That was the gist of Xi’s direction-setting New Year’s speech on Jan. 2, when he addressed a packed house at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi’s speech marked 40 years since China stopped regular artillery bombardment of Taiwan-controlled islands off the Chinese coast. While he spoke at length about peace, he also made it clear that he’s running out of patience for polite politics.
“We are willing to create a vast space for peaceful unification, but we will never leave any room for any sort of Taiwan independence or separatist activities,” Xi said from his seat at the front of the auditorium. He then directly addressed the scope of action China may use to enforce this: “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures.”
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Xi’s comments sparked a rebuke from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. “China must face the fact of the existence of Taiwan, and not deny the system of a democratic county that has been commonly built up by the Taiwanese people,” she said in a speech the next day.
Tsai’s pro-independence party, the Democratic Progressive Party, replaced the China-friendly Kuomintang party in 2016, making it less likely than ever that Taipei will accept a peaceful “reunification” with the Communist-governed mainland. If anything, the back-and-forth might cement the two sides in opposition to one another.
Xi’s comments are raising fears of a military conflict between the two sides, even if it’s not China’s preferred option. Taiwan announced a new round of military drills aimed at fending off invasion after Xi’s remarks, and President Tsai has asked international leaders to pledge their help in the event of a crisis.
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Despite the escalating rhetoric, experts tell Global News an imminent military conflict is unlikely.
While Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, says “this is a very dangerous flashpoint,” he points out that China would fail if it tried to invade Taiwan in 2019. However, China’s chances for victory will be much greater in five-to-10 years, once it’s finished building up its military.
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“The farther forward you project, the more likely it becomes that there will be a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” said Easton, author of the book The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. “They’re building up all the capabilities that they would need to launch a potential invasion of Taiwan at some point in the next decade.”
Here’s why China is so focused on controlling Taiwan, and why it probably can’t take over the island by force – at least for now.
The enemy next door
China has long viewed Taiwan as a rogue province run by nationalists who never accepted losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists rose to power. Taiwan views itself as a free and democratic country that stands apart from the controlling Communist Party. However, it can’t officially declare it’s full independence from China, lest it face some form of attack.
Many western nations treated Taiwan as the “true” China until 40 years ago, when the Communist government in Beijing started reaching out to the world. That same year, in 1979, the U.S. shifted diplomatic relations to Beijing while promising to continue selling weapons to Taiwan for its defence.
President Xi’s speech on Jan. 2 marked that anniversary.
Taiwan – which officially calls itself the Republic of China – occupies a large island separated from mainland China by the Taiwan Strait, a 160-kilometre-wide stretch of water off China’s east coast. The self-governed island of approximately 23.6 million people has strong economy with a gross domestic product of approximately US$572 billion. It’s a booming hub for technology, shipping and banking, and it occupies a key strategic position between China and the Pacific Ocean.
“Taiwan serves as a gateway to the Western Pacific, and if that gateway is in the American sphere of influence, it can be used to blockade China,” Easton said. He adds that Taiwan is an extremely valuable location for intelligence gathering, because it allows American spies to monitor China from a close vantage point.
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It’s also a symbolically important piece of territory for Xi’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to associate professor Josephine Chiu-Duke, who teaches Chinese intellectual history at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Asian Studies. She says letting go of Taiwan would be a “criminal” act in the eyes of the CCP.
“No leader wants to be the one who let part of the holy motherland be ceded,” she told Global News. “If they did they would become… the sinner of the nation.”
The United States and many other nations – including Canada – have tip-toed around the Taiwan issue for decades in an effort to maintain friendly relations with China. Most nations do not officially recognize Taiwan as a country, but they still maintain unofficial diplomatic and economic relationships with its government.
All but 17 of the world’s nations have stopped acknowledging Taiwan as a country, in accordance with Beijing’s “One China” policy.
The U.S. is perhaps Taiwan’s closest unofficial ally. Washington has a deal with Taipei to sell it weapons and keep its naval fleet nearby. Experts say the U.S. would probably help the island in the event of an invasion, but there is no formal agreement that forces the Americans to do so – and no guidelines for how to deal with smaller-scale acts of Chinese aggression.
“No one can be completely sure what the United States would do in the event of a crisis,” Easton said. He points out that the Trump administration has opened up more diplomatic channels with Taiwan, but the president’s erratic approach to global politics makes it hard to know for sure if he would back Taipei in a crisis.
“Because of that strategic ambiguity, (China) is always trying to test American resolve on Taiwan,” Easton said.
There is no definite naval border between Taiwan and China, because China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country. However, Taiwan holds sway over several islands in the strait, including Kinmen, a tiny archipelago just a few kilometres from China.
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China could challenge Taiwan and the U.S. at any point by seizing one of these islands, sinking a Taiwanese ship or launching a few missiles across the strait, Easton said. “That can be done in a very shocking, sudden fashion,” he said.
Easton says China might use one of these provocative actions to test Taiwan in 2019, just to see how it and the U.S. might react. However, the chances of a full-scale Chinese invasion are unlikely this year, he said. Rather, China will probably wait and see if a more Beijing-friendly government wins the next Taiwan election in 2020.
If that doesn’t happen, the situation might tilt toward a larger conflict.
Keeping the peace
China has ramped up pressure on Taiwan since the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power in 2016, ending a 20-year run by the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party. Taiwan had been drifting closer to China under the KMT, so when the DPP took over, Beijing decided to punish the island. It cut ties with Taipei, poached its diplomatic partners and barred Taiwanese officials from international gatherings.
The DPP lost ground to the KMT in regional elections last November, much to the delight of China.
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Professor Chiu-Duke, of UBC, suspects China’s latest threats are aimed at pushing Taiwan back toward a more China-friendly government in its 2020 presidential election, by raising the possibility of war if the island re-elects the DPP.
“Most of the people on the island are very realistic and pragmatic,” she said. “They know Taiwan is a very small area, and nobody wants war.”
She adds that Xi is also likely using Taiwan to distract the Chinese people from the slowing economy, which is suffering from the effects of a trade war with the U.S.
Despite China’s threats of violence, it probably won’t use force unless it loses all hope of reunification, according to Jie Daleil, an associate professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies.
“Although Xi stressed that all options are on the table, unless Taipei makes radical moves to establish Taiwan independence or Washington rattles the ‘One China’ policy in a major way, Beijing will probably pursue its peaceful game plan for the foreseeable future,” he wrote in an analysis piece for The Washington Post.
Chiu-Duke says China could simply blockade Taiwan and wage economic war against its government in order to bring it on side. She points out that Taiwan is likely riddled with Chinese agents already, and it wouldn’t be hard for China to co-opt Taiwanese officials into doing its bidding.
“They can control Taiwan without using one missile, so why should they try to start a war?” Chiu-Duke said. “So far, Xi Jingping always talks big, but if you examine what he does… he’s not that aggressive.”
Taking Taiwan by force
Experts say a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be extremely bloody and damaging for both sides.
“Taiwan would be ruined and many provinces along the (Chinese coast) would be destroyed,” said Chiu-Duke.
“It would be a tremendously bloody war,” Easton said. “Both sides would take massive losses. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands dead on both sides. It would be really ugly.”
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention, the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s office told Congress in a report on China last year. The report described a large-scale amphibious invasion as a “significant political and military risk.”
On paper, China’s military looks like it should be able to crush Taiwan. The Chinese military budget was an estimated US$170.4 billion last year, according to a report from the U.S. government’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Taiwan spent approximately $10.7 billion on its own defence last year. China has several thousand more tanks, artillery weapons, missile launchers, attack helicopters, fighter jets and warships than Taiwan does, according to estimates on the military-tracking websites Global Fire Power and ArmedForces.EU.
However, time, weather and terrain would be on Taiwan’s side in the event of an invasion, Easton says.
Any Chinese invasion would have to happen in April or October, when conditions on the Taiwan Strait are calm enough for amphibious assault ships to cross, Easton says. These ships would make easy targets for Taiwan’s submarines, aircraft and defensive missiles, meaning the Chinese would have to overwhelm Taiwan’s defences and jam its communications in order to get enough ships through.
Even if the Chinese managed to land on Taiwan’s shoreline, they would have a very difficult time establishing a beachhead against Taiwan’s ground troops, Easton says. He thinks Taiwan could hold off a Chinese invasion for several months, which would give the U.S. plenty of time to step in and help.
Taiwan would also be able to launch counterattacks against mainland China, he said, killing troops waiting to cross at the shoreline and knocking out ports and air bases.
He adds that a Chinese invasion would never come as a surprise. “It takes months to build up before an attack,” he said. Taiwan would see China moving thousands of troops to the coast several months in advance, and it would be able to prepare accordingly.
“When you’re talking about an all-out, massive military operation, there are a lot of warnings and indicators that that’s coming,” he said.
Brent Christensen, who serves as the unofficial U.S. ambassador in Taipei, reassured Taiwan in October that the U.S. would support it in a military conflict with China.
“Any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means represents a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and is of grave concern to the United States,” Christensen said at a press conference in Taipei on Oct. 31. “We are opposed to unilateral attempts to change the status quo.”
He added at the time that the U.S. remains committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, as evidenced by a $330-million weapons deal signed in 2018.
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Chiu-Duke doesn’t think an invasion is imminent but she wouldn’t rule it out entirely. She says President Xi is focused on his “dream” of making China a rich and powerful country. That’s why China has accelerated its space program, built up its military fleet and expanded its presence in the South China Sea.
However, China will never achieve its full glory unless it can deal with the rebellious island on its doorstep, she said.
“It’s not to say I’m not worried – I’m worried sick,” she said. “But realistically, I just don’t think Xi Jinping could be so foolish (as to attack Taiwan). But nobody knows.”