chellaney172_GREG BAKERAFP via Getty Images_taiwan straitGREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The Coming Taiwan Crisis

When US President Joe Biden was asked last September whether American forces would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, he replied in the affirmative, but included a caveat: “if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.” But an “unprecedented attack” is precisely what Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to avoid.

NEW DELHI – The more US President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to ease tensions with China through high-level dialogue, the more brazenly Chinese President Xi Jinping has applied coercive pressure to Taiwan. Never was this pattern more obvious than late last month, when China sent 33 warplanes and seven combat ships toward Taiwan, just as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were holding talks in Bangkok. Fears that Xi will soon launch an even more overt push for “reunification” with Taiwan are rising.

Taiwan was never part of the People’s Republic of China. It is a self-governing island that, for most of its history, had no relationship with China and has remained fully outside Chinese control for the last 129 years. Even so, Xi has made no secret of his intention to enforce China’s claim to the island. In fact, Xi has called “reunification” with Taiwan his “historic mission.”

Xi reportedly reaffirmed his intentions to Biden at their recent summit in San Francisco, noting that the only matter left to be decided is when to take over the island. And there are good reasons to believe that the time might be near. With the wars in Ukraine and Gaza claiming America’s attention and resources, and the world undergoing a broader geopolitical reconfiguration, Xi might see a window of opportunity. And Taiwanese voters’ delivery of a third consecutive presidential term to the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party has likely bolstered Xi’s motivation to assert control over the island.

Already, Xi has been stepping up intrusions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone and encircling the island with warships. China has also fired missiles into the waters around the island and carried out large-scale war games simulating attacks on it. According to a recent survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, two-thirds of US experts now believe that a Taiwan Strait crisis is likely this year. In November, the bipartisan US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned that China is preparing to wage war over Taiwan – and position itself to launch cyberattacks against the United States that would “wreak havoc” during such a conflict.

One might expect the Biden administration to respond to such developments by strengthening deterrence, by both bolstering Taiwan’s defenses and stating unambiguously that the US has the strategic intent and political will to defend the island against a Chinese attack. Yet there is a $14 billion backlog in US military sales to Taiwan, with weapons deals announced as long ago as 2017 still unfulfilled. And Biden has repeatedly declared that the US is “not looking for conflict” with China.

Although Biden’s policy of engagement with China – including two face-to-face meetings and five virtual talks or phone calls with Xi since 2021 – has so far yielded no dividends, his administration apparently is unwilling to change course. The result is a paradox: the stronger established power, in attempting to preserve the status quo, is seeking to appease the revisionist power, which continues to expand its frontiers. In the South China Sea, China has turned its contrived historical claims into reality without incurring any international costs.


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The ineffectiveness of US-led sanctions against Russia has probably emboldened Xi yet further. If unprecedented Western sanctions cannot bring down Russia’s economy, they certainly cannot destroy China’s, especially given Chinese countermeasures. Even if the West could crush China economically, doing so would amount to shooting itself in the foot. China’s central position in the global economy may well explain why the country has faced no meaningful Western sanctions for maintaining its Xinjiang gulag, where it is holding more than one million Muslim detainees, or for snuffing out Hong Kong’s autonomy.

To be sure, when Biden was asked last September whether US forces would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, he replied in the affirmative. But he added a caveat: “if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.” And an “unprecedented attack” is precisely what Xi is likely to avoid. Not only does China probably lack the amphibious-assault capability to seize all of Taiwan; a full-scale attack, akin to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would also be out of character for the country, which has typically preferred quieter, more gradual aggression anchored in stealth, deception, and surprise.

Just as China has made great strides in the South China Sea and the Himalayas with this strategy of incremental expansionism, it will probably use hybrid warfare to squeeze Taiwan. The Chinese military has already simulated the imposition of a quarantine or blockade on the island. China could also announce the “lawful” closure of the Taiwan Strait to foreign vessels or periodically block shipping routes to choke the Taiwanese economy.

As former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned, such measures could, over time, “bring Taiwan to its knees and create huge incentives for Taiwan to have a very different attitude toward China.” But the measures are also subtle enough that they are unlikely to elicit a concerted US-led response until it is too late.

A majority of Taiwanese believe that, in the face of a Chinese invasion, the US would abandon them, just as it did in 1979, when it terminated bilateral diplomatic relations and a mutual defense treaty with the island, in order to restore ties with China. If the US were to forsake Taiwan again, the international credibility of US security assurances would lie in tatters, effectively ending America’s global preeminence.