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China and the US: On collision course for war over Taiwan

Richard Walker
December 29, 2022

China insists it will "reunify" with Taiwan. The people of Taiwan say they don't want that. The US says it would defend Taiwan against attack. As we enter 2023, this three-way tension is approaching the breaking point.

Chinesischer Pilot im Kampfflugzeug im Taiwan-Konflikt
China recently mounted the largest military exercises around Taiwan in a generationImage: Li Bingyu/dpa/XinHua/picture alliance

"We can only avoid a war by preparing for a war," said Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, approaching the end of 2022 with a stern message for her people.

"Taiwan needs to strengthen our ability to defend ourselves," Tsai said, announcing that from 2024, compulsory military service would be extended from four months to a full year.

"No one wants war," she said. "But, my fellow countrymen, peace will not fall from the sky."

The Chinese threat

The Taiwan dispute has festered since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the defeated nationalists fled to the island. The victorious Communists have been determined to take it ever since.

Now, the threat of war has seemed closer than at any time in decades.

In August 2022, China launched its largest military exercises in a generation — seen by many as a rehearsal for a blockade or even invasion.

Taiwan | Außenminister Joseph Wu im Interview mit der DW
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu says China has been preparing for an invasionImage: DW

"They fired missiles to the waters near Taiwan. They conducted very large-scale air and sea exercises. They conducted cyber attacks," said Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu. "Put it all together. This is what they want to do to Taiwan when they want to invade Taiwan."

Wu spoke to DW as part of a new documentary that uncovers why the Taiwan dispute is so intractable — and explores whether a disastrous war can be avoided.

'We have to reunify with Taiwan'

Increasingly, China makes no bones about its goals.

"We in mainland China believe that Taiwan is part of China and we have to reunify with Taiwan," said Zhou Bo, a former senior colonel in China's military, now at Tsinghua University.

"The only question is through what means: whether they will be peaceful or whether we have to use force."

Addressing the Communist Party Congress in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he would "strive for the prospect of a peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and greatest efforts."

But "peaceful reunification" looks like a fantasy.

Just 6.4% of people in Taiwan seek it, either immediately or at some point in the future, according to the most recent survey data from Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

So if Xi really is determined to get Taiwan, force appears the only option.

Infografik Karte Taiwan Detail EN

Ukraine's terrifying, inspiring example

Far away in Europe, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has provided a chilling demonstration that threats can turn into reality.

A great power invading a vulnerable neighbor, claiming it has no right to exist as an autonomous entity: the parallels have been obvious. And Ukraine has given an object lesson in fighting back.

"That is inspirational to the Taiwanese people," said Joseph Wu. "We want to show the international community that we are just about the same degree of bravery in fighting for our country."

This international messaging is key: Like Ukraine, Taiwan would have little chance of surviving an invasion without outside help. Above all, from the United States.

The US vs. China

US President Joe Biden rounded off 2022 signing a defense spending bill including up to $10 billion (€9.4 billion) in assistance for Taiwan.

On several occasions in recent months, Biden has become increasingly forthright, saying that the US would intervene if China mounted an unprovoked attack.

China expert and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd described this as the "erosion of the American traditional doctrine of strategic ambiguity into strategic unambiguity."

This reflects a rare thing in US politics — consensus.

"There is a strong bipartisan consensus in seeing China as the pacing threat, economically, technologically, diplomatically and militarily," said Michele Flournoy, chair of the influential CNAS think tank.

The result is a cascade of measures from the Biden administration and Congress, aimed at supporting Taiwan, pushing back against China, or both — from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei, to export curbs on semiconductor technology, to the latest steps on military aid for Taiwan.

'Taiwan is caught in the middle'

Indonesien G20 Joe Biden und Xi Jinping
On edge: Can tensions between the US and China be defused?Image: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For Shelley Rigger, a leading US authority on Taiwan, there are dangers in this trend. "A lot of the activity that we've seen, including the Pelosi visit, really escalates the danger that Taiwan is facing without providing any concrete benefit to Taiwan," she said.

From this vantage point, US support for Taiwan is double edged: both essential to its survival, and risking dragging Taiwan into a much bigger conflict.

 "The US and China are in this spiral of threat and counter threat, and counter-counter threat, and Taiwan is caught in the middle," Rigger said.

In November 2022, Biden and Xi held their first talks since the former took office, meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali. The aim: restoring some stability to the relationship.

"I'm not looking for conflict, I'm looking to manage this competition responsibly," Biden told the press. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit China in early 2023 as part of this process.

But the biggest issue of all — Taiwan — presents a challenge that goes far deeper.

"Stabilizing the relationship for the short to medium term, to reduce the risk of unplanned, accidental crisis, conflict and war," Rudd stressed, "that's quite different from the long-term question of China's preparations for the 2030s, which is to have sufficient military and economic and technological power to wage war not by accident but by design to secure Taiwan."

So where does this leave Taiwan?

Taiwan | Außenminister Joseph Wu im Interview mit der DW
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu spoke to DW in TaipeiImage: DW

"The policy of this government is to safeguard the status quo," said Joseph Wu. "That Taiwan is already a democracy, the status quo is that the Taiwanese people have a say over Taiwan's future."

And yet Beijing rejects the status quo. "Then this kind of status quo of separation will last forever," said Zhou Bo.

Michele Flournoy said the timeline for any potential military action could be far shorter than previously thought. "We have to be prepared to deter China not just in 10 or 15 years, but in five years," she said.

Can tensions be defused?

For Flournoy, the priority for US policy is clear. "Deterrence is the name of the game here," she said. "I think the key thing is for Beijing to recognize that if you go to war to seize Taiwan, you lose."

The stakes of a conflict over Taiwan could even surpass Russia's war on Ukraine, says Kevin Rudd.

"A general war involving at least three or four countries, including the three largest economies in the world, the US, China and Japan. Secondly, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese civilians dead. Thirdly, unknown American and Chinese combatants. And finally, the crashing of the global economy."

As China grapples with the collapse of its zero-COVID regime, 2023 looks more uncertain than ever. A world already shaken by war may have to brace for even more turmoil.

Edited by: Rob Mudge