By Phillip Orchard

Late last Friday, with the approaching weekend ensuring the White House minimal media coverage of the move, U.S. President Donald Trump quietly signed bipartisan legislation that permits high-level exchanges between senior U.S. and Taiwanese government officials. Its passage comes three months after Congress, amid intense pressure from Beijing, watered down part of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act that would require U.S. Navy warships to conduct regular port calls in Taiwan.

Of course, the signing of the act – a move Chinese state media in February warned would cross a “red line” and cause immeasurable damage to Sino-U.S. ties – did not escape Beijing’s notice. This week, in an uncharacteristically fiery speech, China’s newly crowned president-for-life Xi Jinping said, “All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history.” The following day, China’s lone aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait for the third time in the past year.

Many U.S. presidents have sought to walk a fine line between supporting Taiwan and catering to Beijing’s sensitivities over what it views as a renegade province, and China has rarely followed through on its threats of retaliation. The difference now is that both sides are beginning to acknowledge that the Sino-U.S. diplomatic dance over Taiwan has outlasted the strategic environment in which it began. And Taiwan is taking little comfort in the strategic paradigm on the horizon.

A Paradigm Shift

The awkward Sino-U.S. detente over Taiwan has held since former President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972, which led to the normalization of ties between the two sides. At the time, Chinese and U.S. strategic interests were converging. The U.S. wanted China to stop meddling in Vietnam and, more important, to cooperate against the Soviets. China, which had fought a major battle with the Russians along the Siberian border a decade earlier and feared additional attacks, was inclined to coordinate with Washington against the Soviets. But Beijing needed political cover on Taiwan. And since China was too weak to retake Taiwan by force – and since Beijing was demanding few substantive changes to U.S.-Taiwanese defense or trade ties – Washington was happy to formally adopt Beijing’s “one China” policy in exchange. The U.S. closed its embassy in Taiwan and reopened it as the American Institute in Taiwan, a nongovernmental organization that happened to be manned by U.S. diplomats.

Since then, the strategic logic of the original agreement on Taiwan has been gradually eroding. The Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. lost much of its interest in Indochina, and Vietnam – still nominally a communist state but one long at odds with Beijing – began a cautious pivot toward Washington. The U.S. has, in most ways, continued to engage with China to discourage its rise from disrupting the established order in the Indo-Pacific and has generally been happy to preserve the status quo regarding Taiwan. Although it has provoked occasional Chinese bellowing about, for example, arms sales to Taiwan, sometimes even leading to temporary freezes in U.S.-Chinese military cooperation, the U.S. has mostly tiptoed around Chinese sensitivities about the island, with Taiwan routinely taking a back seat to more pressing bilateral issues. For its part, Beijing has remained content with the status quo as well, so long as Taiwan doesn’t make a major push for independence or serve as a sort of “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for a foreign power keen to check China’s rise.

The strategic environment is continuing to evolve – and, broadly speaking, in ways that are not in Taiwan’s favor. China has become more assertive about securing its interests in its near abroad and its breakneck military modernization is making it better equipped to do so. At the same time, China’s growing economic clout is allowing it to cultivate substantial political influence among its poorer neighbors, while contributing to political crises in the West. As a result, the U.S. and its regional allies are becoming more overt about the need to lay the groundwork to contain China, should matters come to a head with Beijing, and therefore less inclined to pretend to bend to Chinese wishes on matters like Taiwan.

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On the surface, this would seem to be a welcome development for Taipei, to the extent that it removes political and strategic constraints on Washington’s support for the Taiwanese. But Taiwan is still drifting into uneasy waters. It fears being treated like a bargaining chip or, worse, becoming a battleground between China and the U.S. in a war not of its choosing.

More problematic, Taipei still has ample reason to question the level of U.S. commitment to its defense, even if the U.S. abandoned the “one China” principle altogether. China is still far from having the navy needed to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. in open waters, but it is developing the capabilities to make it increasingly costly for the U.S. to go to battle closer to the mainland. The U.S. disinterest in starting a conflict over China’s island-building in the South China Sea has exposed the distance between U.S. strategic priorities and those of Southeast Asian states. The U.S. inability to dictate terms on the Korean Peninsula has revealed the limits of its power even on issues vital to U.S. strategy. The U.S. is an ocean away, and Taiwan cannot be certain that regional circumstances will not shift further and eventually give Beijing an opening to force the issue. And in this regard, Beijing thinks time is on its side.

Can China Win Without Fighting?

Reunification is Beijing’s utmost strategic and political priority. This view is, in part, motivated by domestic concerns. Under Xi, China is putting the finishing touches on its reintegration of Hong Kong and Macau, the two other physical reminders of China’s century of humiliation and foreign subjugation. Taiwan is a perpetual scar on the Communist Party’s narratives about the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, and the party routinely nurtures grievances about foreign meddling in Taipei to curry nationalist support for its right to rule. This view is also strategic. So long as the U.S. can pair its superior naval and aerial capabilities with bases and allied support along what’s known as the first island chain – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia – it poses a threat to block sea lanes that are critical to China’s export-dependent economy. And more than any other island in this chain, Taiwan could be used by a foreign power to threaten the Chinese mainland itself. Retaking Taiwan would blow a massive hole in the U.S. containment strategy – and put China in a more enviable position to threaten Japan.

For Beijing, therefore, reunification is a matter of when, not if. This doesn’t mean it will attempt to retake the island anytime soon. Attempting to do so would involve vast amphibious landing operations against a well-equipped and deeply entrenched foe, requiring extraordinarily complex coordination between air, land and sea forces, and especially with logistics. The Chinese military has no real experience with this kind of warfare. It would also expose economically invaluable mainland regions to Taiwan’s considerable firepower.

For the time being, China is following Sun Tzu’s tried and true strategy of winning without fighting. In recent years, especially since the 2016 electoral win of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, China has doubled down on efforts to squeeze Taiwan diplomatically. For example, it’s been flooding the few remaining countries that still recognize Taipei as the legitimate Chinese government with aid and investment in exchange for severing ties with the Taiwanese. Taiwan has found itself barred from international bodies like the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and Interpol. Chinese diplomatic pressure has succeeded in diminishing Taiwanese trade ties with important partners such as Nigeria. These moves may be little more than irritants to Taipei, but they speak to the potential that China can suffocate Taiwan internationally in more substantive ways. Already, for example, Taiwan has been unable to find sellers to help it update its obsolete and minuscule submarine fleet – a critical vulnerability for a country separated by just 80 miles (130 kilometers) of water from a military perpetually planning for an invasion.

The overriding goal of this strategy is to make it easier for Taiwan to one day decide that peaceful reunification is in its own best interests. The ongoing shift in the military balance of power toward Beijing, combined with Taiwanese doubts about U.S. commitments, certainly gives it reason to think Taipei will eventually come around. So too is Taiwan’s eroding economic edge, as mainland firms increasingly move into the high-tech and advanced manufacturing spaces occupied by their Taiwanese counterparts. And moves like the announcement by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in February of a list of “31 incentives” to “improve the rights of Taiwanese studying, working, living or starting a business” on the mainland are intended to hollow out resistance from within.

In theory, China can afford to bide its time to see if this strategy works. As former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping put it, China can wait on reunification for 100 years if necessary. The question is what happens if and when China plunges into a deep socio-economic crisis, hindering both China’s military trajectory and its ability win over the Taiwanese with soft power – and whether nationalist pressures in such a scenario compel China to take its best shot prematurely.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.