China’s Military Incursions Around Taiwan Aren’t a Sign of Imminent Attack

The drums of war are growing louder in the Taiwan Strait. In the last month, at least 50 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft have entered Taiwan’s airspace. The volume of threatening language directed at Taiwan from sources in China, both official and unofficial, has reached a crescendo, and the headlines in the news grow more alarming each month. In the United States, mainstream foreign policy voices are now openly debating whether the U.S. should abandon strategic ambiguity and openly commit to defend Taiwan in the case of an attack — an idea advocated not so long ago by only a radical fringe.

But these dire headlines are misleading: Beijing is not gearing up for an attack on Taiwan. It still has neither the capacity to launch a successful full-scale invasion, nor the motive to risk a conflict with the United States. In reality, the increasingly bellicose language coming from China is a sign of weakness, not strength, and a cover for the failure of its own Taiwan policy. Having thrown away most of its non-military leverage in a fruitless effort to compel Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to endorse its one China principle, Beijing has now been reduced to counter-productive saber-rattling to express its discontent at U.S. arms sales and high-level diplomatic visits, while Taiwan races to strengthen its own defenses and reorient its economy away from overdependence on mainland China. In short, Xi Jinping’s approach to the “Taiwan issue” has turned into a strategic fiasco — one that may take years for Beijing to recover from.

Tsai Embraces the Status Quo, Beijing Brings the Pressure

When then-candidate Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the 2016 presidential election in a landslide over the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), Beijing had plenty of forewarning her victory was coming. Tsai’s KMT predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou, was deeply unpopular for most of his second term. Massive protests and a three-week student-led occupation of Taiwan’s legislature helped block the implementation of Ma’s signature achievement, a cross-strait trade agreement, and the KMT’s political standing was left badly damaged as it limped into the 2016 election campaign. As public opinion turned decisively against Ma’s efforts to extend Taiwan’s economic integration with the Chinese mainland, voters overwhelmingly opted for the more China-skeptical DPP to lead Taiwan, handing the party not only the presidency but also a large majority in the legislature for the first time.

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Yet foreign observers, especially in Beijing, often overlook just how cautious and moderate Tsai has actually been on national identity and cross-strait issues since taking office. On the heels of her win in 2016, she faced immense pressure from the pro-independence flank of her party to move forward on long-cherished goals, which could at last be accomplished over KMT objections: changing the name of the country, introducing a new constitution, eliminating other vestiges of the Republic of China (ROC) regime’s links to its mainland Chinese past, and rolling back the cross-strait agreements signed during the Ma administration.

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Nevertheless, Tsai has resisted those calls and instead stuck to centrist, pragmatic positions. In her inauguration speech, she said nothing about Taiwanese independence but pledged to safeguard the constitutional order of the Republic of China (not “Taiwan”), to “cherish and sustain” the cross-strait agreements of her predecessor, and to work to promote the stable and peaceful development of ties with China. On these points, she went further than any DPP leader has ever gone before to embrace the cross-strait status quo. What is more, she went as far as any DPP leader could go and still avoid sparking a revolt from her own party on the first day of her presidency.

Beijing’s response to these rhetorical concessions was simple: not good enough. When Tsai did not endorse the one China principle, Beijing chose to punish her and the DPP by unilaterally and relentlessly changing the cross-strait status quo.

Ever since the Hu Jintao era, Beijing has followed a “dual track” strategy toward Taiwan: it seeks to deter moves toward independence by threatening “hard” military action, but also win over the hearts and minds of Taiwanese with expanded economic and cultural exchanges and “selective engagement” with China-friendly Taiwanese elites. After Tsai took office, however, Beijing supercharged the hard elements of this strategy at the expense of the soft. It cut off the cross-strait hotline and refused to engage in government-to-government talks. It restarted the competition for diplomatic recognition, eventually flipping seven of Taiwan’s 22 formal allies, and forced international organizations to kick Taiwan observers out. It stepped up pressure on foreign companies, including American-based ones, to list Taiwan as part of China on their websites. It blacklisted DPP members and other pro-independence political figures, and blocked their visits to the Chinese mainland. It rolled out new incentives to try to poach away Taiwan’s top engineering talent. And most provocatively, it stepped up covert interference in Taiwan’s political system and its election campaigns in an effort to help Tsai’s China-friendly opponents defeat her.

The Backlash to the Pressure Campaign

In the end, this pressure campaign did not prevent Tsai and the DPP from winning re-election in January 2020. And now that she has been returned to power for another four years, the failures of Beijing’s Taiwan strategy are becoming clear.

First, China expended much of its “sharp power” arsenal early in Tsai’s first term, gambling that it could fatally damage her popularity. For a time, this roll of the dice looked like it might actually pay off: Tsai and the DPP were badly defeated in the 2018 local elections, and a China-friendly KMT candidate, Han Kuo-yu, surged into the lead in polls for the presidency with a populist-tinged campaign. But Tsai clawed back popular support, thanks in large part to Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics in Hong Kong and its covert campaign to undermine the integrity of Taiwan’s democratic institutions. When Tsai won re-election by an even larger margin in 2020 than she had in 2016, it was clear this anti-DPP strategy had not worked.

Second, Beijing’s coercive diplomacy against Taiwan has brought it into increasing conflict with the United States. During the era of the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, Beijing and Washington developed a common interest in reining in the mercurial Chen’s increasingly open appeals to a pro-independence agenda. Beijing seems to have assumed that it could rely once again on the U.S. to restrain a DPP government, leaving it free to pursue an offensive pressure campaign against Taiwan’s democratically-elected leadership. But in an era of intensifying U.S.-China confrontation, depending on Washington to constrain moves toward Taiwan independence has backfired: The Trump administration has pursued the most Taiwan-friendly policy of any American administration in decades. And Tsai has wisely steered a course that aligns her own language on cross-strait relations as closely as possible with the position of the United States.

Third, Beijing is losing the Taiwanese public. By rolling out many policy changes early on in the Tsai era, Beijing’s “hard” coercion overwhelmed any “soft” cultural and economic appeal that might have swayed public opinion in a pro-China direction. Tsai has now twice been elected by large margins, despite Beijing’s threats. Exclusive Taiwanese identity has shot up over the last two years, as has support for independence. Voter identification with the KMT, Beijing’s long-preferred cross-strait partner, is near a record low, raising serious questions about its prospects in 2024. And there is no guarantee the next DPP leader will be as willing to stand up to the DPP’s pro-independence elements as Tsai has been.

Where Does Beijing Go Now?

Beijing now finds itself pursuing a losing strategy. It has used up most of its non-military leverage trying to compel Tsai Ing-wen to do something she could not do: endorse Beijing’s version of the one China principle. It also has frittered away most of the influence it had over Washington on Taiwan issues, leaving it entirely up to U.S. discretion to maintain the self-imposed restrictions in its own one China policy. And Beijing’s relentless hostility toward Tsai has raised support in Congress and the Trump administration for rolling back some of the long-standing restrictions on high-level visits — and made Beijing’s objections to new US arms sales ring hollow. In short, China is now in a much worse position on Taiwan than it was in four years ago.

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One should not dismiss the possibility of an armed conflict erupting over Taiwan, especially one triggered by an accidental mishap, now that China’s and Taiwan’s military aircraft (as well as American ones) are routinely coming within close contact again. But, despite many assertions to the contrary, it makes little sense for Xi Jinping to start a war. A conflict over Taiwan would undermine all of China’s other regional goals, at a time when it is also facing foreign policy setbacks on multiple fronts. Beijing would have to assume involvement from the U.S. — and by extension, Japan — in any conflict over Taiwan that it initiated. It is also still unlikely that the PLA has the ability to pull off a full-scale invasion across the Taiwan Strait, even if Chinese leaders wanted to try. In sum, it would be a hugely risky action with a significant likelihood of failure and enormous potential costs.

What makes more sense, then, is for Xi to try to wait out both Trump and Tsai. Beijing could hope that a new, Democratic administration would be more deferential to China’s concerns about Taiwan, and interested in restoring a more traditional, cooperative relationship between the two countries. Chinese leaders could also bide their time and wait for a non-DPP candidate to win the presidency in Taiwan in 2024. That is not impossible: there are already two mayors, Ko Wen-je of Taipei and Hou You-yi of New Taipei, whom Beijing would likely look more favorably on than Tsai — at least initially. But the opposite is also possible: Tsai could be succeeded by another member of her party, and given trends in public opinion it seems a stretch to expect any other DPP leader will be as cautious, pragmatic, and accommodating as Tsai has been on cross-strait issues.

So, if Xi wants to reverse the trends in cross-Strait relations, and avoid backing himself into a lose-lose confrontation with a Taiwanese people who are becoming implacably opposed to political negotiations and supported by the Pacific’s strongest military power, he will need to reset Beijing’s failing Taiwan policy.

Kharis Templeman is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University. He previously served as program manager of the Taiwan Democracy Project at Stanford.