An Unavoidable Crisis: The Changing Dynamics of Cross-Strait Relations

The geopolitical landscape of the 21st century has seen power dynamics altering towards the Indo-Pacific. This has led both rising and the established powers to reorient themselves towards this region, making the Indo-Pacific one of the most contested regions in the world. Although the region is facing new power competitions, already existing issues have the potential to ignite a major crisis. The current issue topping that list is cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan.

China’s Point of View

Cross-strait relations have always had a major impact on the overall security architecture of East Asia. China considers the island nation of Taiwan to be a renegade province, which is an integral part of China. That has led the PRC to have an aggressive foreign policy in regards to its cross-strait relations leading to major armed conflict with Taiwan during the 1950s. However, post opening its economy the overall dynamics of China’s foreign policy had taken an alteration with Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy becoming China’s core foreign policy mantra. This also had an implication on cross-strait relations with the idea of peaceful reunification gaining momentum and with the notion of “one country two systems” taking hold. This clearly highlighted China’s inclination towards a peaceful reunification mainly due to the power disparity that it held in the international order. However, that took a shift when China conducted live missile firing test in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 in response to the Taiwanese president’s visit to the U.S. With the coming of the 21st century, China’s foreign policy strategy was guided by Hu Jintao’s “peaceful rise theory”.

But with the rise of Xi Jinping at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party, the dynamics of China’s foreign policy and cross- strait relations took a paradigm shift. China is now more confident about its rise and wants to regain its lost position in the international order. This has led it to opt for a more assertive foreign policy, as evident with Xi Jinping’s strongly emphasis on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and attainment of the China Dream. The fundamentals of the China Dream is to make China a fully developed, rich and powerful nation by 2049, which marks the 100th anniversary of the PRC. The People’s Liberation Army or PLA which is the strongest arm of the CCP has also been boldened by Xi as he emphasized on making the Chinese military world class by 2027. This bold approach is also visible in the current cross-strait relations as China is not shying away from using the military as a tool to deter forces which it feels will threaten Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland.

The dynamics of cross-strait relations also took a bump with the coming of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) in power in Taiwan since 2016. The DPP has been the party which has been raising the independence slogan and has rejected the “One China Policy” and the “1992 consensus”. This has led China to label the DPP as a separatist force, doomed to fail in their effort to separate Taiwan from the mainland. According to China, external forces led by the U.S. are instigating and helping the DPP to bolster its voice for independence. This has aggravated China, leading it to take bolder steps to uphold its position in regards to Taiwan as it is its “core interest issue”.

Taiwan is not only a sentimental issue for China but also an issue which holds immense political and strategic value. It has to be pointed that nationalism is the dictating force which is driving China’s domestic politics. This domestic political variable has an impact on its wider foreign policy strategy. Therefore, firstly the question of Taiwan holds great political significance for the legitimacy of the CCP. Secondly, obtaining Taiwan will galvanize China’s security and power hold in the Pacific. As pointed out, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the China Dream are the fundamental goals of the CCP, and the rejuvenation of the Chinese state cannot be complete with regaining Taiwan. If that goal is left unsettled, the core presumption that the CPP will help in regaining China’s lost glory will hit a stumbling block. That will lead to questions regarding the accountability of the party, which would be a major challenge for not only the party but the entire Chinese state because it is the party which holds the state.

Geo-Strategic Factors

Taiwan’s geo-strategic factor, it is hoped, will guide China to accomplish the reunification preferable through peaceful means as that would give China access to Taiwan’s high-tech sector, mainly semi-conductors. With China being one of the major rare earth exporters, gaining the recipe and establishment to produce the end product from the raw material will propel its power dynamics. The geography of Taiwan is also very significant for China to enhance its power and security in the Indo-Pacific. Once it obtains Taiwan, then it can do away with the island chain dilemma that has been a major issue for Chinese naval strategists.

The access to the deep-water ports of eastern Taiwan will help Chinese naval submarines to slip into the depths of the Pacific without being noticed. Currently, they have to navigate the shallow straits which makes detection much easier. Also, unification of Taiwan with the mainland will help China create a united naval defense zone stretching from the Yellow Sea, East China Sea to the South China Sea. This will help China to push the U.S. out of the first and second island chain, helping it to establish its hegemony in the Pacific region of the wider Indo-Pacific.

Growing Military Dynamics

China’s plan has been perceived by the U.S., which is now extending its offshore balancing strategy around the Indo-Pacific and it is under this, that the U.S. has been deepening its relations with Taiwan. The Trump administration signed the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018, which encourages visits between officials of both the states. That was not well received by China which felt that it was questioning the One China policy and the return of the DPP to power in 2020 further aggravated the issue. Post that, China was mentioning more firmly that it reserves the right to use force to obtain reunification. However, it was the recent visit of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in 2022 that pushed the issue to the tipping point. Since 2020, Chinese transgression into Taiwan’s ADIZ have gradually increased from 380 to 960 in 2021 and over 1,727 in 2022 alone. However, it was the large-scale military exercise post Pelosi’s visit which generated the fear of another blitzkrieg style invasion as was seen in Ukraine being replicated on Taiwan.

The dynamics of cross-strait relations is gradually moving higher, and the probability of a conflict can no longer be ruled out. Numerous U.S. Indo-Pacific commanders have pointed out that the invasion of Taiwan is imminent. This has generated a sense of fear, mainly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With President Xi trying to make the PLA a world-class military which can win wars by 2027 and with the issue of Taiwan being core to the survival of the party, the Taiwan factor will gradually get bigger in the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Also, with the U.S. trying to restrict China’s push into the Pacific, its relation with Taiwan is only expected to grow. All this basically points to the conclusion that the crisis in the Taiwan Strait looks imminent. Will it be resolved peacefully or via an armed invasion is something which will require more analysis and a bit of speculation.