Xi disavows Taiwan invasion plans, but risks remain

On the fringes of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leader’s Meeting in San Francisco last month, Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping told U.S. president Joe Biden that Taiwan was the “biggest” and “most dangerous issue” between the two countries. 

In response, Biden reinforced the American commitment to protecting “Indo-Pacific allies”, amid concerns about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

What dominated headlines in Taiwan regarding the four-hour Biden-Xi meeting on November 15 was Xi’s apparent denial of plans to invade Taiwan in the near future.

According to a senior U.S. official, the Chinese leader dismissed American reports that Beijing was planning for military action against Taiwan in 2027 or 2035.

“He basically said there are no such plans, and that no one had informed him about them,” the official told reporters, adding that Xi had indicated a hint of irritation in his remarks. 

Taiwanese TV outlets covered the news extensively, featuring looks of surprise and disbelief from members of the public in street interviews. On Facebook, social media users said it was tough to trust Xi’s remarks given Beijing’s pugilism towards the island.

In its own description of the November15 meeting, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Xi maintained the Chinese position that the U.S. must pledge not to back Taiwanese independence and stop arming Taiwan.

Predictions of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan range mostly from 2027 to 2050, although one U.S. admiral even hinted of an attack before 2024. Some have even begun to warn of an earlier invasion if the U.S. becomes increasingly embroiled in conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, creating a possible three-front war. Others, including Taiwan’s foreign minister, believe Xi may invade Taiwan if China’s domestic problems undermine Xi’s grip on power.

Besides, analysts agreed that remaining vigilant was still key, despite China’s ostensible assurances.

Global Taiwan Institute Deputy Director John Dotson evaluated that both the U.S. and China “remained pretty staunch in their positions on Taiwan” after Biden’s meeting with Xi last month. 

Professor Kou Chien-wen, who teaches political science at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said the possibility of China attacking Taiwan still remained. 

“We cannot act like there’s no risk anymore,” he added. 

National Taiwan University political scientist Chen Shih-min opined that Xi made the remarks as part of an overall milder tone adopted throughout the meeting with his U.S. counterpart.

“China is facing significant economic challenges and really needs to stabilize US-China ties to reassure international investors that it is safe to invest there,” he said.

“Given how Taiwan is the biggest flashpoint in the US-China rivalry, he does not wish to further escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait. But saying that he will not attack Taiwan by 2027 does not mean that he no longer intends to take Taiwan at all.”

Taiwan, a self-governed island, faces the constant threat of an incursion by China, which claims sovereignty over the territory that it maintains must be “reunified” with the mainland one day, by force if necessary.

The U.S. has undertaken a more ambiguous stance over the issue, maintaining formal diplomatic relations with the Chinese regime, while sustaining informal relations with Taiwan and providing arms to the island that could be used to defend against Chinese efforts to assert control over the island through military force.

There have been worries among some observers about the possibility of an attack in the near term, given Beijing’s increased military aggression towards the island in recent times.

Over the past three years, Chinese warships and warplanes have crossed the Taiwan Strait separating China and Taiwan almost daily. Just a day after the Biden-Xi meeting, Beijing deployed 12 aircraft and five vessels around the island.

Furthermore, China conducted massive war games following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meetings with then-U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April 2023 and his predecessor Nancy Pelosi in August 2022.

“The fact that China could stage unprecedented military drills immediately after Pelosi’s visit shows that its military is prepared and can launch such plans at any moment,” Prof Kou said.

In any case, Kou believed that people were making too much out of 2027 and 2035 as arbitrary deadlines for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

These years have been highlighted partly because Xi has instructed China’s armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to have the capability to fight and win a regional conflict by 2027. By 2035, the PLA should be a “world-class” military power, according to Xi. 

“If Taiwan declares independence in 2026, would Xi wait until 2027 to launch an attack?” Kou said, as Beijing views de jure independence as the final nail in the coffin for cross-strait ties with Taiwan.

Kou added that while China’s preference is to attain a peaceful reunification with the island, Beijing would not exclude the use of force. “That has not changed,” he said. 

Kou’s statements mirrored that of a readout from China’s Foreign Ministry, in which Xi reportedly told Biden during their meeting that “China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable”. 

Dr Tseng Chien-yuan, chairman of the Taipei-based think-tank New School For Democracy, contended that Taiwan should also remain on high alert owing to China’s barrage of non-military pressures against the island. 

It is good to hear Xi deny reports of an imminent attack, but Taiwan cannot let its guard down because of this, he said. “Besides war, there are plenty of other ways for China to continue heaping pressure on Taiwan, including economic sanctions,” he added. 

China has periodically excluded Taiwanese products out of the profitable Chinese market for political reasons.

For instance, a day after Pelosi landed in Taipei, the Chinese Customs suspended imports of citrus fruits and certain fish products from Taiwan, quoting concerns over pesticides and Covid-19. The move led to pomelo farmers hurrying to salvage unsold fruits by turning them into pomelo jam and pomelo essential oil.

In a December 13 article by Reuters, Taiwan security officials said that the island’s military drove away four attempts by Chinese forces to approach the island’s sensitive contiguous zone last month, in what they viewed as an escalated Chinese campaign to “intimidate” voters before the presidential election in January 2024.

Taiwan officials have repeatedly cautioned that China was attempting to sway voters toward candidates seeking closer relations with Beijing, who has framed the presidential and parliamentary elections on January 13 next year as a choice between “peace and war” and urged Taiwanese to make the “right choice”.

China has ramped up such propaganda ahead of Taiwan’s election as campaigning has gained increased momentum, Taiwan security officials and Taipei-based diplomats said. 

China’s air and naval forces staged four coordinated maneuvers approaching Taiwan’s contiguous zone, which is 24 nautical miles (44 kilometers) off its coast, in November, based on various Taiwan security officials who discussed the matter with reporters and according to an internal Taiwanese memo summarizing China’s activities.

The Chinese military moves were part of a “multi-front campaign of voting interference,” the memo wrote, saying that it also entailed exchange activities with Taiwan politicians and spreading disinformation to influence public opinion.

The contiguous zone drills were “simulating an intrusion and testing the response of our national military”, said one of the officials, who requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. Taiwan mobilized forces to drive the Chinese forces away, the source added.

In November, Chinese activities also entailed balloons that crossed the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive median line for two days in a row, as well as marine research ships approaching close to its contiguous zone off Taiwan’s eastern and western shores, the officials disclosed. 

Last month also saw a Chinese commercial tugboat entered Taiwan’s southern territorial waters, which are defined as 12 nautical miles from its coast, as per statements from sources. 

“Through these military and non-military forces, they were making a statement that they can do something to Taiwan anytime while keeping the tensions up,” the official said. “It is evident psychological warfare. They are spreading the message of ‘peace and war’ every day.”

A second Taiwan official described the Chinese maneuvers as part of Beijing’s intensifying campaign of “gray zone” warfare trying to wear Taiwan down with constant drills and to “intimidate” voters.

“They want to make it look like their prophecy might come true,” the person said, alluding to the narrative that if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) remains in power, a war with China is likely.

As the presidential and legislative elections approach, there is a renewed possibility for Taiwan to adopt political positions that could provoke a Chinese attack. Beijing regards the presidential candidate of Taiwan’s ruling DPP, William Lai, as “pro-independence”. His vice-president running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s ex envoy to the U.S., is presently sanctioned by China for backing “Taiwan independence”. 

Considering Lai’s track record of pro-independence beliefs, should he win Taiwan’s elections, China may very well sustain its gray-zone military pressure against Taipei. 

That being said, it is unlikely that China will invade Taiwan for now, for even Lai has unequivocally asserted his commitment to the status quo between Taiwan and Beijing and denied any necessity to announce formal independence. 

Such restraint exercised by Taiwan’s future government could reduce the likelihood of worsening cross-strait tensions while winning international solidarity for the Taiwanese case against Beijing.

Photo credit: iStock/ HUNG CHIN LIU

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more