WASHINGTON — The chances that China will invade Taiwan have increased, but the risk might be too great, two experts said at a conference in Washington, D.C.
“As each day, week, month and year pass over the course of the next decade, there will be increasing pressure within Zhongnanhai to use force,” James Fanell, former U.S. Pacific Fleet director of intelligence and information operations, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference. Zhongnanhia is the headquarters of the Communist Party of China.
But Tim Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corp., said at the conference Wednesday that China knows using military force could strengthen alliances trying to dampen Chinese growth as a global leader.
In 1949, China’s Communist Party defeated the Nationalist army, known as the Republic of China, and founded the People’s Republic of China. The ROC evacuated to Taiwan and made Taipei its capital.
Since then, the PRC uses the term “One China Principle,” sometimes referred to as the “One China Policy,” to assert its claim of one sovereign state under the name China that includes Taiwan.
Since the election of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen in 2016, tensions between China and Taiwan have increased over the new president’s criticism of unification and the One China Policy. Communication between Chinese and Taiwanese diplomats was suspended shortly afterward the election.
In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China “reserves the option to use all necessary measures to unite Taiwan with the mainland, including use of force.”
The escalations continued in March when two Chinees fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait and then in August when Beijing suspended individual travel to Taiwan. By September, the number of mainlanders traveling to the island had dropped nearly 50 percent.
All of these activities represent a trend line, Fanell said, that the Chinese leadership is pressuring Taiwan to accept a political solution but is “ready to have the capability to take Taiwan by military force.”
China takes unification seriously, Fanell said, and its hard-line approach to demonstrations in Hong Kong and its military buildup are not negotiation tactics.
“Unfortunately, experience has shown that for China, a win-win solution is heads I win, tails you lose,” he said.
Heath argued that a decision to invade Taiwan would leave China worse off because it would raise the risk of a large-scale war and strengthen alliances between the United States and countries in the Asian-Pacific region. Those alliances could lead to an anti-China coalition.
“An invasion could spell the end of the pursuit of national rejuvenation,” Heath said. “A war with the U.S. and the region puts many of these goals at risk.”
A decision to invade would not be made in a vacuum, Heath said, but would be in response to influences from other countries and events in the region. Support for unification in China is below 10 percent and even lower among younger generations.
Taiwan has ruled itself for 85 years. With a long record of self-rule and China’s poor management of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, he continued, China has done little to make itself attractive to residents of Taiwan.
Even by 2049, however, Heath does not see any way that China and Taiwan will peacefully unify. One possible approach for a peaceful unification, he believes, is by working with the United States as a broker between the two countries, as well as others in the region.
A peaceful approach is important, Heath said, because an invasion is a recipe for a “very unstable occupation” — a majority of the people in Taiwan and China do not want unification, he said, and he doesn’t see how it will help China’s reputation.
Fanell countered: “People do irrational things when it’s not ultimately in their best interest.”