- Steven McDonald
- BBC correspondent in Beijing
The danger of escalating crises is often that it is difficult to ride a tiger.
Now that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has gone to Taiwan—the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years—will there be other people follow suit?
Since China has already held such a large-scale live-fire exercise and is so close to Taiwan, why not do it again? Whenever Chinese fighter jets fly closer and closer to Taiwan Island, or more frequently, new “normal” standards are established. So, if the next flight of the PLA is not so close and a little further away, what signal is it sending?
Once upon a time, Beijing’s plans for Taiwan involved one word—engagement. Young people from the mainland are backpacking in Taiwan, and Taiwanese companies have appeared all over the mainland.
However, under President Xi Jinping, the hostility between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has gradually increased, and Beijing has put more pressure on Taipei.
Those more pro-armed at the top of Beijing’s power must be secretly delighted by Pelosi’s visit; it provides a perfect excuse to escalate military exercises around Taiwan in preparation for a day they see as inevitable. At that time, Taiwan will be seized by force.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to regional stability is the absurdity of all parties’ public positions on the Taiwan issue. It’s like a giant pretend game that’s getting harder and harder to last.
China pretends that Taiwan is now part of its own territory, despite the fact that Taiwan collects its own taxes, has its own democratically elected government, and has its own passport and army.
The United States pretends that it does not consider Taiwan an independent country, despite the sale of high-tech weapons to the island and the occasional visit by high-level politicians, which also looks very much like an official visit.
Obviously, this fragile performance designed to maintain the status quo will fall apart without the slightest wind and rain.
The danger for the world is that some in Beijing want to see the status quo unravel.
Over the past few decades, public opinion on the Taiwan issue in the CCP-controlled media has not been much different, but the concept of reunifying Taiwan by force has always been relatively distant in people’s minds.
Most of the people you spoke with agreed that President Xi wanted to seize Taiwan while in power, thereby establishing himself as an immortal historical place – a leader who brought about the reunification of the motherland.
He has put effective control over Hong Kong far ahead of schedule; the city has become increasingly troublesome in Beijing’s eyes.
In a few months, President Xi is about to start a historic third term. He can continue to govern to a certain extent, which will ease the pressure on the Taiwan Strait slightly.
He can now remain in power as long as he wants, without the two-term limit of previous leaders since Mao Zedong; he does not have to rush to use force against Taiwan.
But every day the situation is one step closer in that direction, one step away from peace.
Some Chinese propaganda aimed at raising public support for a military solution show the pre-World War I utter ignorance and naivety of what such a war really means.
Even if coverage of the conflict in Ukraine is under scrutiny, seeing the incursion taking place is sure to throw a red light in the minds of Chinese people when they think about involving their country in a bloody conflict.
But nationalism is a powerful tool, and fantasy can easily overwhelm reason.
If Beijing does send troops to Taiwan, even the mighty People’s Liberation Army must cross a dangerous strait and conduct large-scale landing operations, and then face an enemy who steadfastly defends the free way of life – the enemy’s own free way of life It is more important than the patriotic reason for attacking Taiwan by force.
Such a war could go on for a long time, make China spurned by the international community for a long time, and stifle the Chinese economy. Even if the People’s Liberation Army wins, it will occupy a huge island with millions of people who hate Beijing’s authority.
That would be catastrophic, and sensible people in China‘s capital, Beijing, know that.