Recent months have witnessed growing consternation among Western officials that a conflict across the Taiwan Strait is not only likely but relatively imminent. In early March, Admiral Philip Davidson, the Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), told a U.S. Senate armed services committee meeting that “the threat [of China taking Taiwan] is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” Backing this up, his successor, U.S. Admiral John Aquilino, testified at his nomination hearing in late March that “this problem is much closer to us than most think.” More recently, in Australia, which is more directly exposed to issues in East Asia than most Western states, the nation’s Department of Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo controversially warned his staff that nations in the region “again hear the beating drums” of war. With a clash over the Taiwan Strait in mind, Australian defence officials at around the same time purportedly shed their “historical thinking” that planners would have a ten-year window to prepare for an attack on their forces.
Yet, the focus on the ‘when’ of a potential conflict across the Taiwan Strait masks inadequate scrutiny on what is arguably a more critical issue. This is identifying the conditions that would position or encourage China to move to annex Taiwan. This is important because understanding the conditions that may serve as a precursor for Beijing ‘unifying’ Taiwan with China is essential for devising an effective deterrence strategy.
One influential Chinese figure who has addressed this issue directly is Qiao Liang. Qiao is a retired major-general of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and a co-author of the famous book Unrestricted Warfare. Some consider this work the unofficial manual for China’s macro-strategy for supplanting the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. Qiao’s under-reported article on this issue (an unofficial English translation can be found here), which was penned mid-last year, responded to what he saw as the imprudent calls from journalists, social media figures and others within China to exploit a perceived ‘weakening’ of America. This was a weakening brought about by COVID-19 with the possibility of a Taiwanese invasion as soon as practicable. While his views on this point were presented last year and cannot be regarded as representative of the official position of Zhongnanhai, they are worth exploring. Indeed, they come from a figure that remains, on all accounts, a respected and influential voice who is well connected among those currently devising China’s military strategies. They also deal frankly with structural issues that are less immutable and relevant to contemporary debates about how to deter conflict in the region – a point we will address briefly at the end of this article.
What is perhaps most immediately striking about Qiao’s position on the so-called ‘Taiwan problem’ in this article is that it differs starkly from that attributed to China by high-ranking United States officials. For instance, in his nomination hearing, Admiral Aquilino stated that taking Taiwan is China’s “No one priority. The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake.” Qiao, in contrast, noted, “The Taiwan problem is not our ‘great task of rejuvenating [the Chinese nation]’ in its entirety – it isn’t even a main part.” While Qiao acknowledged that the ‘rejuvenation’ of China is at stake in relation to the decision to invade Taiwan, he understood the relationship between Taiwan and China’s rejuvenation differently. Not only is taking Taiwan anything but the core task for ‘rejuvenating’ China, but it could seriously set back this ‘rejuvenation’ if it is done hastily. According to Qiao, an invasion could prompt America and its allies to take retaliatory measures that could wipe out the gains of decades of economic development and the relative gains that see China on the verge of challenging the U.S. for the status of the world’s preeminent superpower.
How, then, does a ‘weakened’ America ‘deter’ China from moving on Taiwan? Interestingly, for Qiao, what China need to fear is not America’s military might. In fact, Qiao stated (perhaps for propaganda purposes) that the consensus among Chinese military planners is that America’s military would not directly face off against the People’s Liberation Army in an invasion scenario. Moreover, China would be confident that they would win even if America did. But America would be expected to intervene in other ways which could seriously damage China’s interest: mainly through sanctions, embargoes, and through using one of its most powerful weapons, the U.S. dollar, in its capacity as the predominant global reserve currency. Calling upon its allies, the U.S. could, according to Qiao, “rupture our capital chain through their financial centres in New York and London,” “using its naval and air supremacy, cut off China’s maritime life-line,” and use fiscal measures to reduce the value of China’s currency reserves, which – as with the “global economy” generally – remain “under the system of the American dollar.”
What are, then, the conditions for China annexing Taiwan? Qiao put this succinctly by saying China’s opportunity will present itself when Beijing emerges as the “clear victor in the arm wrestle between America and China,” or when China supplants the U.S. as the world’s preeminent superpower.
But what does this mean? As Qiao notes, the key metric here is not military strength alone, for “you need to ready yourself on the political and economic front before you can raise your battle flag.” China needs to continue to modernise and grow its economy, military, and diplomatic influence. But also—in an implicit reference to the central role of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in China’s ‘rejuvenation’ project—Qiao noted that Beijing should make strides in “internationalising the RMB” (assumedly referring to the plan to mandate BRI loans using a new digitalised RMB), secure supply chains and lock in export markets, and perhaps, by extension, lock in more BRI client states to give China more substantial support in international organisations. Once these have been achieved, America’s capacity to harm China through economic and other forms of retaliation will be blunted, and “without the American factor… taking back Taiwan will be as easy as pie.” At such a point, the when, and even the how, of annexing Taiwan would arguably be immaterial.
This is, of course, but one view from one Chinese military strategist – albeit a respected and influential one. And in opposition to wars in which one first overcomes external constraints and seizes the initiative from a position of strength, which is the avenue Qiao is advocating, there are, of course, ‘breakout wars.’ These are where a weaker power might aggressively attempt to remove external constraints that impede their rise – such as was the case with Japan’s decision to attack the U.S. during World War II. There is indeed an emerging current in Chinese thought that, quoting the American scholar Niall Ferguson, “he who rules Taiwan rules the world,” or that taking Taiwan might expedite China’s rise to regional hegemony and – eventually – global supremacy. But this is a topic for another day.
Even assuming views such as Qiao’s are tipping the balance in contemporary debates in Zhongnanhai, this does not mean that the U.S. and its allies have little need to worry or rush to head off conflict across the Taiwan Strait. What it does mean, however, is that to compete in a Taiwanese ‘unrestricted war’—and the new and evolving form of great power competition between the United States and China more generally—America and its allies need to think beyond military strategy. Moreover, it needs to regain a greater emphasis on trade, fiscal and diplomatic measures/countermeasures. In particular, there needs to be a focus on challenging China’s increasingly aggressive yet effective sharp power (i.e., economic coercion/military intimidation) tactics and carefully scrutinising specific programs that come under the umbrella of the BRI. This means: 1. effectively warning states susceptible to debt traps or RMB diplomacy of the dangers of jumping into poorly defined BLI initiatives, 2. offering better alternatives to the BRI in the shape of more transparent, trustworthy and generous trade/aid agreements, 4. adjusting our diplomatic posture in the Indo-Pacific based on the recognition that the shift from a unipolar to bipolar regional order will change the power dynamics of small state-large state interactions in favour of the former, and lastly, 5. develop resilience through diversifying supply chains and reshoring, and adopt a far less naive approach to the transfer of dual-use technology, ownership of critical resources, and manufacturing capacity.
Qiao and other Chinese thinkers often claim that the West are ‘using’ Taiwan to impede China’s peaceful rise – a line many are now applying to Western scrutiny of the BRI. Obviously, the West has no place interfering with normal commercial or diplomatic activity – China must compete on an even playing field. Any measures that Beijing might construe as interfering with this right must be carefully calibrated to align with the principles of free trade/respect for each nation’s sovereignty. Their rationale must be explained to the Chinese side. Yet, it needs to be remembered that China, and not the West, has set the parameters of this new kind of ‘unrestricted warfare.’
Although such measures might invite tensions, we should not hand over regional power balance to a nation whose leaders feel that it is ultimately not the decision of the 24 million citizens of a vibrant East Asian democracy to reject their nation’s annexation. In other words, we should not hand it over to a state that is increasingly aggressive towards its neighbours and Orwellian towards its own. China’s ‘rejuvenation is not a negative that we should interfere with; however, it can mean many things. One suspects its definition in Xi Jinping’s China, and what it means for Taiwan, is somewhat different to the case during the more liberal and forward-looking Jiang Zemin period. We should not shy away from calibrating our approach to economic/diplomatic competition with China to reflect this reality.
Corey Lee Bell is a former editor of Taiwan Insight, and chief translator/editor in chief of NEASAIR (North East Asian Security and International Relations). He is currently serving as a postgraduate researcher in Taiwan.
Harley Centner is a student in the International Relations Department of Tufts University and is currently undertaking independent studies in Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.