In his address at the opening ceremony of the 20th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping — who has secured a norm-defying third term at the helm of China — vowed that his country would “never promise to renounce the use of force” to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. While that declaration has elicited significant attention amid escalating cross-Strait tensions, it essentially repeats what Xi said in a January 2019 speech: “We do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”
He told the 19th Party Congress in 2017 that “China’s complete reunification” is among his objectives for 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding. However, US officials are increasingly concerned that China may be preparing to move on Taiwan much sooner. In March 2021, the then-head of the US Indo-Pacific Command warned that it might try to do so by 2027, and earlier this month, the chief of US naval operations warned that it might try to do so as soon as this year or next year.
At least three hypotheses might explain why some observers fear an accelerated Chinese timeline for moving on Taiwan.
The first, which would be the most alarming if true, is that US officials have classified intelligence indicating that China is preparing to attack Taiwan soon. At least based on public statements, though, this supposition would not appear to be founded. In July 2022, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bill Burns stated that Xi wants “to ensure his military has the capability to undertake such an action should he decide to move in that direction.” He worries that the risk of a Chinese move will grow during this decade, but he ventures that Russia’s military difficulties in Ukraine could affect China’s thinking about “how and when” to use force. In August 2022, moreover, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl reiterated the Department of Defense’s judgment that China does not intend to invade Taiwan in the next two years.
Perhaps the greatest danger to Taiwan is the ahistorical but increasingly prevalent conclusion in the United States and China that the two countries are destined for war.
A second hypothesis is that China discerns a narrowing window through which to achieve reunification. It faces daunting challenges at home, including a poor demographic outlook, a strained growth model, and mounting environmental degradation. In addition, the Biden administration’s recently announced export controls will significantly constrain its supercomputing ambitions and its ability to procure inputs to support the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization. Even though its economy is already close to three-quarters as large as that of the United States — and its population is well over four times as large — observers are increasingly asking if it will ever overtake the United States in overall economic size. Abroad, China faces a significantly more stressed external environment than it did before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with a reinvigorated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (comprising the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) undergirding a broader set of advanced industrial democracies with growing concerns over Beijing’s conduct and ambitions.
If China’s leaders were to conclude that their comprehensive national power will soon peak — and that, accordingly, the 2020s represent their most auspicious opportunity for moving on Taiwan — then the United States could soon find itself responding to a Chinese attack on Taiwan while simultaneously attempting to manage an escalating war between Russia and Ukraine. The available evidence suggests, however, that while they are worried about growing difficulties at home and abroad — Xi cited “high winds, strong waves, and stormy seas” in his address this month — they have yet to render that judgment.
A third hypothesis is that domestic political dynamics are increasingly undermining what a policy brief by the Asia Society-UC San Diego Task Force on US-China Policy calls a “state of mutual deterrence,” whereby Taiwan is “deterred from declaring formal independence,” the United States is “deterred from recognizing Taiwan as an independent state,” and China is “deterred from using military force against Taiwan to compel unification.”
The United observes that China is intensifying its multifaceted pressure campaign on Taiwan. That the new Politburo Standing Committee comprises Xi and six loyalists means that Beijing’s position on Taipei will harden. China believes that the United States has abandoned “strategic ambiguity” and adopted a de facto position of “strategic clarity.” If Republicans were to retake control of the House of Representatives and/or the Senate, Congress would impose greater pressure on the Biden administration to approach — if not breach — China’s red lines. And while Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has nimbly bolstered Taiwan’s defenses, diversified Taiwan’s economic partners, and enhanced Taiwan’s influence in prominent international institutions — all while making clear that she does not favor formal independence — it is uncertain whether her successor will maintain her discipline.
It would be premature to assess that a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan is a question of when not if. According to John Culver, who spent 35 years at the CIA, Beijing’s “ultimate objective isn’t invasion but instead a process between China and Taiwan authorities to negotiate the formal, long-term political relationship” between them. Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger to Taiwan is the ahistorical but increasingly prevalent conclusion in the United States and China that the two countries are destined for war — a judgment that invokes the alleged immutability of structural forces to excuse a profound abdication of human responsibility.
It is nonetheless becoming harder to remain optimistic that cross-Strait tensions will be resolved peacefully, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores the challenge of deterring a country that is prepared to incur significant costs to engage in aggression. Still, one wonders: had President Vladimir Putin known how poorly the war would go for him, would he still have proceeded? It is bad enough for him that NATO has a new lease on life, that Russia has unnerved partners in Central Asia and East Asia while rendering itself more beholden to China, and that Europe is moving aggressively to diversify its sources of energy.
To add insult to injury, Putin cannot claim that Russia has achieved its initial war aim of conquering Ukraine; in fact, it has not even been able to control the country’s east and south. Far from being cowed into acquiescence, Ukrainian forces have slowed Russian forces’ advances and seized the warfighting momentum. Putin’s legacy will not be a revitalized Russia that overcame the trauma of its birth — he laments the Soviet Union’s collapse as “a major geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century — but a stagnating Russia that squandered the promise of its people.
XI IS NOT PUTIN
It may well be that Putin would still have authorized Russia’s invasion even if he had known in advance the full scope of the damage that Moscow would bring upon itself. He seems to have concluded that he can accrue more influence by destabilizing the present order than by attempting to contribute to its development. China, however, is far more embedded within and dependent upon that system, and even as Xi steadily consolidates his authority, he does not appear to be as risk-taking as Putin.
Moreover, unlike Putin, Xi leads a resurgent country that has a significant capacity to expand its power and present a systemic challenge to US influence. As such, Xi has more to lose from foreign policy misjudgments than Putin. He should appreciate that if China were to attack Taiwan, the military, economic, and diplomatic consequences that China would suffer — and the political upheaval that would ensue — would likely deal a devastating, if not irreversible, blow to Beijing’s standing. Xi would be remembered not for rejuvenating the Chinese nation but for destroying the China dream — a legacy that he surely hopes to avoid leaving.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro-Geopolitics practice. He is the author of “America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing US Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.”