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Will Xi Jinping invade Taiwan? Not if he can help her

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A midline break in the Taiwan Strait used to be very rare. According CNNthe People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China only violated the unofficial marker thrice between 1999 and 2020, often in response to senior US officials visiting the self-governing island for meetings with their Taiwanese counterparts. The breaches usually consisted of a batch of PLA fighters and bombers hovering in what Taiwan calls its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), forcing the Taiwanese to mobilize their own air force and counter systems. -air.

However, it is increasingly clear that China no longer views these violations as particularly new events. PLA overflights to Taiwan’s ADIZ are now normalized and Beijing’s strategy of continuously testing the island’s defenses causes significant stress on a Taiwan Air Force already reached A lack fighter pilots. In the first eight months of this year, there have been over 600 PLA ​​forays, an increase of almost 70% compared to the same period last year. This number does not take into account multi-day PLA exercises around Taiwan that were conducted after President Nancy Pelosi’s trip last week, which included everything from live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait to ballistic missile launches, some of which reportedly flew over the island and landed in the exclusive economic zone of Japan.

For the national security community in Washington, the trends are disturbing at best and ominous at worst. China is not only using its considerable military capacity to force Taiwan into submission, but is also actively preparing to use force in an effort to reunite the island with the mainland. The military exercises that took place in six distinct areas around Taiwan, according to logic, were therefore not just an intimidation tactic, but a deliberate test of how a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the island would unfold. A blockade scenario, in which PLA ships take over Taiwan and PLA planes establish a virtual no-fly zone for military and commercial air traffic in the region, is seen as a plausible option. for the PLA to crush the Taiwanese defenses in preparation for a full takeover.

Predictably, different US agencies have different assessments on when or if Chinese President Xi Jinping will greenlight a possible military operation in Taiwan. Before his retirement last year, Admiral Phil Davidson, the former combatant commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the PLA may attempt to seize Taiwan militarily. from 2027. Some members of the US intelligence community warn against such an operation within a year and a halfwhile others, such as General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doubted Beijing will attempt to do so over the next two years.

Whoever is right, the United States is not waiting. the said porcupine strategy, in which the United States provides Taiwan with the anti-sea, anti-aircraft, reconnaissance and coastal defense weapons necessary to make a possible Chinese invasion of the island as costly as possible, now dictates how Washington responds to the Taipei’s arms demands. And there have been quite a few requests over the past few years; the Trump and Biden administrations notified Congress about 20 billion dollars in arms sales to Taiwan since 2017. The sales are, in part, intended to send a message to Beijing that a military operation against Taiwan would be so costly and destructive for its own forces that it is best to withdraw and to resolve cross-strait issues by peaceful means.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech.
SELIM CHTAYTI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ironically, China doesn’t want war either. While Taiwan’s incorporation with the Chinese mainland is a central part of Xi’s national rejuvenation drive, he would still prefer reunification to be done through diplomatic channels. The Chinese Communist Party reiterated this decades-old position in an official statement this week. white paper, who used the phrase “peaceful reunification” 36 times. Notwithstanding the PLA’s impressive military modernization drive, Xi seems to understand that forced reunification wouldn’t be pretty, would likely lead to the rapid rearmament of China’s neighbors, Japan in particular, and undermine a Chinese economy that still depends exports and market access. western market.

However, it would be remiss not to state the obvious: it is not because China prefers to avoid the military option that it will not follow such a path if it concludes that peaceful reunification is no longer possible. This week’s white paper said as much, saying that while peaceful reunification is still the priority, China “will not renounce the use of force and will reserve the right to take any necessary measures.” Unfortunately for Beijing, support for reunification among the Taiwanese public is paltry, with some more than 1 percent of Taiwanese support it as soon as possible and just over 6% support unification at a later date.

While it is difficult to assess all the factors that could compel Xi to take the path of military force, Taiwan’s formal declaration of independence would undoubtedly point him in that direction. Taiwanese independence would be the geopolitical equivalent of a massive tidal wave. The Taiwanese public surely understands this, which is why a plurality of respondents at National Chengchi University investigation want to stick with the status quo arrangement indefinitely. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

The problem is that there may come a time when Xi concludes that the status quo is changing to the detriment of China. Events like President Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will do nothing to mitigate this – they will only strengthen Xi’s resolve to finally do what was previously considered unthinkable.

Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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