When President Xi Jinping called on January 2 for Taiwan’s ”reunification” with China, it was not the first time a Chinese leader threatened to use military might to force the island nation’s incorporation with the mainland.

But when Xi told his military forces a few days later to make preparations for an all-out war, the call to arms was clearly different from previous threats made against the island Beijing views as a renegade province.

Xi is emerging as modern China’s third communist strongman, and as with the previous two autocrats, national unity is a main prerogative.

Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist Party-created People’s Republic, brutally brought Tibet under China’s central rule. Deng Xiaoping, the Party’s second strongman leader, oversaw the negotiated takeover of former British Hong Kong and Portuguese Macau.

Xi evidently believes that one of the major tasks of his leadership is to annex Taiwan, which has been separated from the mainland since the 1949 communist victory in China’s civil war.

“Xi increased invasion rhetoric after Taiwan’s 2016 election swept-out the pro-Beijing [Kuomintang Party] from the presidency and legislature, setting a deadline of 2020 for a final decision on whether to storm the beaches or return to the negotiating table,” Wendell Minnick, a Taiwan-based military analyst and author of several books on China’s armed forces, said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Xi Jinping reviews a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua

Other China watchers believe that 2021, the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, will be a crucial year for Taiwan. Through recent intra-Party power plays and purges, Xi has ensured that he will remain in power when those nationalistic celebrations are held.

In March 2018, China’s legislature re-approved the appointment of Xi as president, removing the two five-term limits to that post. Xi’s other two powerful positions — Communist party general secretary and chairman of the Party’s military commission — are not subject to term limits.

He is also the chairman of the government’s parallel military commission, a central state organ, cementing his role as China’s paramount leader.

China watchers still believe that war is the last option for Xi to get Taiwan to agree to a deal similar to that achieved for Hong Kong and Macau, dubbed “one country, two systems”, whereby those territories enjoy a large degree of autonomy.

But, in a January 2 speech, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said that most Taiwanese are “staunchly opposed to the concept” and that they would “never accept” governance under the formula suggested by Xi and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.

A recent opinion poll showed that 80% of Taiwanese would reject any ”one country, two systems” model, and that 61% were satisfied with Tsai’s response to Xi. Moreover, 85% approved of Tsai’s conditions for any talks with Beijing, including a requirement that they communicate on a government-to-government basis.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Adorno
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Adorno

Tsai represents the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which sees Taiwan as a sovereign and democratic country that is not part of China. Her party suffered a major defeat at November 2018 local elections, including in its traditional stronghold in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, to the Kuomintang (KMT) party.

Although labor issues, pension reforms and an economic slowdown were the main factors in the result, China was quick to say that it “welcomed more cooperation between Taiwan’s cities and prefectures and the mainland” after the result.

After the poll, Ma Xiaoquang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, misleadingly said that the result “reflected the strong wishes of Taiwan’s general public…to continue to share the benefits of peaceful developments in cross-Taiwan Strait relations.”

The KMT has always claimed that China is one country and Taiwan a province, although “their” China is the Republic of China (ROC) — still Taiwan’s official name — as opposed to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.

The DPP on the other hand would argue that Taiwan has been ruled from the mainland for only four of the past 123 years, and therefore has developed a separate identity. Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945 and then united with the Republic of China until Mao’s communists took over the mainland in 1949. 

Since then, the ROC has survived only on Taiwan and some smaller islands off the coast of China and to the south.

Taiwan's flag waved through beams of sunlight.Photo: iStock
Taiwan’s flag waved through beams of sunlight.Photo: iStock

The DPP’s recent electoral disaster has apparently given Beijing hope for better relations and possible talks with the island in 2020, when Taiwan will elect a new president and legislature.

According to Minnick: “A return of the presidency to the KMT or third-party candidate would give China an excuse to avoid invading the island and move back to the negotiating table.”

But even the KMT, which adheres to a “one China policy”, issued a statement on January 3 saying that “the one country, two systems” framework was unacceptable for democratically run Taiwan because it lacked popular support.

The disagreement extends into the South China Sea, where China and Taiwan have competing overlapping claims. China’s military build-up in the South China Sea is seen mainly as part of a strategy to secure control of vital shipping lanes, but there is also a Taiwan element behind the drive, analysts say.

“China wants to secure the southern flank in case it decides to invade Taiwan,” claims a European Sinologist who follows events in the region and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

When the United States shifted recognition from the ROC to PRC in 1979, Washington enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which defined non-diplomatic relations between the United States and Taiwan.

The Act does not guarantee that the US will intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan, but it does state that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

An F-16 fighter jet takes off from an air base in Taiwan.  Upgrading the island's existing F-16 fleet to the latest V configuration is a key part of the United States' arms sales and transfer of defense technologies.  Photo: AFP
An F-16 fighter jet takes off from an air base in Taiwan. Photo: AFP

The US has also pledged to provide Taiwan with arms of a “defensive character” to enable it to “resist any force or arms or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”

In September, the US approved a US$330 million arms sale to Taiwan that promises to significantly boost its defense capabilities. The deal covered parts for Taiwan’s fleets of F-16s, C-130s and F-5 military aircraft and other systems.

It is an open but important question to what extent Taiwan would be able to resist a possible invasion from the mainland. Taiwan has a modern and well-equipped military replete with US armaments which would make an invasion by China an extremely risky undertaking.

Taiwan is also developing its own defense industry capabilities with an eye on exports, thus reducing the cost for the military to arm itself. “Having covered Taiwan’s military for twenty tears, I’ve never seen them so aggressive in the international market,” Minnick said.

For the past few years, Taiwan’s National Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, which develops radars, missiles and sensors, has been exhibiting at defense shows in the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

But as Beijing ramps up its war rhetoric, strategic analysts are taking inventory of Taiwan’s wider defensive position vis-a-vis China.

Taiwan, Republic of China, political map with capital Taipei, national borders, important cities, rivers and lakes. English labeling and scaling. Illustration.
Map of Taiwan and China. Image: iStock/Getty Images

Taiwan’s once heavily fortified “frontline islands” of Kinmen and Matsu — technically part of the ROC’s claimed “province of Fujian” and from where fierce battles with mainland China’s military were fought in the past — are now mostly demilitarized.

Though Taiwanese troops are still stationed there, they are deployed mostly to guard the islands from intruding fishermen from the mainland and repel illegal immigrants. At the same time, Taipei maintains sophisticated surveillance facilities on the islands aimed at China that are crucial to Taiwan’s defense.

Taiwan also controls Taiping island, or Itu Aba, in the South China Sea and the Pratas, or Dongsha, islands to the north, but only coast guard forces are stationed there.

That leaves the Penghu islands between Taiwan and the mainland as well as and Dongyin island north of Matsu for China to worry about before any of its invading troops could reach the ROC’s main island.

Taiwan maintains a long-range surface-to-air missile base on Dongyin, just 45 kilometers from China’s coastline in mainland Fujian. In September, it was reported that Taiwan’s Navy is seeking fast-attack boats with anti-ship missiles to defend the island against a potential Chinese invasion.

An independence group marches around pro-China supporters at a Taipei rally. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
An independence group marches around pro-China supporters at a Taipei rally. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

With a new Taiwanese generation raised, as Minnick puts it, “on computers, fast food and a sense of entitlement” and which sees the procurement of weapons as a waste of state funds that could be better spent on things like education, China may think that Taiwan’s defenses have softened over the years and an invasion would be a quick and easy affair.

There are also fears in Taiwan’s power elite that US President Donald Trump’s administration might be willing to do a deal with China on trade issues that could include a US vow to stop protecting Taiwan’s democracy, according to sources in Taiwan.

On the other hand, Trump’s government has sold arms, encouraged official exchanges and recently appointed the pro-Taiwan and China hawk John Bolton as national security advisor.

Either way, Taiwan’s high-tech military is well prepared for any Chinese military action that, if failed, would prove fatal for Xi’s place in history as the leader who achieved what he sees as the final ”reunification” of China. But as economic pressures build at home, Xi may being willing to take the risk to fulfill that vision and cement his legacy.