China Isn't Giving Taiwan's Lai Ching-te Any Honeymoon


Jun 14, 2024

A large screen shows news of Chinese military drills around Taiwan in Beijing, China, May 23, 2024, photo by Kyodo via Reuters Connect

A large screen shows news of Chinese military drills around Taiwan in Beijing, China, May 23, 2024

Photo by Kyodo via Reuters Connect

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on June 14, 2024.

The outlook for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is darkening.

Since the inauguration of new Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te, China has ramped up threatening rhetoric and activities against the island. This trend at best will lead to heightened tensions and at worst could bring about full-blown war that prompts American military intervention.

Two weeks ago, Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun underlined Beijing's hardened stance in a fiery speech at the usually more congenial Shangri-La Dialogue defense forum in Singapore, taking direct aim at Lai and his team.

“Those separatists recently made fanatical statements that show their betrayal of the Chinese nation and their ancestors,” he said. “They will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history.”

Dong's speech came on the heels of two days of large-scale military drills by the People's Liberation Army around Taiwan and smaller islands it controls. Chinese officials were not shy about describing the encirclement exercises as “punishment” and a demonstration of the PLA's ability to blockade or invade Taiwan.

The ostensible impetus was Lai's inaugural speech on May 20.

While Lai also showed signs of the same kind of pragmatism toward cross-strait relations that characterized Tsai's approach, China clearly views him as a problem.

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In contrast to predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, also from the Democratic Progressive Party, Lai made more explicit references to Taiwan's separation from China. At the same time, he gave no nod to what is known as the “1992 Consensus,” a supposed agreement between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) party on accepting that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of “one China,” while instead making clear his focus on the island itself.

“Whether it is the Republic of China, the Republic of China Taiwan, or Taiwan, these are the names we or our international friends call our country, and they are all equally resounding,” he said.

While Lai also showed signs of the same kind of pragmatism toward cross-strait relations that characterized Tsai's approach, China clearly views him as a problem. One reason is an inability to ignore his 2017 description of himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” even though he took a more subdued tone as vice president during Tsai's second term.

A major challenge for Lai is that China is getting stronger and more confident militarily. Since taking over the CCP in 2012, Xi Jinping has prioritized the modernization and professionalization of the PLA, with the goal of being able to conquer Taiwan. In 2017, he demanded that PLA modernization be “basically completed” by 2035.

Senior U.S. military and intelligence officials believe that 2027 might be significant to China, as it will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Concerns in the United States have been mounting that that year could be Xi's target date for military action against Taiwan.

For now, Xi has ordered the PLA to conduct more and increasingly sophisticated military drills to enhance preparedness and to test new capabilities. At the same time, the low-key response of both Taiwan and the United States to China's simulated blockade of the island in 2022 after a visit by then–U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has probably emboldened Beijing to further push the envelope.

During Tsai's presidency, Beijing began frequently flying swarms of military aircraft into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, repeatedly crossing the de facto boundary separating the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

This “new normal,” which aims to offer realistic preparatory training for Chinese pilots while threatening, confusing, and tiring Taiwan, is expected to continue indefinitely. Prospects for a miscalculation by Chinese pilots, or the Taiwanese pilots intercepting them, thus remain unacceptably high given the possible risk that an incident could escalate into war.

Another problem for Lai is China's growing resentment of Taiwan's deepening relationship with Washington. U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly talked of using American forces to defend Taiwan if China attacks the island, straying from Washington's official policy of “strategic ambiguity,” while at the same time saying the United States does not support Taiwan independence.

Beyond the presidential palace, Beijing is broadly unhappy with how Taiwan is changing. According to China's 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which established a legal justification for attacking Taiwan if it formally declares independence, military action would also be authorized if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification…[become] completely exhausted.”

The fact that China continues to rail against the “de-sinicization” of Taiwan is troubling because it suggests that the process alone might become a cause of war. For many years now, opinion polls have shown that island residents identify simply as Taiwanese, not Chinese. In a Pew survey last year, only 3 percent of respondents saw themselves as Chinese and not Taiwanese.

Xi will not want to go to war without greater certainty that Beijing would prevail.

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On the other hand, Beijing could take consolation in the fact that the DPP lost its parliamentary majority in the January polls won by Lai.

The KMT won the most seats, and with the support of the smaller Taiwan People's Party, last month pushed through a package of bills that will constrain Lai's powers as president and subject the military to scrutiny that some see as posing a security risk. Earlier this week, KMT parliamentary leader Fu Kun-chi indicated to Nikkei Asia that he will likely resist proposals to raise defense spending and called on Lai to “end his hostility” toward China.

Despite the increasingly precarious situation in the Taiwan Strait, it seems plausible that cooler heads will prevail for now, not only due to Taiwan's self-restraint but also because of the severe costs war would inflict on China, especially if the United States intervened. Xi will not want to go to war without greater certainty that Beijing would prevail. That may not be much assurance for Taiwan, but the Taiwanese themselves do not seem so worried.

Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.

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