Taiwan war risk highest in past 25 years as US tensions rise: mainland expert

Amber Wang, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 21 2022 04:29 AM | Updated as of Jan 21 2022 07:39 AM

Beijing unlikely to show aversion to military conflict: academic

Taiwan Air Force's F-16 fighter jets fly during the annual Han Kuang military exercise at an army base in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, July 4, 2015. Patrick Lin, Reuters/File
Taiwan Air Force's F-16 fighter jets fly during the annual Han Kuang military exercise at an army base in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, July 4, 2015. Patrick Lin, Reuters/File

The risk of war over Taiwan is at its highest since the 1996 cross-strait missile crisis, a mainland foreign relations expert has warned.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, noted how tensions in the Taiwan Strait have steadily escalated amid growing US support for Taiwan. Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province and has made reunification a much more pressing goal in recent years.

This goal – which Beijing aims to achieve within a decade – could mean a massive use of force, or the threat of a massive use of force, Shi told an international relations forum in Beijing on Thursday.

Warning that confrontations over Taiwan might lead to armed conflict or even a war in the strait, Shi said a serious and careful assessment of the situation was more necessary now than at any time in the past 25 years, in a reference to the Taiwan Strait missile crisis of 1996.

In 1996, as Taiwan was preparing to hold its first direct presidential election, Beijing held a series of military exercises and fired missiles in the waters surrounding the island, prompting the US to deploy carrier strike groups to international waters near it.

“The Chinese government is unlikely to give the United States and Taiwan an impression that [it] seeks to completely avoid military conflict with the US over Taiwan, as Beijing believes this will lead to a deepening of US support for Taiwan, and make Taiwan more determined to seek independence,” Shi said.

All parties must assess the situation and be prepared in case there is war over Taiwan, he said.

This came as former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that the US and China should negotiate “guard rails” and create a direct and open communication channel so its leaders could contact each other quickly to avert conflict over Taiwan.

“My biggest concern is whether Taiwan becomes a casus belli,” Goh told the third Hong Kong Forum on US-China Relations via video link on Wednesday.

“I do not think the mainland wants to invade Taiwan and reunify it through force. However, if it sees no prospect for peaceful reunification, it may believe it has no choice.”

Goh said China and the US should set up a “red telephone” similar to the communication lines used by US and Soviet Union leaders in 1962, when the two powers came close to a nuclear war in what became known as the Cuban missile crisis.

Concerns over a possible war in the strait have grown since last year, with a top US commander warning that the People’s Liberation Army could invade Taiwan within six years, and the Taiwanese defence minister saying cross-strait tensions were at their worst level in 40 years as he warned of the risks of an accidental strike.

Also at the Beijing forum, Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, warned that the Taiwan issue might become a flashpoint in the Sino-US strategic rivalry, as Beijing sees the US trying “to force China into a corner” by repeating the tactics it used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Analysts have also warned of the trend of more European allies following the US in seeking closer ties with Taiwan under President Joe Biden’s alliance diplomacy approach.

Earlier this week, Slovenia became the latest tiny European nation to strengthen ties with Taiwan, with plans to set up trade offices in each other’s territory.

This comes just two months after Beijing downgraded ties with Lithuania over its warming ties with Taipei and the opening of a Taiwanese representative office in its capital.

Cui Hongjian, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the situation was becoming ever more serious, with Lithuania having taken the lead to confront Beijing over Taiwan, and others in Europe following suit.

“It is difficult to avoid the trend of Taiwan issues becoming more long-term and explicit issues in Europe,” Cui said. This was due to political changes in Europe but was also related to the overall competition between China and the US, which uses its alliance system to contain Beijing, he said.

Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University, said China and the US were almost on the brink of military conflict over Taiwan.

In the short term, the room for any improvement in US-China relations was very limited, he said, while the likelihood of a deterioration was high, and the possibility of a turn towards cooperation unlikely.

However, in the medium and long term, stability and a strengthening of cooperation in some areas could be expected, given the common interests in bilateral and multilateral issues.

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