In recent years, China has performed a series of threatening military exercises around the Taiwan Strait, leading to the United States demonstrating its commitment to defending Taiwan, a disputed island territory which mainland China claims as its own. Taiwan, now a democracy, became the headquarters of the Kuomintang, whom the Chinese Communist Party defeated at the end of the Chinese civil war (1945–49).
The existence of a thriving Chinese democracy founded by a historical enemy poses an ideological threat to the authoritarian CCP legitimacy, and Chinese President Xi Jinping considers reunification of Taiwan with the mainland to be of utmost priority. However, reunification is highly unpopular within Taiwan, as under 10% of Taiwanese residents approve of the mainland government, and nationalist political parties have commanded majorities in recent elections. If present trends hold, it is likely that reunification will only happen through force or coercion on the part of the CCP. However, President Biden has promised U.S. military defense for Taiwan in the event of invasion, contradicting America’s previous pledge to “maintain the capacity” to defend the island without promising military support. This “strategic ambiguity” prevents Beijing and Taipei from acting too rashly, as neither government wants to risk over or underestimating America’s response to a Chinese invasion of the island. Through military coercion, China hopes to gauge America’s commitment to defending Taiwan, while weighing potential strategies to reunify the island.
Internal and external pressures dictate Beijing and Washington’s assertive approach to Taiwan. The United States has agreed to defense treaties with several key allies in East Asia, and failure to defend Taiwan — although Washington has not pledged to do so — could harm U.S. relations with nations such as Japan and South Korea. In China, the CCP has historically used propaganda to boost nationalist support for Taiwanese reunification; Chinese expatriate Vicky Xu recalls “growing up, ‘Taiwan is a sacred, inseparable part of China’ was taught to us as a fact just like ‘the Earth is round.’” The nationalist fervor surrounding Taiwan means that Xi’s political credibility hinges greatly on his ability to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. A failed effort to reunify — akin to Russia’s struggles in Ukraine — could be a death knell for the CCP.
To Xi’s dismay, nationalist political parties have gained strong support in Taiwan in recent years.The Democratic Progressive Party, whose platform endorses Taiwanese sovereignty, won the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections handily. These electoral results are especially worrying for Beijing as polls show that 90% of Taiwan’s residents self-identify as “Taiwanese,” and under five percent of the country’s population identify as “Chinese.” These trends indicate to Beijing that it may only be possible to reunify with Taiwan through force.
To conclude, the prospect of an independent Taiwan threatens the CCP’s political legitimacy, because it constitutes a viable alternative to the CCP’s authoritarian system of governance. Historically, the United States’ policy of “strategic ambiguity” has deterred China from attacking the island. However, through provocative shows of military force, China hopes to deter potential Taiwanese independence movements, while it weighs future measures to reunify and assesses America’s response to a potential invasion.