinese people to draw inspiration from Taiwan and demand political reform in China. Therefore, the CCP sees Taiwan as a threat to be eliminated.
From a geopolitical perspective, the CCP regards Taiwan’s strategic location in the South China Sea — and the island’s close tie with the United States — as a security threat. Taking control of Taiwan will allow China to claim the Taiwan Strait is no longer international water and thus prevent the U.S. Navy from sailing through it. This would put an alleged security threat farther away from the Chinese mainland.
Controlling Taiwan will also allow Beijing to absorb Taiwan’s economy, which is the world’s 21st largest, and in particular, boost China’s struggling semiconductor industry. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), a major supplier of tech firms including Apple, accounted for more than half of the chip sales globally last year. TSMC is dominant in making the most cutting-edge chips in the world, an area in which Chinese chipmakers still lag behind despite receiving billions of government subsidies through the “Made-in-China 2025” industrial plan.
To further Chinese chipmakers’ growing pains, the former Trump administration blacklisted China’s largest chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, preventing the firm from accessing the technology and machinery it needs from the U.S. If China controls TSMC, it will not only eliminate China’s semiconductor industry’s dependency on the U.S. overnight but also enable China to retaliate against the U.S. by preventing U.S. tech firms from accessing chips they need from TSMC.
Besides economic, political, and security reasons, Xi also has personal reasons. He models himself after great emperors of Chinese history who have been immortalized for their territorial conquests. Folding Taiwan into China is part of Xi’s “China dream.” He sees it as both his destiny and legacy to get it done. But he will only do it when the timing and conditions guarantee him a quick and decisive victory.
Although Xi is not likely to attack Taiwan right now, the United States doesn’t have the luxury of time. Therefore, it’s deeply concerning that the Biden administration, distracted by its domestic woke agenda and the Russia-Ukraine war, hasn’t come up with an effective strategy to deter Xi from invading Taiwan. Without American support, Taiwan’s 22 million residents may lose their freedom sooner than previously thought.