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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Why there will not be an imminent invasion of Taiwan


The Taipei skyline is pictured in 2018.

The question of Taiwanese independence has long been one of the most contentious matters in U.S.-China relations. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have the highest likelihood of embroiling China and the U.S. in war, which would have disastrous effects on the Asia-Pacific region and the international legitimacy of either China or the U.S. On Nov. 14, Xi Jinping arrived in San Francisco to discuss bilateral relations with Joe Biden. In a significant moment, Xi said China does not have any massive plans for invading Taiwan, according to a U.S. official. Additionally, Biden told the media that he does not believe Beijing will interfere in Taipei’s upcoming 2024 elections. The two leaders had what was described as a “clear-headed” and “not heated” conversation about Taiwan. Biden reiterated the U.S.’ support for the “One China” policy on both the Chinese and Taiwanese end, while also reaffirming its stance that any resolution must be peaceful.

This conversation between Xi and Biden has prompted a significant departure from what I have witnessed in the past few years, which is a genuine concern among the American population and media that there is an impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In my personal experience, I have encountered a lot of Americans over the past few years who express earnest fears that there will be a war with China over Taiwan. Reuters and Al Jazeera articles from 2023 express that China will be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, and a 2023 Stimson Center article says “Conventional Washington wisdom holds that Beijing’s best strategy toward Taiwan is an imminent D-Day-type assault and conflict with the U.S.” — the key word being “imminent.”

From a geopolitical perspective, I think that the U.S.’ tactic of strategic ambiguity — which stipulates that Washington may or may not intervene in the situation of a military conflict across the strait — serves as a powerful deterrent for a Chinese invasion because it poses an additional threat of a larger war with the U.S. However, strategic ambiguity is certainly a murky concept. For example, Biden has stated in recent months that the U.S. would militarily intervene in the situation of war with Taiwan. However, American officials have nevertheless referenced previous comments from Biden that the U.S. is still maintaining a policy for strategic ambiguity.

Additionally, Washington and Tokyo agreed earlier this year to nearly double Japan’s defense spending, develop a new counter-strike capacity, and install a new U.S. Marine Littoral Regiment in Okinawa and other Japanese southwestern islands. Japan’s increased military capacity sends a clear message to China that they could face a formidable force if they were to invade Taiwan and the U.S. were to get involved. Furthermore, prominent Chinese nationalist journalist Hu Xijin has written that China will need much more time to become militarily equipped to launch an amphibious attack on Taiwan. An article from The Economist explains that Beijing would need  “more missiles and bombs ready for use than do the combined arsenals of America, Japan and Taiwan” in order to actually invade successfully.

On a more social level, I also believe that divisions within the Chinese population are deterring Beijing from launching a full-scale invasion of Taiwan in the upcoming future. Many Chinese netizens — nationalist and liberal alike — have rejected jingoistic rhetoric surrounding the morality of a military assault on Taiwan. Additionally, in a survey conducted on Chinese citizens in late 2020 and early 2021, only 1% out of 2,000 respondents supported an imminent invasion of Taiwan. At the same time, 55% of the survey respondents said that war with Taiwan would be acceptable. While that is objectively over half of the respondents, I believe we cannot dismiss the fact that only 1% support an impending invasion. Additionally, the survey was conducted before the Russo-Ukrainian war; that same The Economist piece argues that “Russia’s unexpected setbacks in that war, and the West’s solidarity in response to it, must have been sobering for some supporters of rapid steps towards [wutong], the common shorthand in Chinese for reunification by force.”

Of course, there are still Chinese people who support an invasion, and the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government naturally implies that it is not particularly responsive to the desires of its constituency. Nevertheless, I believe that the current divide in the Chinese citizenry’s attitude toward Taiwan coupled with ongoing pressure from the U.S. and major Western powers signals to Beijing that it cannot confidently launch a military conquest of Taipei. If China were to lose legitimacy on the global stage, the already fractured Chinese population would have to endure severe political and economic consequences. This would serve as both external and domestic threats to China’s regime stability. 

I certainly believe that there will be conflict between China and Taiwan one day, because Xi has made it explicitly clear throughout the decades that reunification with Taiwan is one of China’s greatest priorities. Additionally, it would be naive to be optimistic about the prospects of a nonviolent conflict. This is because since the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen — who advocates for de facto independence in the form of maintaining the status quo — the Taiwanese people have been increasingly steadfast in their desire for independence. Furthermore, strategic ambiguity implies that there is still the possibility that China could invade Taiwan without the U.S. intervening. Ultimately, I believe that there needs to be major indications that the U.S. would not intervene in a cross-strait conflict, as well as a homogenization of the Chinese people’s attitude toward Taiwan, for Beijing to feel secure in launching a full-scale invasion.