Relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China are what many consider in their worst state since both countries renewed ties in the 1970s. The big fear: that China could invade Taiwan. Would President Xi and company really make such a move?
On Monday, in Bali, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will have their first-ever presidential sit-down. Taiwan will figure prominently on their agenda.
“Taiwan is going to be one of the central issues,” Evan Medeiros, a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown, told Insider. “China remains concerned that the US is playing games. Biden is trying to reassure Beijing but also trying to deter them from using military force to coerce Taiwan.”
But the way that some US leaders have been framing Taiwan for the past few months — a Ukraine-like tinderbox, ready to explode the moment that an autocratic adversary chooses to light a match — is wrong. So is the version of Taiwan presented by the Chinese Communist Party that Xi leads, a wayward possession that will inevitably be swallowed up. Both countries’ leaderships have incentives to exaggerate both the probability and the timeline of a potential conflict. Their rhetoric needs to be weighed against the hard realities of the global economy, and what China stands to lose if it invades Taiwan.
It’s true that the current status quo in Taiwan is complicated and potentially volatile. For decades, Taiwan has existed in diplomatic limbo. China claims full sovereignty over the democratic, self-governing island of 23 million. The US acknowledges China’s position without accepting it and has kept the door open to going to defending Taiwan with force. Biden, however, has gone further, repeatedly asserting that he would respond to a Chinese invasion by committing US troops. Xi, too, has turned up the dial, issuing a hawkish white paper and claiming the right to take “all measures necessary,” including “the use of force” to achieve “reunification.”
Set this escalating rhetoric against the backdrop of the Ukraine conflict, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as stepped-up Chinese military exercises and plane sorties around the Taiwan Strait, and it’s tempting to conclude that there’s a US-China conflict just over the horizon. “It seems like Xi is preparing the Chinese people for war,” says former national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster. A number of senior US officials have said likewise.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that China’s plans for annexation are “on a much faster timeline” than previously understood. And in November of last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said that an invasion before the end of 2023 was improbable but not impossible. “Anything can happen,” he said.
But the actual chances of a near-term fight over Taiwan are far lower than the hawkish rhetoric from the Chinese and US leadership might suggest.
“I’m a skeptic about the Chinese being poised to invade Taiwan,” Gen. James Clapper, who led the intelligence community under President Obama, told Insider. “I don’t think Xi will make a move until and unless he is absolutely sure that an invasion will be successful. And right now, I don’t think he has the degree of certitude.”
Clapper cited several factors that would likely rule out an imminent invasion: Taiwan’s forbidding geography, Ukraine’s success at holding off Russia, China’s sputtering economy, which has been straightjacketed by Xi’s “zero-COVID” policy, and the untested People’s Liberation Army, which hasn’t been in combat since 1979. Taking the island by force would require a huge seaborne landing force that could suffer heavy casualties from the advanced US weapons in Taiwan’s hands, like anti-ship missiles and the HIMARS launchers whose GPS-guided rockets have shifted the Ukraine war’s tide.
US deterrence, bolstered by Biden’s hardline rhetoric and US military aid, is also a factor. “He can’t be sure just what the US would do,” Clapper said.
Medeiros, the Georgetown professor, agreed that perceptions about an invasion being a live option for China were controversial, at best. “There is a debate about whether China is five years away from an invasion or could go sooner,” he said. “For now, they’re trying to reduce their external dependencies to prepare for any eventuality.”
In the immediate future, there might not be much that Xi can do about Taiwan, except complain. That’s exactly what happened after Nancy Pelosi decided to poke China by visiting Taiwan in August. After Biden made a public show of trying (and failing) to dissuade the House speaker, he spent two hours and seventeen minutes talking to Xi on the phone. China responded to the perceived provocation by stepping up its military exercises and conducting a series of ballistic missile tests. A US Navy official said the US needed to “contest” this Chinese aggression. But ultimately, tensions abated as Xi and Biden agreed to have another conversation — the one they will have on Monday.
At the same time, don’t expect either Biden or Xi to downplay the possibility of an invasion after this week’s meeting. The near-term possibility of a war over Taiwan will likely remain prominent in the global conversation for so long as it serves the interest of both countries’ leaders.
For China, the Taiwan threat gives them negotiating leverage with the US and influence over Taiwan’s domestic politics. Plus, it gives Xi a nationalist rallying cry as he tries to cement control of the party for at least another five years and offer a distraction from mounting troubles at home.
For the US, meanwhile, a live, credible threat from China helps justify a massive round of military spending as the post-9/11 wars wind down following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Congress passes the Taiwan Policy Act, Taiwan will get $6.5 billion in taxpayer money to buy more US-made weaponry. That’s roughly one third of what the Biden administration has spent on military assistance to Ukraine, without a shot being fired. Taiwan has been used as the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s arguments for funding everything from next-generation submarines to hypersonic missiles. “They want more navy so they talk about Taiwan,” says Edward Luttwak, a military strategist and consultant.
It should go without saying that the hottest dispute between the world’s two most powerful countries is worth tracking closely, even if the likelihood of actual military conflict is far lower than either would care to admit. But it’s important to situate that disagreement within the broader context of the China-US relationship. Despite talk of economic “disentanglement,” with Trump-enacted US tariffs on Chinese imports and China’s own aspirations for self-sufficiency, China and the West remain deeply co-dependent. China is the world’s largest importer of food, particularly soybeans and animal feed. The sanctions that would likely follow an invasion of Taiwan would quickly and severely restrict the country’s supply of meat. They would also spell the effective end of Taiwan’s most important industry—semiconductors—which relies on active trade with Europe and the US. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is responsible for more than half of the world’s semiconductors, a crucial component in iPhones, laptops, and other electronics, upon which China’s own manufacturing industry depends.
An invasion, simply put, would crater the world economy, and China’s along with it.
Mattathias Schwartz is a senior correspondent at Insider. He is a former staff writer at the New Yorker and a current contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He has written several profiles of senior officials, including William Barr, John Brennan, James Clapper, and Mike Pompeo. “The Trolls Among Us,” the first New York Times article to note the existence of 4chan, has been cited by hundreds of books and academic articles, as well as Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “troll.” His investigation of the extradition of Christopher Coke from Kingston, Jamaica, won the Livingston Award for international reporting. This first appeared in Insider.