There have been rumblings from Beijing ever since Xi Jinping became President in 2012 that a long-desired reunification with Taiwan is gaining urgency.
Ever since Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party has sought to recover what it believes is lost territory and re-establish the country’s prominence following a century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
We’re also getting a clearer sense of how Xi’s administration operates. If the experience in Tibet, Xinjiang, and now Hong Kong is any indication, the leadership has not shown a penchant for restraint, nor is it concerned about its international reputation. Under Xi, China has become more aggressive in diplomacy, in territory, and in growth of the country’s military.
The last big territorial task, in Beijing’s eyes, is to reunite with Taiwan. That won’t be easy, because the island has developed over the past 70 years outside of China’s direct control, having built a vibrant democracy, freedom of speech and the press, and its own colorful civil society. Beijing cracking down in Hong Kong, which is indisputably part of China’s current territory, is one thing, but a military invasion is quite another. It used to be almost unthinkable, but not any more.
Joseph Wu, the foreign minister of the island’s democratic government, warned on July 22 that China “may look for excuses to start a war or conflict” after it suddenly stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, raising the risk of a collision that could escalate. “What China is doing now is continuing to ramp up preparedness to solve the Taiwan issue,” Wu said. “We are very concerned that China will target Taiwan now that the Hong Kong security law’s been passed.”
China hasn’t exactly been coy about its plans, either:
In a speech in Beijing last year about the party’s policy toward Taiwan, Xi said, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” He declared that “China must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.”
How we got to this point is long and complicated, fraught with misplaced trust, poor judgment, and wishful thinking. It’s also too late to point fingers — we’re in a situation that is getting worse, quickly. We urgently need leadership that is up to the challenge, that can find common ground, and that can de-escalate tensions. The alternative is almost too dire to imagine.