While concerns abound over the escalating staredown in the Taiwan Strait, a policy expert on China-Taiwan issues offered a reassuring perspective before The American Legion National Security Commission during its meeting on Aug. 26.
“The attention and concern that's been devoted to the Taiwan Strait over many decades, but with increasing intensity and vigor in the last few years, I think is really justified but also maybe not quite as extreme as some folks might believe,” said Dr. Shelley Rigger, a Davidson College professor of East Asian Studies.
Some predictions have estimated war could break out as early as 2029.
Rigger acknowledges that such forecasts are made with careful thought, research and analysis. Still, she says, it’s a situation in flux.
“I don't think any of them is actually fully reliable for the simple reason that we just don't know,” she said. “And global politics, as we learn almost every month, is unpredictable, and governments change their outlook, they change their decisions, they changed their policies, their leadership. I don't think we can ever say with certainty that any particular event is going to happen on any particular timeframe. One of the predictions was 2021 and that one didn't happen.”
The alarm bells have sounded repeatedly due to various threatening actions. China has expanded its military might significantly. The United States has expressed unrelenting support for Taiwan’s independence. The U.S. and China have traded military shows of force such as training exercises, ship movements and more, potentially waiting for the other side to blink.
Rigger offered an insider’s perspective to the mindset of those who have most at stake — the 23 million residents of Taiwan.
“The people in Taiwan have pretty much decided it's not worth it,” she observed. “We'll wait you out. So we live separately. We don't need the divorce, but we are definitely not getting back together.”
On the other hand, she points out, Beijing desperately wants to reunite.
“China would like to reconcile with Taiwan and to bring Taiwan back into the Chinese household,” she said. “For many decades, that was not a high priority for the Chinese government, the Chinese leadership, much less the Chinese society. But since the end of the Mao era, Chinese leaders have mobilized their population with nationalism, and basically made the argument that we should be allowed to run this country with an iron fist.”
Rigger outlined several factors to support her view:
• China’s internal messaging. The more Beijing stirs up nationalism and makes its case to reunite with Taiwan, the more it becomes a point of pride domestically. That adds pressure to Chinese leaders like Xi Jinping. “So they have to unload these threats, because otherwise their own people will begin to wonder how serious they are about taking care of the destiny of the Chinese nation.”
• China’s stance as a world leader. China ascends the bully pulpit to demonstrate its position as a world leader. “However, at the same time, I think the Chinese leadership is actually really terrified of what could happen in the Taiwan Strait. Even the best-case scenario, a quick military victory, would be absolutely devastating to China's global reputation. It would saddle the Chinese government with a territory and a population, 23 million people who would never give up their desire for freedom.”
• The U.S. support of Taiwan. Rigger says that China is afraid of being dragged into a conflict, not just with Taiwan, but with the United States. “They absolutely cannot plan for a conflict that the U.S. does not join Taiwan in fighting.” She believes that China fears Taiwan finally deciding, “We've waited long enough, we're serving the papers, we're over this marriage. We just want to be finished with Beijing.” That would force China’s hand to either “show their weakness to their own people and to the world or take an action that is likely to be fatal to the Chinese Congress Party leadership.”
While the situation is fluid, Rigger believes the United States should continue to support Taiwan but not make things worse with China.
“Sales of military weapons that are of actual benefit and use to the Taiwanese armed forces is a really good idea and something very important for the U.S. to continue to do,” she said. “Sometimes it's controversial in the U.S., sometimes it's controversial in Taiwan. Taiwan is a free society where people think many different things about all of this stuff. But arm sales are a material and substantive way the U.S. can help Taiwan.”
And we need to remember, she emphasized, that the United States cares about Taiwan because it is an example of the values that America has been promoting around the world for over 200 years.
“Taiwan is an ethnically Chinese society from the history before 1900. It was part of the Japanese Empire, it was under a military dictatorship, and yet today it is a free society that any one of us would be happy to live in. It proves that no culture is too hostile to democracy for the democratic values to survive there. And it proves that no people are too disempowered by history to make a functioning democracy in their own country. So that's really important. We're telling countries all over the world, democracy can happen. You can do it too.”