Rising tension between China and Taiwan, explained 

Jacques deLisle, the director of The Center for the Study of Contemporary China, shares his thoughts China’s increasing military pressure and what’s next 

a taiwanese flag is in the foreground with skyscrapers and shop signs in Chinese and English in the background
China has been increasing military pressure on Taiwan in recent days, sending nearly 150 warplanes over the island that it views as a breakaway province. 

China has been increasing military pressure on Taiwan in recent days, sending nearly 150 warplanes over the island that it views as a breakaway province. 

Taiwan’s defense minister told legislators Wednesday that the tensions were the most severe in the more than 40 years since he joined the military, and China’s actions have drawn criticism from the United States and other nations. 

Penn Today spoke to Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China and Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and professor of political science, to get his take on the recent uptick in tensions and where things go from here.

Why is China so focused on controlling Taiwan? 

There’s a deep story and a more recent story, but they’re variations on the same theme. In China’s view, Taiwan is part of China's sovereign territory, and it was illegitimately lost through events that are seen as moments of national humiliation. At the end of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty formally ceded Taiwan to Japan and Taiwan became a Japanese colony for about 50 years. At the end of World War II, the Chinese Civil War broke out. The Communists won on the mainland, and the nationalists retreated to Taiwan. So in China’s view, Taiwan’s separation is the result of a civil war that never fully ended. On that view, it is as if the U.S. were trying to get South Carolina back if we’d never retaken it in our own Civil War. In fact, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao used to compare the Taiwan issue to how the U.S. under Lincoln saw the Civil War. The argument is that control of Taiwan was lost through a colonial encroachment by Japan and remained unrecovered under rule in the current regime in Taiwan as the product of an unfinished civil war in China.

In the past, Beijing has threatened to seize the island by force. Is this a realistic possibility? 

The concern operates at two levels. Beijing has long asserted sovereignty over Taiwan and has long stated that it reserves the right to use force to accomplish national reunification as it defines it. The concern is heightened now in part because Xi Jinping, the current leader of China, has linked the recovery of Taiwan to his high priority projects of ‘national rejuvenation’ and achievement of the ‘China dream.’ The worry is that taking Taiwan may be on a shorter-term agenda than it used to be, and that Xi may see recovering Taiwan as a legacy move, kind of like recovering Hong Kong was a legacy move for Deng Xiaoping, who was the Chinese leader in the ’80s when the deal to return Hong Kong was struck with the U.K.

China’s basic policy has not changed—reunification, as China calls it—preferably by peaceful means but with always the possibility of force. Developments in the last couple of years have sent possible signals that China is becoming less patient and more assertive. Although Xi Jinping still insists on the ‘one country, two systems’ model for reunification, that insistence has become more pointed and less flexible. The appeal of that model was never high in Taiwan, but it cratered when Hong Kong went through the phase that began in 2019 with the escalating conflict surrounding protests against a law that would facilitate extradition to the mainland, Beijing’s imposition of a dramatically far reaching national security law for Hong Kong, and the dismantling of the limited democracy that that Hong Kong had enjoyed. The Hong Kong model now looks extremely unappealing to people in Taiwan. 

What does China’s crackdown on Hong Kong tell us about how they might approach Taiwan? 

Certainly, the view in Taiwan is that Taiwan very well might come to look like Hong Kong if it were to come under Chinese rule under the ‘one country, two systems’ model. China’s position—which persuades almost no one in Taiwan—is that each one of the special arrangements for once-lost territories has its own characteristics: Macau is not the same as Hong Kong, and Taiwan would not be the same as Hong Kong. What has happened in Hong Kong would give any relatively fair-minded observer reason to worry about what it would look like if Taiwan were to do that. 

The recent Hong Kong lesson is not just that civil liberties and democratic rights have unraveled, much less moved forward as promised. It also seems to teach that once a previously separately ruled place comes back under China’s sovereignty, its people and leaders lose leverage. The U.K., the U.S. and democrats in Hong Kong have complained mightily about what China has done and how it violates Beijing’s promises and international legal commitments, but there’s been very little impact on Beijing’s behavior. 

China regularly flies military aircraft into Taiwan’s ‘air defense identification zone.’ What made these flights into Taiwanese airspace unusual or concerning?

There are a couple of reasons recent actions are especially troubling. The pace has picked up considerably. When the current president of Taiwan took office in 2016, China basically turned a cold shoulder toward her. Beijing severed a lot of the ties and negotiations and exchanges that they had been pursuing under her predecessor. As relations soured, the military pressure has increased. But it has spiked significantly in recent days. The 150 or so in a few days in early October is unprecedentedly high.

We also have seen different equipment being used. It had been mostly fighter jets and some bombers, but now there have been more bombers and support planes—the kind of assemblage that would useful in an attack in a way that fighter jets alone are not. Such activities are qualitatively more threatening than fly-bys that are mostly signaling, ‘Hey, we’re here, just showing you you’re not really secure.’ Do China’s moves portend an imminent attack? Very likely not, but they are measures that attempt to rattle Taiwan’s confidence, and they are potentially operationally useful in terms of being essentially a form of practice for a possible attack and subsequent invasion. 

What’s China’s goal in these increased flights? 

One is to make clear that Beijing does not have unlimited patience on the unification issue. These flights are partly what we call a gray zone operation, that is they’re not up to the level of a military attack or imminent threat, but they are coercive and meant to intimidate and erode confidence. There’s also the very practical issue that every time Beijing sends military planes near Taiwan, Taiwan is under pressure to mobilize its own aircraft and send them off to monitor, to deter, and to show resolve. And that’s exhausting for Taiwan’s forces. Taiwan doesn’t have that much of an air force—certainly compared to China—and the constant scrambling degrades equipment, stresses pilots, and diminishes capabilities. 

More of China’s flights are now going to the east side of the island, and that is meant to send a signal that Taiwan doesn’t have to worry just about scenarios of cross-strait attacks from the Chinese mainland; it reminds Taiwan that it must worry about encirclement and being attacked on the other side. That’s a much, much bigger challenge for Taiwan and those who might come to its rescue. 

How has the international community responded, and how should they respond? 

There’s been a fair amount of pushback. The U.S. has been more strongly supportive of Taiwan in the last four or five years than had been the case before China took is rejectionist stance towards the current Taiwanese government under Tsai Ing-wen, ostensibly because those in Beijing see her as excessively pro-independence and insufficiently accommodating to China’s view of the nature of the cross-strait relationship. Tsai has been notably and consistently moderate on cross-strait issues. That she would push the envelope by asserting full-fledged formal independence is not a risk Beijing needs to take additional measures to deter.

During Tsai’s tenure, Washington has ticked up its support for Taiwan, principally to counter Beijing’s growing pressure on Taiwan. We’ve seen that in congressional legislation and presidential and administration policy statements the Biden administration has a list of complaints about Chinese behavior, and its coercion of Taiwan has been near the top of that list. China has pushed back especially hard against such U.S. moves, on the grounds that Taiwan is part of its core interests and the U.S. is interfering in China’s internal affairs.

Other countries in the region also have become more supportive of Taiwan. We’ve seen closer cooperation and stronger statements from Japan. Australia is now getting more into the game. So are other states beyond the region. While this is a reasoned response to China’s assertiveness, the effects are complex. China sees such moves as showing a hostile alignment against China’s rise, including against China’s agenda of unification for Taiwan.

China sees the U.S. under the Biden administration and also under Trump as trying to contain China, in part through backing Taiwan. China sees the Biden administration trying to rally the democracies along China’s periphery in an ideologically tinged alignment against China. The president of Taiwan herself has spoken to this narrative in ways that rile Beijing. She has an article just out in Foreign Affairs that links any use of force against Taiwan by Beijing to an assault on democracy in the region and beyond. On this view, it’s not just about regional peace; it’s about global democracy. 

I don’t think the challenge for the U.S. and the international community in the near term is deterring China from an attack on Taiwan. That would still be extremely costly to China. There would be serious economic and regional consequences; there would be a serious risk of escalation to a military conflict with the United States. It would not be an easy thing for China to invade Taiwan, or to hold it. The game is really at a lower level than that. It is about pushing back against Beijing’s gray zone operations or military intimidation and its mucking around in Taiwan’s politics with disinformation, the kind of thing we saw in the U.S. from Russia. It’s a matter of showing resolve, taking steps to maintain deterrence, to keep Beijing from becoming excessively and dangerously confident in its ability to coerce Taiwan without the U.S. and others imposing serious consequences.

What is the most important thing for people to know about what is happening between the China and Taiwan right now? 

Among the factors that make the cross-strait situation especially fraught today is that Beijing—which is making most of the relevant choices at the moment—seems to be working from two distinct perspectives that are jointly conducive to pressure and crisis.

One is arguably excessive self-confidence, based in the narrative that China is an ineluctably rising power, and the U.S. is an intractably declining power. China is on the path to national rejuvenation, the China dream, and peer status with the U.S. All of that encourages an assertive posture toward Taiwan.

This coexists with another story line that betokens a lack of confidence and weakness on the Taiwan issue: Taiwan is slipping away because China’s ‘one country, two systems’ model is so odious there, and Taiwan is drawing growing support from the U.S. and other powers, trying to knit together an alliance of fellow democracies that China sees as ideologically hostile and threatening as a security matter.

That mix of perceived reasons for great confidence and deep worry makes for an assertive Chinese approach and a volatile cross-Strait situation.