Chinese Whispers

Will Xi invade Taiwan?

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In this episode

Cindy Yu

Last week, the US and Canada each sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan has appealed to the US for faster delivery of fighter aircraft. It's been a tense month in the Strait, kicked off by China's celebration of its national day on October 1 through flying a record number of aircraft through Taiwan's air defense identification zone. Could war really happen? Could China really successfully take Taiwan?

I speak to Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford and the American Enterprise Institute, whose detailed piece for Foreign Affairs took a close look at China's military options. On the episode, we talk about many interesting things - from the signals that D.C. is sending to Beijing, to the public opinion pressures that Xi is under. ‘The United States needs to be much more focused on reassuring Beijing that Taiwan independence is not a US policy goal’, she tells me, from conversations with Chinese strategists who have started to think otherwise.

‘My view is that Xi Jinping doesn’t really care about the cost – if he can win' - and increasingly inside Beijing, policymakers believe they can strike Taiwan fast, before any American support can be scrambled together. Given this expectation, and given that Xi 'wants to go down in history as the guy that resolved this Civil War once and for all’ - how much longer will he wait?

For Oriana, the way to deter China is to make it believe that it will achieve true pariah status internationally - that destructive economic sanctions will come their way if any attempt on Taiwan is made. But I question what kind of outcomes that would have - sanctions have sometimes managed to make a population more supportive of its government and their nationalism. Oriana agreed, referring to two types of post-war Germany:

‘Do we end up with Versailles Treaty Germany? Where China says, you’ve harmed us, and now all of our focus is on rebuilding our power and coming back with a vengeance? Or is it a post-WWII Germany, in which they’re like, we made a mistake, we shouldn’t have done this and now we want to be a peaceful member of the international community? I don’t know. Even if we’re successful in beating back China from taking Taiwan, are we really in a better position than we were before? And that is why I have advocated an idea unpopular in the United States – that we will lose blood and treasure, and return to the status quo’

It's a fascinating and timely episode. And, to find out just why China cares about Taiwan so much, you can also tune into a previous episode of Chinese Whispers where I speak to Professor Rana Mitter and analyst Jessica Drun about the place that Taiwan holds in the Chinese psyche.