China and Taiwan

Heritage Explains

China and Taiwan

What's Going on Between China and Taiwan

This week, Dean Cheng, a research fellow in Heritage’s Asian Studies Center, breaks down the situation between China and Taiwan and what the United States should do about it.

Dean Cheng: They are messaging the political authorities on Taiwan. They are sending a message to Joe Biden. They are sending a message to Tokyo. They are sending a message to INDOPACOM, because this is both a political and a military message. From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Dean Cheng and this is Heritage Explains.

Michelle Cordero: With a voice like that, how could we not have Dean read our show opener? Dean is our guest today and will be explaining what's going on between China and Taiwan.

Cordero: But I want to start off with a little primer in case anyone doesn't know the history of China and Taiwan. Taiwan is an island in the Western Pacific ocean, about 100 miles off the coast of Southeastern China. The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, yet China has done everything in its power to constrain Taiwan and limit its participation in international organizations and the world community. Despite this, Taiwan stands strongly for high degrees of both political and economic freedom. In fact, Taiwan is the sixth freest economy in the world, just behind Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and Ireland, according to Heritage's 2021 Index of Economic Freedom.

Cordero: Recently, Chinese combat aircraft have been crossing the midline of the Taiwan Strait, a waterway that separates the island of Taiwan and continental Asia. And this month, the Chinese made an even more aggressive move.

Clip: Tensions between China and Taiwan being described as the worst in decades. This after Beijing ordered waves of war planes to fly repeatedly over Taiwan's air defense zone, prompting accusations of intimidation.

Clip: Taiwan's growing arsenal on full display at this weekend's National Day Parade. To defend against a growing threat from China, this small island is spending big on weapons, many made in the USA.

Cordero: So why is China doing this? Is it likely that war breaks out? And what should the US do about it? Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow in Heritage's Asian Study Center is an expert in China's military and foreign policy. After this short break, he'll explain.

>>> Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Saber-Rattling Is All About Shoring Up Domestic Power

Cordero: Dean, thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us what's been going on lately between China and Taiwan?

Cheng: So over the last several months, we have seen a very steady uptick in the number of Chinese combat aircraft that are crossing the midline of the Taiwan Strait. This also dates back two or three years. Before that, it was very rare that the PRC's air force would cross the center line. They would fly up to it and go back. But increasingly of late, they are sending ever larger strike packages. So that's fighters, bombers, electronic warfare aircraft, surveillance aircraft towards Taiwan and this is just airing down the air force of the Republic of China, which is the folks on Taiwan.

Cordero: So is this unprecedented then? You said it's been happening for a couple years, but is this a larger amount?

Cheng: Much larger. So when the Chinese first did this, it'll typically be two aircraft. Now, most recently they've sent almost 150 aircraft.

Cordero: Wow.

Cheng: That is a kind of package of aircraft, different types gathered together. Like what we did when we bombed Baghdad in the first Gulf War or the second Gulf War. It's a much larger number. It's much more complex. It is a significant escalation.

Cordero: So it's safe to say that this is 100% on purpose. They're trying to send a message.

Cheng: Oh, it's absolutely on purpose. This is not the sort of thing where a couple of pilots decided to go joy riding. But more to the point is it is sending multiple messages. They are messaging the political authorities on Taiwan. They are sending a message to Joe Biden. They are sending a message at Tokyo. They're sending message to INDOPACOM, because this is both a political and a military message.

Cordero: Why are they sending this message?

Cheng: There's multiple different factors here. Part of this is they want Taiwan to renounce any possibility of independence. They want Taiwan to acknowledge that they are part of China, the same way that they have succeeded in making clear to Hong Kong that they are a part of China. They are trying to deter American and Japanese support to Taiwan. They are trying to intimidate the United States into basically giving up on Taiwan. There's also a domestic set of factors because Xi Jinping is going to be going into a party congress next year to validate his role as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Cheng: In an authoritarian system, you always have to demonstrate that you are strong. And given the problems facing China, food problems, energy problems, flooding all of these sorts of issues, Xi Jinping needs, in a sense, a win, and being able to intimidate Taiwan would be a great win for him.

Cordero: So what's the likelihood that something actually happens between China and Taiwan?

Cheng: Well, there's two ways things could happen. The first is deliberate. Is it possible that the Chinese are going to one of these days, not just fly across the midline, but fly over Taiwan and perhaps even drop bombs? That's the ultimate nightmare because that's the start of a major war in East Asia. But at this point in time, I don't think it's very likely for a number of reasons, including the party congress issue. If you're going to start a war, you probably want to do it after you've secured your power, not before.

Cheng: The scarier possibility, though, is that you might have an inadvertent conflict. Somebody might get trigger happy. Somebody might accidentally fire something off. Somebody might misinterpret a signal or a radar lock. And here what is very, very scary is that China's, Beijing's perspective on inadvertent conflict is very different from the West's. We and the Soviets, for example, worked very hard never to shoot at each other directly, proxies, allies, North and South Vietnamese, North and South Koreans, but not American shooting at Russians.

Cheng: We see the Chinese engaging in direct combat with the Indians who are a nuclear armed neighbor. They have a very different risk calculus. And so they seem to be much more confident that nothing will go wrong in the Taiwan Strait. The problem is that that's exactly when things are most likely to go wrong.

Cordero: So what is the United States position on all of this? Because we are allies with Taiwan, correct?

Cheng: Not exactly. Taiwan is in this very weird gray diplomatic area. The United States actually does not recognize the government in Taipei. We recognize the both East and West Germany. We recognize North and South Korea. But when it comes to Taiwan, what we have done is we have passed national law, the Taiwan Relations Act, which says that we will provide Taiwan with the means necessary to defend itself. But we don't recognize them as a separate country. And in fact, only a handful of states recognized Taiwan as the Republic of China.

Cheng: We do believe that it would be a really bad thing to allow 23 million people to basically fall into the clutches of Beijing. The Chinese behavior, whether in Hong Kong or Xinjiang or Tibet says that the people of Taiwan, if they were to reunify, would lose a lot of their human rights or civil rights. So we sell Taiwan arms, the Biden Administration just sold $750 million worth of self propelled artillery. But it's not like NATO. It's not like our commitment to South Korea or Japan. And this is the so-called strategic ambiguity, which we practice in the hopes that it will leave Beijing wondering what might the Americans do?

Cordero: So is it safe to say the then that we wouldn't physically get involved ourselves, but we would give them our equipment?

Cheng: Well, that's also not quite it because there is the possibility that we would come in. This is one of the things about Americans. We're very inscrutable. Sometimes we come in. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes we leave after a handful of casualties. I think Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. Sometimes we stay for 15, 20 years and sometimes even then it's a mess when we do leave. So this is the strategic ambiguity. We are not explicit about exactly what we would do. There is a pretty good likelihood that we would intervene with our own troops, that American men and women would help defend Taiwan.

Cheng: But it's not a guarantee.

Cordero: Thank you so much. Everyone, Dean Cheng helping us understand the situation between China and Taiwan.

Cordero: And that's it for this week's episode. If you have any questions for Dean or anyone at Heritage or if you have a suggestion for a show topic, we would love to hear from you. Email us at managingeditor@heritage.org. Also, if you like today's episode, it would mean the world to us if you would leave us a review or rating wherever you get your podcasts. It really does make a difference and helps us stand up to the podcast competition from the left. Thanks for listening and Tim is up next week with a new explainer.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher with editing by John Popp.