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Decoding China: Inevitable Taiwan tensions in 2024

Yuchen Li in Taipei
February 16, 2024

Experts expect more saber rattling in the Taiwan Strait during the Year of the Dragon. And the US certainly doesn't want to see a new conflict erupt in an election year.

A Chinese frigate being observed by a Taiwanese sailor
China frequently sends navy and air force assets on patrols near TaiwanImage: ROC/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) are apparently not taking a vacation to mark the Chinese New Year, which began on February 10.

Taiwan's Ministry of Defense has counted at least 43 Chinese fighter jets and 29 warships maneuvering near the island in the first six days of the new Year of the Dragon.

Beijing considers Taiwan, which has been self-governing since 1949, to be Chinese territory that one day will be "reunited" with the mainland.

China has carried out more and more regular "combat readiness patrols" in recent years, with fighter jets flying over the center line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial "border marker" in the waters between the island and the mainland.

These military operations have intensified since 2022, when the then-speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.

Beijing does not tolerate visits by foreign politicians to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing believes that such visits would be tantamount to recognizing the government in Taipei.

Shortly after Pelosi's visit, mainland China carried out its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan, firing ballistic missiles and deploying fighter jets and naval vessels in a massive show of force.

Military experts in Taiwan and the US agree that PLA patrols and exercises will increase in the future. It is feared that the armed forces of the People's Republic of China could use military means to isolate the island without attacking it directly.

Taiwan holds military exercises: DW'S Yuchen Li reports

A China critic as Taiwan's new president

In January, Taiwan's incumbent vice president, Lai Ching-te, won the democratic island's presidential elections. The inauguration will take place on May 20.

Lai is regarded by Beijing as a politician who is flirting with Taiwanese independence, which is a red line for the CCP.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed reunification at all costs, even by force. An anti-secession law drafted specifically for this purpose was approved in 2005 by the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature which always follows the government's line.

Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), said that Beijing's goal in taking over Taiwan is part of expanding Chinese regional power. Taiwan's location on the "first island chain," where the South China Sea meets the wider Pacific, makes it geopolitically crucial.

"Once it reaches its goal, Taiwan could potentially become China's Hawaii," Su told DW, highlighting the island's role as a potential gateway to the wider Pacific for the PLA Navy.

Su estimates that the military pressure coming from China will become even "more normalized and more frequent" compared with 2022.

Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, also told DW that "the most pressing threat isn't necessarily a full amphibious invasion by China" but "the day-to-day incursions."

A military blockade more likely than an invasion

A report released in January by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimates that in the next five years, China is more likely to carry out a military blockade against Taiwan rather than a full-scale invasion.

The report interviewed more than 80 military experts from Taiwan and the US in November and December 2023.

Lee Hsi-ming, a retired Taiwanese admiral who participated in the CSIS survey, told DW in an interview prior to the report's publication that the blockade would be "a very special threat for Taiwan."

During a blockade, trade, logistics and naval support could be completely cut off.

"We have to confess that neither the conventional capability, nor asymmetric capability, can be effective to deter or defend for this operation," Lee said.

Only "strong regional cooperation" with the US military operating in the Indo-Pacific could serve as a countermeasure, he added.

Analyst Su said that a blockade would be the safest option for China.

"If China waged a war against Taiwan, the only thing Xi Jinping would care about is the risk of failure," he said. "China knows chances are low that a large-scale attack against Taiwan will go smoothly," he added.

A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait could also lead to conflict between the US and China.

In addition to trade issues, Taiwan is a major hot spot in Sino-US relations. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington's policy is to "maintain the ability of the United States to resist any resort to force, or other forms of coercion, that would jeopardize the security or social or economic system of the people of Taiwan."

Can Taiwan count on the US?

However, in the CSIS report, Taiwan experts hold less confidence than their US counterparts in Washington's willingness to intervene during a cross-Strait conflict.

A new president will be elected in 2024, and in an election year, Washington certainly doesn't want another flashpoint on the global political map that could influence the outcome of the vote.

US President Joe Biden has often said in public that Washington would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, although the White House repeatedly clarified afterwards that the US "one China" policy on Taiwan had not changed.

"Any future Republican administration is going to put China at the top of the priority list," said Elbridge Colby, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development during the presidency of Donald Trump.

When it comes to direct military involvement by the US, Colby emphasized that it depends on Taiwan's determination to defend itself. "The United States at the end of the day is going to help those who help themselves," he said.

Colby added that Taiwan's military preparation has "lagged behind the scale of the threat" despite some incremental progress. "Not really doing anything near what it would need to do to make itself more defensible" borders on "vaguely suicidal behavior," he added.

There is also speculation in Taipei about what will happen if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House in 2025.

Trump would offer Taiwan more protection, says Hsiao from the Crisis Group. But the ball would then also be in Taipei's court.

"Taiwan under the new presidency of Lai Ching-te must clearly formulate its interests and what it hopes to achieve."

Taiwanese majority for reset with China: DW's Richard Walker

DW Chief International Editor Richard Walker contributed to this report.

Decoding China is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.