There is growing speculation and alarm about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan after Beijing sharpened its rhetoric towards the Taiwanese government and increased its military maneuvers around the territory. The Biden administration is worried that if Chinese leaders are overconfident in China’s growing power and assume Washington’s decline, they might decide to invade Taiwan.
The US government has taken numerous actions to clearly signal its capacity and commitment to defend Taiwan. Growing diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, increased military maneuvers, joint statements alongside Japan, South Korea, and the G7, as well as developing a common response to a war over Taiwan with Japan and Australia are all part of this new framework.
Although these actions intend to decrease the risk of military conflict by strengthening military deterrence, they are unlikely to achieve it. This is because Beijing’s Taiwan calculus — which has always been more complex than simply focussing on the conventional military balance — involves three distinct factors that have dissuaded a Chinese invasion.
The first is military power. Chinese leaders still doubt whether China could defeat and then conquer Taiwan, let alone successfully fight the United States.
Secondly, there is an understanding that war over Taiwan would portend disastrous consequences for China’s economy, foreign relations and global image. Worse still, a conflict could pose an existential risk to the Chinese Communist Party: a war would mean fighting and killing ‘brothers and sisters’, while defeat would bring echos of 1895. A war would also undermine economic development — a pressing goal that is closely linked to the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.
The third factor is time. Chinese leaders wait based on the hope that ‘peaceful reunification is still possible and that time is on their side, as China’s power is growing. Their historical goal has been to prevent independence or a change of the status quo. Waiting still makes sense, as China is pursuing its decades-long military modernization process.
By ignoring these last two factors, Washington risks focussing too much on the assumption that Chinese leaders have become overconfident about the erosion of military deterrence. Fear of the United States was never the sole factor preventing a Chinese invasion in the first place.
Hong Kong illustrates this thinking well. Without having to contend with the possibility of an opposing military, Beijing remained acutely aware of the economic and diplomatic consequences of sending military or paramilitary troops to directly suppress protests. It instead adopted a slower strategy of tightening control to reduce the political costs of its actions.
Beijing only imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong when the problem had gotten ‘out of hand’ — not as a proactive measure. The Chinese leadership tried to gradually build control over the territory for years, believing time was on its side. It only implemented radical measures when it believed the status quo was changing to its detriment.
Chinese leaders haven’t yet decided that an invasion of Taiwan is unavoidable because they still hope that ‘peaceful reunification is achievable, but they worry about Taiwan’s steady drift towards the United States. Beijing sees Washington’s growing ties with Taiwan as undermining the status quo and diminishing the prospects for ‘peaceful reunification.
This fear makes it more likely that Beijing will reassess the possible use of force. Like Washington, Beijing has tried to clearly convey its position. But its actions have only increased the fear of invasion, raising doubts about US military deterrence. Thus, there are growing calls for Washington to abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity in favor of an explicit defense commitment to Taiwan.
But the question in Beijing isn’t whether the United States will intervene, or about the strength of the US military. Chinese leaders are asking themselves how committed the United States will be to a war over Taiwan. How many casualties or how long will it take before the US public opposes a faraway war in East Asia? Chinese leaders are, by contrast, perfectly aware of how strong their own commitment to Taiwan is.
The US government can change its policy of strategic ambiguity, but that will not dispel Chinese doubts over how long Washington would keep up a fight over Taiwan. This dilemma isn’t new for Chinese policymakers — it has been on their minds for decades.
But now, as the cliché of ending Washington’s ‘forever wars’ and opposition to foreign military entanglements grow in popularity, Beijing’s doubts are likely to amplify. The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, against the advice of military officials, could raise doubts in Beijing about US staying power. As Washington abandons Afghanistan today, Chinese leaders could believe that it might be Taiwan tomorrow. Beijing’s dilemma isn’t about whether decision-makers in Washington will send troops to defend Taiwan, but how long before the national mood sours and US politicians have to listen to voters.
Once we consider all the factors that inform Beijing’s Taiwan calculus, it becomes clear the problem cannot be resolved with more diplomatic statements, increased engagement with Taiwan, or more military deployments — because none of these strengthen deterrence. If Beijing perceives Taiwan and the United States to be growing closer, those actions risk increasing tensions. By contributing to this perception, the US government is undermining its own goal of reducing tensions and preventing an invasion of Taiwan.
Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).