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China’s move on Taiwan is all but inevitable unless Biden stops it

Deception and surprise are supposedly the stock-in-trade of China’s way of war, as famously articulated by the legendary ancient sage, Sun Tzu. In the modern era, communist and erstwhile communist powers — China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, North Vietnam, Serbia under Milosevic, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia — consistently have put that teaching into practice.

Of course, duplicity in the service of aggression is not the exclusive domain of communist powers, as the tyrannical raging of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan demonstrated. But those powers are long gone, whereas China under Xi Jinping and autocratic Russia under Putin are, regrettably, still very much with us, as are their partners in international crime, North Korea and Iran. 

So, Washington and the West, and those countries that rely on them — especially Taiwan — should be particularly on alert now that Beijing and Moscow have assured the world that all is calm in their regions and that talk of resurgent cold wars, let alone hot ones, should be put aside as historically outmoded thinking and self-serving histrionics. No doubt, Xi repeated that assurance to President Biden when they spoke last night.

In a recent speech commemorating the 110th anniversary of China’s first republic, Xi said,  “To achieve the reunification of the motherland by peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of the Chinese nation, including our compatriots in Taiwan.” He did not repeat his earlier reference to “smashing” Taiwanese opponents of unification, leaving it to the imagination of his global audience: “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”

Putin quickly noted Xi’s softer tone, and either took it upon himself to chime in or did so in coordination with Beijing: “I don’t think China needs to use force,” he said. “China is a very powerful economy [and] is capable of achieving its national goals. I see no military threat.”

Then, in early November, the Global Times, a Chinese propaganda outlet, joined the calming chorus: “The Taiwan question is a war of words [and] is not limited to the Taiwan Straits region nor just showed by military action. The fundamental competition is about the driving forces of development, the growth of power, and the strengthening determination. … Therefore, mainland netizens don’t have to be impatient.”  

The thrust of these messages from America’s adversaries is that there is no immediate threat of military conflict over Taiwan. The recent statements of concern from present and retired U.S. military officers also put the danger of war as years away. Asked at the Nov. 2-4 Aspen Security Forum if China is preparing to make a move on Taiwan, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered: “Based on my analysis of China, I don’t think that it is likely in the near future — being defined as, you know, six, 12, maybe 24 months, that kind of window.”  

One of Taiwan’s own top security officials also has adopted a more relaxed view of China’s threat. National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong told a parliamentary meeting, “Attacking and capturing the Pratas Islands — this scenario where war is being used to force talks — our assessment is that this will not happen … in the next one, two, three years, within President Tsai’s tenure,” which ends in 2024. Chen’s view apparently was based on some undisclosed intelligence.

The problem is that even Washington’s sophisticated intelligence establishment has been consistently surprised by the rapidity and scope of China’s military and technological capabilities, such as the recently-revealed hypersonic weapons program, its nuclear arms stockpile, and even the number and prowess of its naval and dual-use ships.   

And military capabilities are the easier part of the threat posed by an actual or potential enemy.  Assessing its intentions is the ultimate challenge. When it comes to Beijing’s intent on Taiwan, there is strategic clarity: China plans to take control of Taiwan, one way or another, unless physically prevented from doing so by Taiwan, with the indispensable assistance of the United States and other friendly nations. But China’s tactics and timing are opaque and ambiguous. Recent Xi and Putin statements, mouthpiece media opinion, and information possibly spoon-fed to U.S. and Taiwanese military officials all point in the direction of Chinese inaction in the near future. But Sun Tzu, Mao Zedong, and perhaps Xi himself, may suggest conversely that this is the time to strike — especially given the confluence of external factors and growing trends.

Every day, Taiwan’s population becomes more distinctively Taiwanese — and politically, more anti-Communist China. Taipei and Washington are taking long-overdue actions to beef up Taiwan’s defenses. Countries in the region and in Europe are expressing ever stronger moral and diplomatic support for Taiwan. America and its allies and friends are cooperating more extensively on security planning for Taiwan’s defense. U.S. public and congressional opinion turns perceptibly toward unequivocal support for Taiwan. Even before Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, the window has closed on the possibility that Taiwan would ever “peacefully” accept submission to Chinese Communist Party rule. Now the window on a lethal and successful quick strike against Taiwan is also closing.

After recently threatening to “smash” Taiwan, while his colleagues warned of “sinking U.S. ships and killing thousands of American sailors,” Xi greeted Biden last evening as “my good friend.” Perhaps this Chinese Communist dictator — once called “a thug” by Biden and a perpetrator of genocide by his administration — is now following the advice of “The Godfather” to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

With his new stature as “emperor for life,” Xi may well believe his time to end the generations-long delay on incorporating Taiwan has arrived. Hopefully, Biden emphatically disabused him of that temptation by making clear that war with Taiwan means (a) war with the United States and its allies and (b) instant U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. An administration official said hours before the call, “This is not a meeting where we expect deliverables to be coming out.” Nevertheless, the president should follow up their conversation by demanding that Xi publicly renounce China’s use of force to take Taiwan, or Biden will publicly announce America’s intent to use force to defend Taiwan.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
Tags China Cross-Strait relations Joe Biden Mark Milley Politics of Taiwan Republic of China Armed Forces Taiwan Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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