Only if the U.S. tries putting missiles or a Navy base on the island.
I’ve never wanted to be a war correspondent. The closest I ever came was working as a reporter for Business Week based in Hong Kong during the mid ’90s, when I was dispatched by the magazine to Taiwan to cover China’s threatening firing of ballistic missiles into the shipping lanes of that “renegade island” located 112 miles off the coast of the People’s Republic of China.
The rockets were not part of an attack but were meant to intimidate the government of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, a member of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party. The KMT’s first native Taiwanese leader, Lee was seen in Beijing as moving the island away from the carefully and deliberately ambiguous status — part of China but not ruled by China — negotiated in 1971 between Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
In any event, following that crisis — during which a number of missiles were launched, interfering with Taiwan’s critically important shipping transport from July 21, 1995, through March 23, 1996 — over the course of the next decade, Taiwanese voters went from ousting the Kuomintang to installing a Democracy Party president and vice president both openly advocating Taiwanese independence. Relations between the PRC and the Taiwan government were tense.
It was interesting that as those missiles were falling in the water in 1996, making ship captains hesitant about sailing in or out of Taiwan’s normally bustling ports, the people of Taiwan seemed remarkably calm and confident that the rockets were not a prelude to an invasion.
They were calm with good reason. As government officials and U.S. consular personnel told me, China did not at that time have an air force remotely capable of competing with the U.S. Navy’s jets, or even the F-16s and other planes provided to Taiwan. It was only four years earlier in 1992 that living in Shanghai, I used to watch Chinese pilots training on 1960-era Mig-19 fighters. Nor did China back then have a Navy fleet that could take on the U.S. Navy.
Any People’s Liberation Army troops China might succeed in landing on Taiwan’s shores would also likely have faced fierce resistance from Taiwan’s significant army, in which all the island’s healthy young men are required to serve and receive military training. (In fact, people joked back then that a PLA landing assault could evaporate if the Taiwanese government simply offered a wad of cash to each soldier reaching shore who would hand over his rifle!)
I saw the strength of anti-China sentiment in China on display in 2004 when I was again in Taiwan as a journalism professor in the Fulbright Program, assigned to teach at the beautiful mountainside Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung. There, climbing the wooded hillsides on weekend outings one could discover the hidden and decaying fortifications built half a century earlier by Nationalist forces who had fled to the island from the victorious Communist government and PLA in 1948–49.
That year a massive protest against Chinese military threats to invade Taiwan was organized. It concluded with several million Taiwanese of all ages — a significant proportion of the island’s 23 million people — assembled along the westward-facing side of the island, all holding hands in an unbroken line from the very northern-most tip of the island to the very southern-most tip, with signs and shouts aimed at China, calling on Beijing to stop placing missiles aimed at the island along the Fujian coast.
Things have changed since then. Several of Taiwan’s Democracy Party leaders were ousted in disgrace following corruption convictions, and subsequently, while back in power, that party’s new leaders have been less outspoken about independence for the island. Meanwhile the fiasco in Hong Kong, where China reneged on its pre-handover promise to allow it to remain a free society, and now has clamped the city down under a kind of martial law, has quieted those in Taiwan who used to promote the advantages of a “one-country, two-systems” approach to integration with China, similar to what was tried in Hong Kong.
What has changed significantly is China’s military power. Chinese anti-ship missiles and its growing submarine fleet make the use of U.S. Naval forces in the Taiwan Strait virtually impossible. This reality means that any U.S. support for Taiwan in the event of an attack by China would have to operate from more remote locations, limiting the ability to use U.S. fighter planes. And the outcome of such a head-to-head conflict (even if it could be limited to the island) would no longer be as certain as would have been the case back in the 1990s. Especially in the nearby regions of the Pacific, like the South China Sea, China is today a power to be reckoned with both at sea and in the air.
So is China going to invade Taiwan?
I don’t think so, though there are voices in Washington, at the Pentagon, and in the National Security apparatus that are saying yes.
Biden’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, for example, told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threat to Taiwan was “acute.” She explained, “It’s our view that they [the Chinese] are working hard to effectively put themselves into a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention.”
Such alarmist talk is I believe disingenuous, and really doesn’t mean U.S. national security officials fear a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Rather, their fearmongering really is all about bolstering support in Congress and among the American public for ever more money for the bloated U.S. war machine and the huge intelligence apparatus.
The U.S. military understands it could not defend Taiwan at this point. Meanwhile, if China was seriously to plan on using military force to return Taiwan to Chinese rule, it would first take over the two little islands that lie a stone’s throw from the Chinese mainland that remain under Taiwan’s control. (Those of us of a certain age may remember that Chinese shelling of Quemoy and Matsu during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign was a big topic for debate, as though on their fate hinged the future of the so-called Free World.)
So far China has left those islands alone. Peng Hu, the small group of islands called the Pescadores on Western maps that lie midway across the shallow strait and are also under Taiwanese jurisdiction, would likewise be an easy grab for China, which could occupy them in a day, probably, perhaps without having to fire a shot.
Although doing so would terrify the people of Taiwan, that action too would be unlikely to elicit any military response from the U.S., which would be powerless to intervene and would not view such a takeover as a threat to U.S. interests.
The fact that China has never done either of these things leads me to believe that it is content to continue playing a long game of recovering Taiwan without going to war to do it.
It’s almost more humiliating for Washington, I’m sure, to have to go through the elaborate pretense that the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office is not an embassy, but just an “institute” and that the head of that office is not an ambassador but just a “representative.” Indeed the current representative had to make a hasty correction to her official biography in 2020 — which had described her as an “ambassador,” explaining that while not having that title she was “like one” — so as not to anger Beijing.
The truth is, China and the U.S. are so entangled in trade relations that unless there were a huge economic break, China is not going to do anything with Taiwan except threaten it if its leaders step out of line by trying to win international recognition as an independent nation.
The only way I can see China actually stepping in militarily to recover Taiwan as an integral part of the PRC would be if the U.S., as it did in the 2014 Maidan coup in Kiev, and in its advocacy for inclusion of Ukraine in NATO, tried to establish a U.S. Navy base on the island or to install ballistic missiles there.
As belligerent as the U.S. can often be in world affairs, I do not believe that Washington’s leaders are that crazy.
Dave Lindorff spent five years as a correspondent for Business Week based in the Hong Kong bureau, where he covered Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and other Asian countries. He is a 2019 Izzy Award winner.