This article was originally published in Italian by Informazioni della Difesa. An English translation of the article is included below.

A Misplaced Relief

Prophecies of a spike in tensions between China and Taiwan in the aftermath of the January 13th presidential election were belied and replaced by an equally misplaced relief. The predictable victory of Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate, was dismissed by Beijing with the usual tone of cold detachment: the outcome, the CCP reaffirmed, “does not change the fact that Taiwan is part of China, nor the overall direction”, towards an “inevitable reunification”.

Any assessment on the trajectory of cross-strait relations should rest on a few basic assumptions. The first is that “reunification” is an inalienable goal of Xi Jinping’s China. The political investment and personal exposure entailed in the issue made it clear that China’s leader considers it a key element of his legacy. Given the process of personalization that the Chinese Communist Party has undergone under Xi’s presidency, any open concession on the ultimate goal of complete “reunification” would amount to self-delegitimisation of the CCP regime. The second necessary assumption is that a complete-victory scenario for China would be that of a “peaceful reunification.” The expression, part of Beijing’s official language, indicates an absorption process without large-scale military intervention. In fact, Beijing’s strategy hinges on the gradual, de facto compression of Taiwan’s sovereignty through a hybrid campaign that includes different domains and complementary tools.

The Hybrid Campaign

On the Taiwanese domestic front, these tools include widespread propaganda efforts aimed at Taipei’s public opinion, combined with support for local political parties closer to Beijing. On the economic side, Beijing resorts to pressure such as tariffs on goods (often agricultural) that Taiwan exports to mainland China, by far Taipei’s largest trading partner, with 35 percent of its exports. On the military side, incursions by Beijing’s fighter jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace are increasingly frequent, with the aim of gathering intelligence, testing Taipei’s defences, and above all, gradually establishing new “standards of normalcy” of the tactical situation. This trend is steadily increasing: according to an AFP database, the number of aircraft penetrated Taiwan’s ADIZ in 2022 was 1727, an increase of nearly 100 percent over the 960 in 2021 and more than 400 percent over the 380 in 2020. The intensity of these sorties has shown peaks in correspondence with political events that Beijing considers sensitive, such as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022, when a record of 440 raids took place. The maritime counterpart of this tactic consists of the passage of Chinese Coast Guard vessels through Taiwan’s territorial waters, aimed at reaffirming Chinese sovereignty over those waters, as well as fostering a sense of encirclement and projecting the threat of a possible naval blockade should the status quo change.

Finally, the diplomatic component of Beijing’s hybrid campaign features the international community as its protagonist. With the island state of Nauru as the last example, one of its tactics is to ‘recruit’ into its ranks the few countries that have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, usually by means of economic incentives. Another policy is the use of undeclared economic retaliation against third countries that violate the “red lines” established by Beijing.

The ultimate target of this strategy is the cognitive sphere of Western and Taiwanese public opinions. By increasing the pressure gradually, so as not to cross the threshold of a military reaction, the strategy aims to change Taiwan’s perception until it matches Beijing’s official position, which portrays it as an integral and indivisible part of the People’s Republic of China. In other words, the latter seeks to accustom the international community to the idea of Taiwan’s absorption as an inescapable, and even beneficial outcome, even for the Taiwanese people themselves.

The third assumption, closely related to the previous one, is that, contrary to what is often claimed, the CCP is not likely to bind itself to a specific timeframe for “reunification”; it is plausible that President Xi Jinping aspires to achieve this goal before his exit from the political scene, which could coincide with his death, but doing so without the use of force could take longer. Many observers agree that the People’s Liberation Army -PLA- is not yet technically ready for an invasion of Taiwan, which would consist of a complex amphibious operation with a high level of inter-force coordination, often cited as the main weakness of the PLA itself. Moreover, the island is heavily fortified and its military plans revolve entirely around this scenario. Xi Jinping has called for his armed forces to reach the level of operational readiness required for this goal by 2027, a deadline that, however, says nothing about his intentions to attack. Similarly, China’s official rhetoric that has often linked “rejuvenation of the nation, in 2049”, with “reunification” should be interpreted as a reaffirmation of Beijing’s determination to achieve its goal rather than a deadline.

The Year Ahead

Against the backdrop of these “structural” conditions, 2024 represents a key year for the short-to-medium-term trajectory of Chinese pressure on Taiwan, and will be conditioned by three main variables. The first is Taiwan’s domestic politics: an acceleration by Taipei toward autonomy, for instance in the form of a declaration of independence, could lead to a sudden and immediate escalation. Polls in recent years have suggested a gradual consolidation of Taiwanese national identity and a diminishing affection for mainland China. But the results of the January elections gave President Lai a relative parliamentary majority (40 percent), which will force him to seek political support from the opposition parties (TPP and KMT), whose positions on China are much less clear-cut. A key moment in this respect will be Lai’s inaugural address in May, which will clarify the new president’s intentions, and the related reactions from Beijing. Also given the U.S. elections are on the horizon, most likely is a calming tone aimed at appeasing Beijing. The second factor will be the course of the war in Ukraine, which will have, and indeed is already having, a fundamental impact on the credibility of the U.S. and the Western deterrence. Beijing carefully measures its opponents’ commitment to defending Kiev. It is likely, for example, that a military defeat of Ukraine, accompanied by waning military support from its allies, would prompt Beijing to accelerate the process of Taiwan’s absorption through the aforementioned gray zone tactics. Finally, the outcome of the U.S. elections will have a strong impact on Beijing’s next steps. A Donald Trump victory, in particular, would have an unpredictable effect. On one hand, the former president has signalled repeatedly that he does not consider Taiwan a core U.S. interest, recently going so far as to accuse it of having “taken away the U.S. semiconductor business” and implicitly threatening economic tariffs toward it; such a move would indicate a reversal of the U.S. position of recent years, or at least be perceived as such by Taipei itself and Beijing, which might thus take encouragement from it. However, the inherent unpredictability of a Trump presidency could, at the (high) price of a higher risk of tactical miscalculation, function as a strategically stabilising deterrent.

Biden’s reelection would have the opposite effect, instilling stability in the short run and uncertainty in the long run. In the aftermath of the Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco last November, the U.S. Administration made it clear that the outcome of the differences between Beijing and Taipei is less important to Washington than whether they are recomposed peacefully. This message reveals, among other things, the overload of security challenges faced by the U.S., and foreshadows a policy that aims, especially in the short term, to avoid uncontrolled escalations. On the other hand, this same stance would signal to Beijing an unwillingness to take risks in defending Taiwanese autonomy and could fuel a more aggressive strategic posture by China.

The semantic paradox

Behind these variables stands a peculiar, perhaps unique feature of the Taiwanese dossier. Unlike other territorial disputes, sometimes stuck on longstanding points of substance or rekindled by sudden spikes in tension, the ‘governance regime’ of the Taiwan issue, namely the One China Policy, is a semantic compromise. In other words, cross-strait strategic stability is guaranteed, to date, by the parties’ commitment not to resolve the substance of the dispute. This circumstance contributes to a permanent structural tension that, fueled by the shadow of a potential open war between the world’s two superpowers, is bound to affect all sides of China-U.S. relations. The elephant in the room can never be removed, right up to Beijing’s peaceful and accepted absorption of Taiwan or the even more remote prospect of the renunciation of this objective. Given the very slim chances of either of these scenarios materializing in the near future, the most immediate risk is that of an escalation by miscalculation. To date, this risk has been governed by a cocktail of deterrence and communication whose long-term reliability is difficult to predict. The key events coming our way in 2024 could alter this balance and should prompt caution.

Especially in Europe, the attention given to the dossier is less than proportional to its importance. In a strictly security perspective, the Old continent is still substantially absent from the Taiwanese equation. In fact, despite timid attempts to signal an increasing attention to the Indo-Pacific, through largely declaratory instruments such as the Strategic Compass, or NATO’s wishful and comprehensibly feeble attempts to look beyond Ukraine, the Old continent’s aloofness from Taiwan is a memento of the shortness of its strategic reach.

And yet, while a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait is neither imminent nor likely, the seriousness of its potential political and economic consequences should be a stark reminder for Europe of the urgency to build a collective strategic identity.

The Transatlantic Security Initiative, in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes and influences the debate on the greatest security challenges facing the North Atlantic Alliance and its key partners.