China's designs on Taiwan

Recent belligerent actions raise fears that China may try to seize Taiwan by force. What would happen?

A statue.
(Image credit: An Rong Xu/Getty Images)

Recent belligerent actions raise fears that China may try to seize Taiwan by force. What would happen? Here's everything you need to know:

What has China been doing?

The Chinese military routinely rehearses an invasion of Taiwan, and has even created a life-size mockup of the presidential building for its bombers to practice targeting. Chinese warplanes intrude into Taiwan's airspace so frequently that Taipei, with its much smaller military, cannot afford to scramble its jets in response every time. In the past few months, Beijing has dramatically scaled up these provocations, sending an aircraft carrier group to the island and flying some 25 fighter jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace in a single day. Because Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in early 2022, few analysts believe an invasion is likely this year, but U.S. military leaders predict a possible takeover attempt within the next six years. That would pose a huge problem for the U.S.: While Washington severed formal ties with the island in 1979 to establish relations with China and has no defense treaty with Taiwan, a law requires the U.S. to ensure Taiwan can defend itself. President Biden last week dispatched a delegation of U.S. officials to Taipei in a show of support, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that it would be a "serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force."

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Why does China want Taiwan?

Lying just 80 miles from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan was part of China for centuries. It was then occupied by Japan from 1895 until the end of World War II. After Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won China's civil war in 1949, U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island and set up a rival Republic of China, but Beijing has always considered it a renegade province. When the U.N. admitted China in 1971, it kicked Taiwan out; ever since, the U.S. has held to a carefully worded doctrine that both sides of the Taiwanese Strait are "one China," leaving ambiguous which side is the legitimate government. President Xi Jinping wants his legacy to be the restoration of "Greater China," with total control over Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the ethnic-minority provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. He has explicitly threatened "the use of force" to reclaim Taiwan.

Why would the U.S. intervene?

For one thing, Taiwan is the world's top maker of advanced semiconductors, and Washington does not want to see Beijing seize control of that critical technology. Then, too, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy in a region that has few. China's recent assertion of control over Hong Kong, which has seen its freedoms drastically curtailed, shows that Taiwan's 24 million people would be badly repressed. For the U.S., losing Taiwan would be a crippling blow to American prestige. To abandon our commitment to Taiwan's de facto independence would be a diplomatic earthquake on par with the 1956 British loss of the Suez Canal, which signaled the end of the empire. China would effectively replace the U.S. as the world's predominant superpower.

Why is China acting now?

China fears that the goal of reunification may be getting further away. While Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has not explicitly called for formal independence — something just 32 percent of Taiwanese would support — she has begun trying to lessen her country's dependence on mainland trade. The U.S. has sold Taiwan billions of dollars' worth of weapons over the years, including $5 billion last year alone, and China may feel that the best time to act is soon, before Taipei can strengthen its military. Chinese aggression in other arenas with little international pushback has also likely emboldened Chinese military leaders.

How would an invasion occur?

Beijing could blockade Taiwan, depriving it of oil, gas, and food until it surrenders. Or it could launch a massive surprise attack, overwhelming the island before the U.S. could send help. First, cyberstrikes could cripple U.S. satellites monitoring Chinese missile launches, then bombers could destroy command centers while paratroopers swooped in to establish a beachhead for tens of thousands of soldiers to land. If the People's Liberation Army got boots on the ground fast, the takeover could be a fait accompli, and the U.S. would face a decision about whether to go to war with a nuclear-armed foe halfway around the world. A military conflict with China, no matter how it ended, would be devastating to both economies, which heavily depend on trade with each other.

What are the U.S. options?

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recommends that the U.S. give an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan militarily in order to deter a Chinese attack. "A failed bid to 'reunify' Taiwan with China" would severely wound the Communist Party's hold on its people, he said, "and that is a risk Xi is unlikely to take." Other analysts recommend that the U.S. station more troops in the region, perhaps even on Taiwan itself, to act as a trip wire, much as the U.S. presence in South Korea deters North Korea. But a slow buildup of U.S. forces in the region might simply trigger Beijing to move against Taiwan immediately. Mass casualties and international condemnation "may be a price Xi Jinping is willing to pay," says China expert Ian Easton. "We underestimate the Chinese Communist Party's capacity for radical decision making at our peril."

China's other territorial ambitions

Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, China has been exerting its internationally contested claim to fisheries and mineral resources in nearly the entire South China Sea by building artificial islands and stationing military equipment on them. Neither the Obama nor the Trump administration punished China for that in any meaningful way, and Beijing is now loudly insisting on its sovereignty over islands long claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and others. Last April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands, which both countries claim. Last month, Beijing deployed a militia fleet near the Philippines' Whitsun Reef, prompting the Biden administration to send an aircraft carrier unit and assault ship and warn that an armed attack on any Philippine vessel would "trigger our obligations under the mutual defense treaty." China backed down — this time.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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