China’s 72-hour spectacle of missiles, warships and fighter jets swarming Taiwan was designed to create a firewall — a fiery, made-for-TV warning against what Beijing sees as increasingly stubborn defiance, with the Washington’s support of his claims to the island.
“We keep on high alert, ready for battle at any time, able to fight at any time,” said Zhu Guanggong, a Chinese navy captain. The video of the People’s Liberation Army for the exercises, which were completed on Sunday. “We have the determination and ability to make a painful direct attack against any aggressor who would destroy the unification of the homeland and show no mercy.”
But even if China’s show of military power discourages other Western politicians from emulating Nancy Pelosi, who angered Beijing by visiting Taiwan, it also limits hopes for a negotiated victory on the island. Beijing’s shock-and-awe tactics may deepen skepticism in Taiwan that it can ever reach a peaceful and lasting settlement with the Chinese Communist Party, especially under Xi Jinping as its leader.
“Nothing is going to change after the military exercises, there will be one and then another,” said Li Wen-te, a 63-year-old retired fisherman on Liuqiu, an island off Taiwan’s southwest coast less than six miles from China’s exercises.
“They’re as intimidating as ever,” he said, adding a Chinese proverb, “they dig deep into soft ground,” meaning “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
Mr Xi has now shown he is willing to pull out an intimidating military stick to try to defeat what Beijing sees as a dangerous alliance of Taiwanese opposition and US support. Chinese military drills in six zones around Taiwan, which on Sunday included joint air and sea exercises to boost long-range air strike capabilities, have allowed the military to practice blockade of the island in the event of an invasion.
In the face of such pressures, the policy carrots China used to persuade Taiwan toward unification may carry even less weight. During earlier eras of better relations, China welcomed Taiwanese investment, agricultural goods and entertainers.
The result could be deepening mutual mistrust that some experts warn could, in the extreme, bring Beijing and Washington into all-out conflict.
“It’s not going to blow up tomorrow, but it raises the overall possibility of a crisis, conflict or even war with the Americans over Taiwan,” said Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who previously worked as a diplomat in Beijing.
Understand China-Taiwan tensions
What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island republic of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, was never part of the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the Communist Party, but Beijing maintains that it is historically and legally part of Chinese territory. Chinese Nationalist forces that fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war also long maintained that the island was part of a greater China that they had ruled.
But since Taiwan emerged as a republic in the 1990s, more and more of its people see themselves as very different in values and culture from the People’s Republic of China. This political skepticism toward authoritarian China continued, and even deepened, as Taiwan’s economic ties to the mainland expanded.
“The attractiveness of the carrot in China’s Taiwan policy – economic incentives – has now fallen to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” he said. Wu Jieh-minpolitical scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s premier research academy.
“The card he has right now is to raise military threats to Taiwan step by step and continue military preparations for the use of force,” he said, “until one day, a full-scale military attack on Taiwan becomes a favorable option. “
Since the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders have tried to persuade Taiwan to accept unification under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised autonomy in law, religion, economic policy and other areas , since the island accepted Chinese sovereignty.
But in increasingly democratic Taiwan, few see themselves as proud, future Chinese citizens. Support for Beijing’s proposals fell even further after 2020, when China imposed a crackdown on Hong Kong, eroding the freedoms the former British colony had been promised under its own version of the framework.
Mr Xi has continued to promise Taiwan a “one country, two systems” deal and may return to providing economic and political incentives to Taiwan if he can influence the island’s presidential election in early 2024.
Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, must step down after her second term ends that year. And a potential successor from her Democratic Progressive Party, which rejects the “one China” principle and favors independence, may be more aggressive toward Beijing.
In the years after that election, China’s leaders likely “want to show some substantial leaps forward in Taiwan, not necessarily unification, but some results there,” he said. Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei who studies Chinese politics. “Xi Jinping is the kind of man who returns hostility with a vengeance and returns kindness, but when he retaliates, he reciprocates doubly.”
A puzzle hanging over Taiwan is whether Mr Xi has a timetable in mind. He has suggested his vision of China’s “revitalization” into a prosperous, powerful and full world power depends on unification with Taiwan. Revitalization, he said, would be achieved by mid-century, so some see that time as the outer limit for his ambitions in Taiwan.
“We now have a 27-year-old fuse that can either burn slowly or burn quickly,” said Mr Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who is now chairman of the Asia Society, referring to that mid-century date. “The time to worry is the early 2030s, because you’re closer to the 2049 countdown zone, but you’re also in Xi Jinping’s political life.”
On an agenda Taiwan politics speech in 2019Mr. Xi reiterated that China hoped to unite with Taiwan peacefully but would not rule out armed force.
It also called for exploring ways to inform what a “one country, two systems” arrangement would look like for Taiwan, and the Chinese government assigned scholars to the project. Such plans, Xi said, “must fully take into account Taiwan’s realities and also contribute to lasting order and stability in post-unification Taiwan.”
“I still believe that military capability is first and foremost calibrated right now as a deterrent,” he said. Willian Klein, a former U.S. diplomat stationed in Beijing who now works for FGS Global, a consulting firm, referring to China’s buildup. “Their strategy is to narrow the possible universe of outcomes to the point where the preferred outcome becomes reality.”
But the proposals put forward by Chinese scholars on Taiwan highlight the gap between what Beijing seems to have in mind and what most Taiwanese might accept.
Chinese studies suggest sending Chinese officials to maintain control in Taiwan, especially if Beijing gains control by force. Others say China should impose a national security law on Taiwan — like the one it imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 — to punish opponents of Chinese rule.
“It must be recognized that governing Taiwan will be much more difficult than Hong Kong, either in terms of geographical extent or political conditions,” wrote Zhou Yezhong, a distinguished law professor at Wuhan University in a recent “Outline for the Unification of China”, which he co-wrote with another academic.
Taiwanese society, they wrote, must be “re-sinified” to embrace official Chinese values and “fundamentally transform the political environment that has long been shaped by ideas of ‘Taiwan independence.’
China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, said in a television interview last week that the Taiwanese people had been brainwashed by pro-independence ideas.
“I am confident that as long as they are re-educated, the Taiwanese public will become patriotic again,” he said in the interview. shared on his embassy website. “Not under threat, but through re-education.”
Polls of Taiwanese show that very few have an appetite for unification on China’s terms. In the latest public opinion survey by National Chengchi University, 1.3 percent of respondents favored unification as soon as possible, 5.1 percent wanted independence as soon as possible. The rest mostly wanted some version of the ambiguous status quo.
“I love our freedom of speech and I don’t want to be unified by China,” said Huang Chiu-hong, 47, the owner of a shop selling fried plaited dough sticks, a local snack, in Liuqiu, Taiwan Island. .
He said he tried to see the People’s Liberation Army in action out of curiosity, but saw nothing at a pavilion overlooking the sea.
“It seems some people are worried,” he said. “To me, it’s just a small episode in the ordinary life of Taiwanese people.”