Can China Emulate Russian Aggression in Taiwan?

Can China Emulate Russian Aggression in Taiwan?

By – Anushka Saxena;

Ever since Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012, the idea of “National Rejuvenation” has become particularly prominent in the context of the Beijing-peddled political discourse in mainland China. As part of this Rejuvenation Project, Xi has taken it upon himself to complete the reunification of the Chinese mainland with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the duration of his tenure. China follows a two-pronged ‘carrots and sticks’ (liangshou celue) approach towards Taiwan. With a deadline for the rejuvenation of the Middle Kingdom set in place for the second centennial of the Chinese Communist Party in 2049, it is likely that Taiwan will face grave militaristic aggression at the hands of the People’s Republic of China (hereby referred to as ‘China’). However, I argue that there are a greater number of reasons to conclude that China may not unleash a full-blown attack on Taiwan, and shall not find merit in emulating Russian aggression in Ukraine.

To begin with, one must look at the Chinese Anti-Secession Law, passed by the Chinese National People’s Congress under the leadership of Hu Jintao on 14 March, 2005, and promulgated as a law with Presidential Decree no. 34. Under provisions of the Law, specifically Article 8, the CPC discusses the possibilities of non-peaceful means of reunification, arguing that it would resort to the use of force only under three conditions, also known as the “Three Ifs” (Sange Ruguo) : If the Island (Taiwan) secedes, if the Island is attacked by an external force, and/or if the island refuses to negotiate over a reunification plan “indefinitely.” Given none of the three conditions are bound to be satisfied in at least the coming decade, it seems unlikely that the provision of non-peaceful reunification will come into play. The possibility that under a pro-democracy government led by Democratic Progressive Alliance leader and President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan would either secede or declare independence, seems bleak. This is because in doing so, the DPP would risk jeopardising the security of its people and the defensive support Taiwan receives from the United States under the provisions of Section (2)(b)(5) of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

That said, it is imprudent to trust that the CPC-led Chinese state will conduct its affairs in a manner exactly similar to what the law of the land lays down, given they have absolute control over what the law reads and how it can be interpreted. Nonetheless, the intentions behind the anti-secession law have to be looked at not as war “authorizing,” but as those of a war “threatening” law meant to catalyse the inception of “peace and stability” in China’s  otherwise hostile neighbourhood. This is evident from the fact that Article 8 of the same law also reads that non-peaceful measures are only the last resort once “all possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted.” As long as there exists a consistent line of communication between State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) such as the Chinese Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and the Taiwanese Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), the resultant economic interdependence across the strait plays a major role in the maintenance of a status quo that shall prevent the use of any such “non-peaceful” measures.

There is also a great deal of difference in the economic and socio-cultural interactions between China-Taiwan and Russia-Ukraine. To begin with, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, together with the Byelorussian SSR and the Transcaucasian SFSR formed the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. This was almost three decades before the Guomindang established Taiwan as its own base, effectively separating the island from the mainland, in 1949. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the violent existence of separatists who have sought the reintegration of Ukraine with Russia in the Donbas region has furthered Russian confidence in going into a full-blown invasion. But in the case of China and Taiwan, people-to-people dialogue has remained continuous and friendly. The common recognition of Chinese roots has enabled dialogue and exchange of economic and cultural values between PRC and ROC despite the existence of tensions at the highest rungs of politics. In this regard, it is safe to say that not only are the historic ties shared by Russia and Ukraine much more complex than the ones shared by China and Taiwan, the channels of people-to-people communication are also much more flexible and friendly in the case of the latter than the former. Even if one argues that the younger generation in Taiwan is increasingly in favour of maintaining de-facto independence by means of an indefinite recognition of the status quo, the sentimentality attached to a historic cultural identity, and commonalities in geopolitical interests (such as unison between PRC and ROC against Japan over the issue of ownership of Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands) guarantees that the grassroots situation is unlikely to get as violent as that in the case of Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine’s significant over-dependence on Russian imports, mainly in the form of Iron Ore and Refined Petroleum, also influenced the economic relationship between the two significantly in favour of Russia. In this regard, the Russian invasion significantly impacted the Ukrainian economy and limited its options in various fields of energy – coal, petroleum, and even nuclear. However, in the case of China-Taiwan economic relations, there plays out an interesting interdependence where Taiwanese investment in PRC has only risen due to ease of doing business and availability of cheap labour, and even though it came down in 2020, it still remained at approximately 43% of Taiwan’s total investment export (exceeding US. $5 Billion in total). At the same time, China depends on Taiwan for a massive amount of imports, carrying a trade deficit of over U.S $43 Billion in favour of the latter (as of 2020). When China “opened up” in the 1970s, Taiwanese investments went into its Special Economic Zones in the southern provinces like Xiamen and Shenzhen. Today, they have diversified into heartland cities like Shanghai and Beijing as well. The mutual economic interdependence for regional growth makes it quite difficult for China to initiate use of force that may effectively debilitate its own commercial networks with Taiwan, let alone regional or global ones.

That said, one must also consider possibilities that China could potentially give up all benefits of peace, inspired by its overconfidence in its military and nuclear strength. China is an aggressive nation with a deep-found belief in its ever-expanding military and economic might. Its ‘One-China Policy’ is a cause of cross-strait fluxes, and historical precedents dictate that if mainland China has once projected its might by firing missiles into the Taiwan strait (1995) and bombing ROC’s islands (1954-58), it might do so again. The China-US ping-pong diplomacy over the Taiwan issue continues, and it follows two n’s of deterrence – naval, and of course, nuclear. On the naval front, China has prepared itself by means of deploying mine-layering warfare, as well as by simulating war-game scenarios for an amphibious assault. On the nuclear front, just like South Korea, Taiwan is a nuclear ally of the US, with shared concerns. Seeing as mainland China has chosen not to be part of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons while Taiwan has no voice or representation in the UN on the matter, China has the leeway to exploit its nuclear capacities if it takes the militaristic route to attainment of cross-strait reunification. 

China-Taiwan relations are heavily influenced by the presence of the United States as an exigent factor in the equation. Given the obvious tensions between the US as a predominantly status quo power and China as a revisionist one, Taiwan has become a prop for the bilateral assertion of authority between the two countries. As Jin Huang argues in Lowell Dittmer’s book, ‘Fitful Embrace’, under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, China has “boxed Taiwan in,” meaning that it has given Taiwan no way out but to keep discussions on reunification alive, and eventually become one with the motherland. Given that the US itself is a proponent of maintaining the status quo across the strait, and has no formal relations with Taiwan, it can be inferred that in the event of a Chinese offensive, how the US will react remains uncertain by its policy of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’. 

When it comes to the question of whether China will emulate a Russia-like attack with Taiwan, the US factor can go two ways – the strength of American (and west-backed) sanctions in the case of Russia can either dial Chinese ambitions down, or America’s larger inability to help Ukraine effectively can bolster China on. For a pragmatic China, the former seems likely. That is because China is so much more integrated with the world economy than Russia is, and so it would have a lot more to lose in the face of the sanctions. But for an emotional China, keeping the world impressed will remain secondary.

Anushka Saxena is working as a Research Intern with the Institute of Chinese Studies. She has completed her first Masters degree in International Relations from the O.P Jindal Global University, and is an incoming student for the Masters in Global Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. She pursued her Bachelors in History from the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Her research interests include China-Taiwan Cross-Strait Relations, Chinese domestic and foreign policies, Asia-Pacific and maritime geopolitics. She has previously worked with various Indian, Nepalese and Australian think tanks in a research capacity, and has also spearheaded diverse youth-led research and editorial projects. Her e-mail ID is anushkasaxenalsr@gmail.com

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