China’s 72-hour spectacle of missiles, warships and jet fighters swarming Taiwan was designed to create a firewall — a blazing, made-for-television warning against what Beijing sees as increasingly stubborn defiance, backed by Washington, of its claims to the island.
“We’re maintaining a high state of alert, ready for battle at all times, able to fight at any time,” declared Zu Guanghong, a Chinese navy captain in a People’s Liberation Army video about the exercises, which ended on Sunday. “We have the determination and ability to mount a painful direct attack against any invaders who would wreck unification of the motherland, and would show no mercy.”
But even if China’s display of military might discourages other Western politicians from emulating Nancy Pelosi, who enraged Beijing by visiting Taiwan, it also narrows hopes for winning over the island through negotiations. Beijing’s shock and awe tactics may deepen skepticism in Taiwan that it can ever reach a peaceful and lasting settlement with the Chinese Communist Party, especially under Xi Jinping as its leader.
“Nothing is going to change after the military exercises, there’ll be one like this and then another,” said Li Wen-te, a 63-year-old retired fisherman in Liuqiu, an island off the southwestern coast of Taiwan, less than six miles from China’s drills.
“They’re as bullying as always,” he said, adding a Chinese saying, “digging deep in soft soil,” which means “give them an inch and they will take a mile.”
Mr. Xi has now shown he is willing to bring out an intimidating military stick to try to beat back what Beijing regards as a dangerous alliance of Taiwanese opposition and American support. Chinese military drills across six zones around Taiwan, which on Sunday included joint air and sea exercises to hone long-range airstrike capabilities, allowed the military to practice blockading the island in the event of an invasion.
In the face of such pressures, the policy carrots that China has used to coax Taiwan toward unification may carry even less weight. During previous eras of better relations, China welcomed Taiwan’s investment, farm goods and entertainers.
The result may be deepening mutual distrust that some experts warn could, at an extreme, bring Beijing and Washington into all-out conflict.
“It’s not about to be a blow up tomorrow, but it elevates the overall probability of crisis, conflict or even war with the Americans over Taiwan,” said Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who previously worked as a diplomat in Beijing.
Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions
What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the Communist Party, but Beijing maintains that it is historically and legally part of Chinese territory. The Chinese Nationalist forces who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war also long asserted that the island was part of a greater China they had ruled.
But since Taiwan emerged as a democracy in the 1990s, growing numbers of its people see themselves as vastly different in values and culture from the People’s Republic of China. That political skepticism toward authoritarian China has persisted, and even deepened, as Taiwan’s economic ties to the mainland expanded.
“The attractiveness of the carrots in China’s Taiwan policy — economic inducements — has now fallen to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” said Wu Jieh-min, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research academy.
“The card it holds presently is to raise military threats toward Taiwan step by step, and to continue military preparations for the use of force,” he said, “until one day, a full-scale military offensive on Taiwan becomes a favorable option.”
Since the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders have tried to coax Taiwan into accepting unification under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised autonomy in laws, religion, economic policy and other areas as long as the island accepted Chinese sovereignty.
But in increasingly democratic Taiwan, few see themselves as proud, future Chinese citizens. Support for Beijing’s proposals sank even lower after 2020, when China imposed a crackdown on Hong Kong, eroding the freedoms that the former British colony was promised under its own version of the framework.
Mr. Xi has continued to promise Taiwan a “one country, two systems” deal, and he may return to offering Taiwan economic and political incentives, if he can influence the island’s presidential election in early 2024.
Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, must step down after her second term ends that year. And a potential successor from her Democratic Progressive Party, which rejects the “one China” principle and favors independence, may be more pugnacious toward Beijing.
In the years after that election, China’s leaders likely “want to show some substantive jumps forward on Taiwan, not necessarily unification, but some results there,” said Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei who studies Chinese politics. “Xi Jinping is the kind of man who repays enmity with vengeance and repays kindness, but when he takes vengeance it is repaid in double.”
One puzzle that hangs over Taiwan is whether Mr. Xi has a timetable in mind. He has suggested his vision of China’s “rejuvenation” into a prosperous, powerful and complete global power depends on unification with Taiwan. The rejuvenation, he has said, will be achieved by midcentury, so some see that time as the outer limit for his Taiwan ambitions.
“We now have a 27-year fuse that can either be slow-burn or fast-burn,” said Mr. Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who is now president of the Asia Society, citing that midcentury date. “The time to worry is the early 2030s, because you’re closer in the countdown zone to 2049, but you’re also in Xi Jinping’s political lifetime.”
In an agenda-setting speech on Taiwan policy in 2019, Mr. Xi reasserted that China hoped to unify with Taiwan peacefully, but would not rule out armed force.
He also called for exploring ways to update what a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan would look like, and the Chinese government assigned scholars to the project. Such plans, Mr. Xi said, “must fully consider the realities of Taiwan, and also be conducive to lasting order and stability in Taiwan after unification.”
“I still believe that the military capacity is first and foremost calibrated at present as a deterrent,” said Willian Klein, a former U.S. diplomat posted in Beijing who now works for FGS Global, a consulting firm, referring to China’s buildup. “Their strategy is to narrow the possible universe of outcomes to the point that their preferred outcome becomes a reality.”
But the proposals that Chinese scholars have put forward on Taiwan highlight the gulf between what Beijing seems to have in mind, and what most Taiwanese could accept.
The Chinese studies propose sending Chinese officials to maintain control in Taiwan, especially if Beijing wins control by force; others say that China must impose a national security law on Taiwan — like the one it imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 — to punish opponents of Chinese rule.
“It must be recognized that governing Taiwan will be far more difficult than Hong Kong, whether in terms of geographic extent or the political conditions,” Zhou Yezhong, a prominent law professor at Wuhan University wrote in a recent “Outline for China’s Unification,” which he co-wrote with another academic.
Taiwanese society, they wrote, must be “re-Sinified” to embrace official Chinese values and to “fundamentally transform the political environment that has been long shaped by ‘Taiwanese independence’ ideas.”
China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, said in a television interview last week that Taiwan’s people had been brainwashed by pro-independence ideas.
“I’m sure that as long as they are re-educated, the Taiwanese public will once again become patriots,” he said in the interview shared on his embassy’s website. “Not under threat, but through re-education.”
Polls of Taiwanese people show that very few have an appetite for unification on China’s terms. In the latest opinion survey from National Chengchi University, 1.3 percent of respondents favored unification as soon as possible, 5.1 percent wanted independence as soon as possible. The rest mostly wanted some version of the ambiguous status quo.
“I cherish our freedom of speech and don’t want to be unified by China,” said Huang Chiu-hong, 47, the owner of a shop that sells fried sticks of braided dough, a local snack, on Liuqiu, the Taiwanese island.
She said she tried to see the People’s Liberation Army in action out of curiosity, but glimpsed nothing at a pavilion overlooking the sea.
“It seems that some people are concerned,” she said. “For me, it’s just a small episode in the ordinary life of Taiwanese.”