Over the weekend, relations between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan appear to have entered an impermanent and rather agitated new phase. With a week or so of escalatory air operations in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone serving as the leadup, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that a peaceful reunification with Taiwan will be achieved. Taiwan’s leadership viewed Xi’s words as him throwing down the gauntlet. On Sunday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her nation will not submit to pressure from China for reunification. Tsai went on to say that Taiwan will continue increasing its military capabilities “ to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”
Xi supports Taiwanese reunification under a ‘one country, two systems’ model along the lines the Hong Kong System, which went into place after British rule ended there in 1997. That system, however, has all but collapsed in the last two years. Beijing has successfully moved to take direct control over Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and roll back the territory’s autonomy since the summer of 2019. Holding up the prospect of this for Taiwan’s future was not going to garner support for a peaceful transition leading to eventual reunification. Xi was aware of this long before his address on Saturday. The Chinese leader can use Taiwan’s defiant response as justification to turn up the heat militarily on the island nation in the coming weeks and months.
The United States has inadvertently helped Xi’s efforts with the discovery that a small cadre of US troops has been present in Taiwan for over a year working to assist the ROC armed forces in strengthening their defenses against an increasingly aggressive China. Beijing can point to this as proof of Taipei and Washington working against Chinese desires to reunify Taiwan with the mainland peacefully.
Now, as a new week dawns in the Western Pacific, regional powers are uneasy about what China has planned for the short-term. Most self-described defense and geo-political analysts and experts spouting their views on Western news channels and social media continue to insist there’s no threat of Chinese military action against Taiwan on the horizon. What they are forgetting to mention, or factor into their conclusions, is that the record number of Chinese air sorties around Taiwan and Xi’s promise of reunification, albeit under ‘peaceful conditions,’ could serve to signal the start of a transition-to-hostilities phase for the People’s Republic of China.