Fourth Strait Crisis?

Alessandro Ponzetto | February 1st, 2022

As mentioned in ‘Asia Pacific Geopolitics – January 31’, China’s ambassador to the US Qin Gang warned of “military conflict” if the United States continues to take moves which Beijing perceives as encouraging Taiwan’s independence.

On the same day, Nikkei Asia had an interview with Jin Canrong, a professor in Renmin University’s School of International Studies and known as one of China’s most vocal hawks. He noted that the People’s Liberation Army already has a posture superior to that of the U.S. in order to deal with a contingency involving Taiwan and that It is very likely that the leadership will move toward armed unification by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA’s founding. The question is: is this truly the case?

Before answering, it is best to start from the very beginning. Disclaimer: Since 1949, the year the civil war ended with the KMT fleeing to Taiwan, there have been three Strait Crises:

  • In December 1954, the Communists launched an attack on the outer islands of Quemoy and Matsu, close to the mainland province of Fujian, but to this day they remain under the control of the Taiwanese. In response, the US signed the Mutual Defence Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of China (still the official name of Taiwan), and sent the US Navy, which promptly made the Communist back down
  • In August 1958, Mao tried once again an attack over the islands and, as four years earlier, US forces were deployed in the area and the PLA was once again forced  to back down.
  • In March 1996, the PLA carried out extensive military drills, which included live missile tests. While the US formally recognised the PRC, following the events of 1971, it still responded in the aid of Taiwan by sending once again the US Navy in the region.

Since then, there has not been a major crisis across this vital strait, given the amount of shipping sailing through it. There is however another key event worth mentioning, which is important in view of recent events: On June 30, 1998, President Bill Clinton stated during a visit to China three no’s to then President of China, Jiang Zemin:

  • No U.S. support for independence for Taiwan
  • No support for a two-China or “one China, one Taiwan” policy
  • No support for Taiwan’s admittance into any international organisation that requires statehood for membership

This declaration sparked quite a reaction at the time. Administration supporters argued that the “three no’s” were consistent with past US.statements, and did little damage to US interests in Taiwan while discouraging movement in Taiwan toward political independence that might prompt a hostile PRC response.

In contrast, many in Congress viewed the President as sacrificing US interests and those of Taiwan for the sake of a smooth summit meeting in China. In response, they criticized the “three no’s” and proposed resolutions in the Senate and House reaffirming support for Taiwan. The resolutions (S.Con.Res. 107; S.Con.Res.30; and H.Con.Res. 301) passed in the weeks following the President’s China trip.

This precedent is noteworthy, given the current situation. After all, Xi is not in a good position: on the one hand, he set reunification as a goal but, on the other hand, he does not seem thrilled about the military option, as while he mentioned reunification during his end of year address, he did not say anything about a hostile takeover. Quoting from his speech:

The complete reunification of our motherland is an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. I sincerely hope that all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation will join forces to create a brighter future for our nation.’

Another proof of this unwillingness for military options is the number of flights over the Taiwanese ADIZ. At the highest, there were over 100 flights per day, but the number has considerably decreased (as mentioned time and again). On January 31, only 5 planes entered the ADIZ, with the recent high being 39 planes in response to a US drill. Given the display from the US Navy (and Japan, which took part in the drill), that number is pitiful.

Across the Strait, even these more subdued activities have not been taken lightly: as shown in ‘Asia Pacific Geopolitics – January 26’, there has been a bipartisan agreement to freeze the budget for this year’s Taipei-Shanghai City Forum, with the KMT acknowledging the “negative perceptions” people harbour towards China over its perceived muscle-flexing.

Finally, one of the most important factors against the invasion is something Jin Canrong and others have not considered: inter-faction politics within the CCP. The Party has a defining moment in its history in October, where either Xi goes full Mao after winning (the more likely outcome) or the opposition faction emulates the purge carried out by Deng Xiaoping against the Maoists (the less likely but rather ironic outcome, as Xi is where he is thanks to said purge).

Deng also brings another interesting parallel: while he was consolidating power, China went to war with Vietnam (the last conflict the PLA was involved in). The situation is different, as Vietnam was a wartorn country, after decades of conflict, and shared a 600 km border with China; Taiwan has been living under the fear of such an invasion since 1949, with the mainland never actually attempting such a move. Moreover, they have been improving their defences, with other players in the region doing the same (Japan is one notable mention).

In light of all this, an actual conflict may not be in the cards anytime soon but a Fourth Strait Crisis, akin to the Third, could. After all, such an event was ultimately a success for China and the winner of the 20th Party Congress will need something similar to consolidate power. Thankfully, the US Navy seems to be aware of this, given the current deployments and shows of force (below the fleet deployments on January 31)