China's Naval Threats against Taiwan Underscore Beijing's Goal of Bringing Taiwan Under its Control
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By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Beijing took a page out of the U.S. Navy’s playbook recently when it sent two naval vessels through the Strait of Taiwan on June 23 as a show of strength. The Chinese destroyer and cruiser are a far cry from a U.S. carrier strike group in the Strait of Hormuz. But the message was clear just the same: China will not tolerate any Taiwanese drive for independence.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Ma Xiaoguang stated at a news conference, “We have the stern will, full confidence and sufficient capability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence separatist plots.”
Ma’s statement was not only directed at Taipei, but also at Washington. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was visiting China, so this naval demonstration during his visit was certainly no coincidence.
China has always been vocal about its intention to integrate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. However, Beijing hasn’t been able to bring Taiwan to heel, despite Beijing’s best intentions.
Taiwan Has Long Been Treated as Independent Nation by Washington
The status of Taiwan is complicated, to say the least. When President Richard Nixon made his famous visit to China in 1972, he traded U.S. recognition of the Chinese government in Taipei for China’s cooperation in isolating the Soviet Union.
Along with recognizing Beijing as the government of all China, Nixon tacitly acknowledged that Taiwan was not an independent nation, even though Washington continued to treat Taiwan as one. While the “one China” policy may be the official policy in Beijing, Washington has used its recognition of that policy as leverage in dealing with China. Today, as it has in the past, Washington sells arms to Taiwan as a means of pressuring China when the U.S. feels the need to do so.
Beijing Has Not Been Able to Realize Its Claims to Rule Taiwan
The “one China” policy has also been a demonstrable sign of weakness for the Chinese leadership. No matter how emphatically Beijing claims to rule all of China, it has not been able to make it a reality. Over the past 20 years, China has built a modern navy and has gone to great lengths to bolster its coastal defenses as a means of controlling the littoral environment.
This policy has been most apparent in the South China Sea. However, the matter of Taiwan trumps all others.
If Taiwan were to claim its independence and host the military of a global power, China would be vulnerable not necessarily to invasion, but certainly to a disruption of its economic trade and eventual international isolation. If China were to integrate Taiwan, however, Beijing could create its “first island chain” and disrupt attempts to isolate Taiwan.
China would be better positioned on the global stage. But even then, China would still need a navy capable of controlling waters far beyond its shores.
For all its advances, China still can’t prevent the U.S. from conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. It also can’t push Japan off some disputed islands to the north.
Indeed, if China were to forcefully seize Taiwan, Beijing’s economic engines along the coast could be devastated in a counterattack. Taiwan certainly has the military hardware to bloody Beijing’s nose should a shooting war break out, even if it couldn’t retain its independence.
Furthermore, attacking Taiwan would disrupt, if not destroy, China’s robust economy. China would prefer to reintegrate Taiwan peacefully and is biding its time to do so. In the meantime, blustery statements like Ma’s and meager demonstrations of force do little to change the situation.
However, China has other problems that will prolong its attempts to reintegrate Taiwan. Recently, a Chinese government-backed think tank published a report warning of a financial panic and market instability due to trade disputes with the U.S.. Censors removed the report from public view soon after it was published, but not before it was widely read.
Chinese elites have grown increasingly concerned over their nation’s economic viability. In addition, the recent election of Xi Jinping as a dictator in all but name suggests that China is very worried about its economic and social stability. If the Chinese economic miracle is at an end — and it certainly appears to be — Beijing can forget its dream of bringing Taiwan under the People’s Republic rule.