The idea that a US election can be shaken up by an “October surprise” is a well-worn staple of political commentary. Less discussed is the danger that, if China takes advantage of political confusion in the US to make a move on Taiwan, international affairs could be convulsed by a November or December surprise.
The din of the American campaign is drowning out increasingly aggressive words and actions by China, as it threatens to use military force to combat what it regards as intolerable “separatism” by Taiwan, which is, de facto, an independent state, but claimed by Beijing.
Chinese military aircraft now regularly cross the median line between Taiwan and the mainland, forcing the Taiwanese air force to scramble. Last week, a flight from Taiwan was prevented from reaching the Pratas Islands — a Taiwanese-controlled outpost in the South China Sea. The flight was turned back by Hong Kong air traffic control, which cited unspecified dangers in the area and said the airspace is now closed.
Aggressive rhetoric in the Chinese media has been ramped up. Earlier this month, Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a nationalist paper, wrote: “The only way forward is for the mainland to fully prepare itself for war . . . The historical turning point is getting closer.”
For decades, the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has been held in check by the US. Washington has stopped short of an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan. Instead, it has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity — selling arms to Taiwan and leaving open the possibility that the US would fight to defend the island. In 1996, when China fired missiles into the seas around Taiwan, the US sent aircraft carriers to the region to warn Beijing off.
Since then, however, China has engaged in a massive military build-up. And the US is now consumed by the most divisive presidential election campaign in living memory. Under these circumstances, the Chinese government may doubt continuing American commitment to Taiwan.
Beijing’s window of opportunity could look even more tempting, after the US has voted on November 3 — particularly if the election result is disputed and the country is plunged into a political and constitutional crisis. Even if Donald Trump suffers a decisive and uncontested defeat, he would remain president until January 20, capable of causing all sorts of turmoil.
The background to the current crisis is a radicalisation of Beijing’s position on Taiwan since President Xi Jinping became leader in 2012. Mr Xi says “reunification” with Taiwan is a crucial part of the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation — his signature project. He also says that the Taiwan issue can no longer be passed on “from generation to generation”. He may see Taiwan as a way of securing his place in the pantheon of China’s great leaders — alongside Mao Zedong.
Mr Xi has already demonstrated that he is willing to take military risks and repressive actions that antagonise the west and scare China’s neighbours. As well as pumping up the rhetoric on Taiwan, China has imprisoned more than 1m Uighur Muslims and other minority groups, crushed the democracy movement in Hong Kong, built military bases across the South China Sea and killed Indian troops in the Himalayas.
The fact that China has coped with the coronavirus pandemic more successfully than the US has also led to widespread talk in Beijing that its old rival is in inexorable decline. Beijing knows that if the US failed to defend Taiwan, American allies across the region might lose faith in US protection — making Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific seem inevitable and irresistible.
Nonetheless — even without American intervention — a full-scale Chinese assault on Taiwan would be formidably risky. Attempting to cross the Taiwan Strait and land troops on the island would entail mass casualties. China might need as many as 1m troops to stage a successful invasion and subsequent occupation. There is no sign that an invasion force of this size is being assembled.
It is more likely that Beijing will attempt to erode Taiwanese morale and autonomy by staging a series of smaller military, economic and psychological interventions. Cutting off the Pratas islands, which have an airport and administrative buildings but no permanent civilian population, would be exactly this kind of measure. If Taiwan responds forcefully, it risks giving Beijing an excuse to hit back. But if it fails to respond, it looks powerless and suffers a symbolic defeat.
There is an array of other graduated steps — involving embargoes and territorial encroachments — available to China as it increases pressure on Taiwan. The danger, however, is that Beijing will misread Washington’s response. For, while the US is indeed in a state of political turmoil, there is a bipartisan determination in Washington to retain the country’s status as the dominant power in the Pacific and to stand up for fellow democracies.
Wars between great powers — including the first and second world wars — have often broken out because governments have miscalculated each other’s reactions. As the historian Margaret Macmillan puts it: “What really becomes dangerous is when people begin to read the intentions of the other side and get them wrong.” That could easily happen over Taiwan.
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