In Europe, all eyes are currently on Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the dangers that the conflict could spill over into a full-scale war between NATO and Russia. At the same time, Europeans should not lose sight of the risk for another major conflict that has been brewing in the Indo-Pacific: a military confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan. Such an escalation poses one of the greatest threats to both German and European prosperity and global stability. Taiwan is an island of 23 million citizens. The Economist, in an article published in 2021, has called it “the most dangerous place on earth.” And the reason is clear: Taiwan is one of the most likely locations of a war between great powers in the coming decade. An armed conflict between the world’s two main nuclear powers – China and the US – would have catastrophic consequences not only in the region, but also for the rest of the world. Such a war over Taiwan would not only claim countless lives and hold an incalculable potential for escalation – it would also cause fundamental economic shocks and disruption. The fallout would be particularly strong in Europe, whose economy is deeply enmeshed with that of the Indo-Pacific. And any assault on Taiwan would be a fundamental attack on the international legal order that EU members have committed to uphold.
Germany and Europe have every interest to work with their allies to preserve the peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Doing so will require a clear European contribution to international efforts to deter China from using force to change the current power balance in the region. Beijing needs to know that it will face extremely high costs should it use coercion or force to realize Xi Jinping’s dream of placing Taiwan under the control of the Chinese party state. A central piece of that deterrence is military, which involves Taiwan, the US and regional allies like Japan and Australia. However, Germany and Europe have a key role to play in non-military forms of deterrence. Berlin and Brussels should signal to Beijing that they would impose the most far-reaching economic sanctions possible, including cutting China off from key technologies such as advanced semiconductors, should Beijing start an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. To increase the credibility of this type of deterrence, Germany and Europe will need to significantly reduce their overall economic and technological dependence on China. Doing so would have the added benefit of making Europeans much less vulnerable not only to possible Chinese counter-sanctions in the event of a war, but also to Chinese economic coercion in general.
With the possible exceptions of the UK and France, European states do not have any direct role to play in terms of militarily deterring Beijing – but Europe can play an indirect military role. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European security order has all but crumbled. By investing in stronger military capabilities at home, European states can assume a greater share of providing security in their own increasingly dangerous neighborhood. This would allow the US to focus more on the Indo-Pacific theater despite the deterioration of the security situation in Europe. At the same time, Europeans – together with the non-European G7 states and other allies – need to ensure that Beijing learns the right lessons from the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine and the associated sanctions. It needs to be clear to Xi that his “Chinese dream” cannot have it all and that he faces a clear-cut choice between economic prosperity on the one hand and a forceful take-over of Taiwan on the other.
At present, Germany is far from pursuing a serious and ambitious agenda aimed at preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait. At the root of this are fundamental misconceptions that still inform the attitudes of some Berlin policymakers as well as the larger public discussion. Many in Germany still view a potential Taiwan conflict as a confrontation between the US and China in which Germany has few stakes and should therefore strive to remain neutral. Others harbor delusions that Germany and Europe should act as mediators between the US and China on Taiwan. And still more have already resigned themselves to defeatism: in the medium term, they argue, it is impossible to prevent the Chinese Communist party state from swallowing up Taiwan. After all, they argue, the island is so close to China’s mainland and cannot be defended against an increasingly powerful and determined Chinese military. Furthermore, according to this argument, the US is not a reliable protector – it would not fight for Taiwan if Beijing were to launch an attack. In this scenario, Taiwan would face the same fate as Hong Kong where the US and Europe did little to challenge Beijing’s take-over by force.
All of these are dangerous miscalculations that we should quickly discard. A war over Taiwan would shake the international order and decimate global prosperity even more than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Germany and Europe were to attempt to mediate between the US and China, this would only serve to increase Beijing’s appetite for using coercion and force against Taiwan. And while the US has officially committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to Taiwan, it would be dangerously short-sighted for Europeans to doubt or downplay Washington’s willingness to risk a war with China. Due to its location, Taiwan is much more important to the US geopolitical strategy than Afghanistan and Ukraine. Washington may have shied away from entering a direct military confrontation with a nuclear superpower over Ukraine, but this would likely be different in the case of Taiwan.
Why China Is Serious About Bringing Taiwan Under Its Control
The official goal of the Chinese party state is to bring Taiwan under its direct control. This is a central element of Xi Jinping’s plan for a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This rejuvenation strategy is supposed to be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese party state in 2049. In a speech in July 2021, the Chinese president committed himself again to the goal of a “peaceful national reunification.” At the same time, he called for decisive action “to completely defeat any attempt toward Taiwanese independence.” According to Xi, no one should underestimate China’s determination to defend “national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
At the same time, it is important not to overestimate Xi’s patience in achieving what he calls “national reunification” by peaceful means. There are many indications that he wants to go down in history as the Chinese leader who brought Taiwan back into the fold. Xi is currently 68 years old and does not have the time to wait until 2049 to achieve this goal. Of course, Beijing’s clear preference would be to take control of Taiwan without a fight. For a long time, China focused its Taiwan efforts on creating economic dependencies, working through local political allies and trying to promote the “one country, two systems” option. At the same time, Beijing has increasingly exerted political pressure to isolate Taiwan on the international stage, including through systematic attempts to prevent Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Beijing is also trying to impose its restrictive understanding of the One China policy onto other countries – as well as on companies, universities and individuals – to prevent Taiwan from receiving any upgraded status.
However, this strategy is becoming less and less viable. Politically, time is working against China: the number of Taiwanese citizens who favor political unification with Beijing has been steadily dropping. Even more worrying for Beijing should be that more than 60 percent of Taiwan’s population now identify as purely Taiwanese. Only around 30 percent of the island’s citizens view themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. And while 25 percent of the population still identified as Chinese in 1992, today that number is only at 3 percent. As a recent study by political scientists Shelley Rigger, Lev Nachman, Chit Wai John Mok, and Nathan Kar Ming Chan has shown, self-identification as Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) is not primarily culturally but politically driven: rather than representing a rejection of Chinese culture, identifying as Taiwanese is a statement against the political system that is the Chinese party state. According to the study’s survey data, only 8 percent of respondents expressed positive feelings about China’s political system, while 63 percent were against it. For respondents under the age of 40, the rejection rate is even higher – at 75 percent. And of those surveyed for the study, 66 percent also held a negative view of China’s influence on Taiwan. Beijing’s massive repression in Hong Kong has stripped the “one country, two systems” policy of its final shreds of credibility. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen knows that she has the backing of the vast majority of the Taiwanese population when she proclaims that Taiwan will never accept “one country, two systems”.
Beijing’s isolation strategy is having less and less of an impact at the international level, too. While the number of countries that fully recognize Taiwan diplomatically as an independent state continues to decline, there have recently been efforts across Europe to expand relations with Taiwan without abandoning the One China policy. The European Parliament and individual EU member states like the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Slovenia are leading the way in this regard. Lithuania’s Taiwan policy in particular has spurred controversy between Vilnius, Brussels and Beijing: not only did the Baltic country decide to withdraw from China’s 17+1 format – it also formally “upgraded” Taiwan’s office in Lithuania to “Taiwanese Representative Office” (rather than having “Taipei” in the title). Further, in the fall of 2021, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that calls for a strengthening of relations with Taiwan. This follows a new approach to defending the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, outlined among others by Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament. It is based on a dialectic logic: “As the [People’s Republic of China] fundamentally endangers the status quo through its new Taiwan policy, European nations should also change their Taiwan policy to help safeguard stability. To this end, Europe must insist that cross-strait relations respect the right to Taiwan’s existence and refrain from any threat or use of force.” When Beijing responded to the EU’s sanctions over China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang by levying counter-sanctions against the European Parliament in March 2021, this only increased the body’s determination to stand up to the Chinese party state.
Domestically, Chinese nationalism – which is heavily encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party – is growing ever stronger. Even in Beijing’s more internationally minded circles, there is a strong desire to incorporate Taiwan into China, sometimes taking the form of alarmingly crude plans. One example is Victor Gao, a former translator for Deng Xiaoping and vice president of the Center for China and Globalization, who has spoken in favor of conducting an ethnic-political cleansing campaign in Taiwan. He claims that 10 percent of the Taiwanese population are of Japanese descent and that many are supporters of Taiwanese independence. Should China gain control of Taiwan, Gao suggests forcing every Taiwanese citizen of Japanese heritage to sign a declaration in support of unification with Beijing. Those who refuse to sign would be expelled under Gao’s ethnic cleansing plan.
The military balance, too, has clearly changed in Beijing’s favor in recent years. In the South and East China Seas, Beijing has used military means to advance its unsubstantiated territorial claims. One of the key goals of China’s comprehensive military modernization strategy is to develop the capacities it needs to conquer Taiwan. As Oriana Skylar Mastro explained last year in Foreign Affairs, Beijing needs capabilities in four areas if it wants to invade Taiwan. The first is missile and air strikes against the island in order to eliminate Taiwanese targets (military, political and civilian). The second is a blockade operation that would cut Taiwan off from the outside world via naval blockades and cyber-attacks. The third is missile and air strikes against the US forces stationed near Taiwan so as to block them from coming to Taiwan’s rescue. The fourth is the capacity for an amphibious assault to conquer Taiwan itself. According to Mastro, Beijing already has sufficient capabilities in the first three areas. She asserts that China could quickly destroy Taiwan’s infrastructure, block oil imports and regular internet access, and severely hit US forces in the region. But there are open questions about China’s ability to actually launch a full-scale assault. For that, many observers believe that China still needs a few more years to build up its capacities.
As China’s military capabilities grow stronger and Taiwan further separates itself politically from China, both the pressure and impetus in Beijing to attempt a violent conquest of Taiwan increases. Mastro writes that Xi is surrounded by military advisors who tell him that China could conquer Taiwan “at an acceptable cost.” And indeed, Beijing has various options. It can proceed step-by-step, starting with a possible blockade of Taiwan and betting on the calculation that the US and other supporters of Taiwan will be less likely to mount decisive countermeasures. When it comes to psychological warfare, Beijing has already started the saber-rattling. Chinese propaganda is warning Taiwan that it has no chance against Beijing and that the US would not come to its rescue. Physically, a record number of Chinese military jets have invaded Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone in recent years. However, these burglary tactics have so far had the opposite of their intended effect on the island: they have increased the determination to defend the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and ruled out incorporation into China in many parts of Taiwan’s society.
Why the US Will Defend Taiwan
Some critics claim that the US’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan has only fueled Beijing’s desire to conquer Taiwan because of nagging doubts about Washington’s determination to defend allies. Brussels-based journalist Stuart Lau, for instance, wrote on Twitter: “Imagine Beijing watching the US military ‘commitment’ in Afghanistan while contemplating its next move on Taiwan.”
This is a misguided analogy. For one, Beijing understands that Washington chose to withdraw from Afghanistan to free up political and military resources to deal with China. Moreover, Taiwan is strategically much more important to the US than Afghanistan. The island is a like-minded democracy and an important economic partner (particularly in semiconductor technology sector, where Taiwan is world leader). But above all, Taiwan is crucial as a strategic location for the US in the region. At a hearing of the US Senate in December 2021, Ely Ratner – assistant secretary of defense for the Indo-Pacific in the Biden administration – clearly cited Taiwan’s location as a central motivation for his government’s commitment to supporting Taiwan: “Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of US allies and partners — stretching from the Japanese archipelago down to the Philippines and into the South China Sea — that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific. Geographically, Taiwan is also situated alongside major trade lanes that provide sea lines of communication for much of the world’s commerce and energy shipping.”
If Beijing brings Taiwan under its control, the entire military balance in the Western Pacific will change. So far, as Bruce Jones very clearly states in his book To Rule the Waves, China has been severely restricted by the fact that the first island chain off its coast is comprised of US allies: Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. If China controlled Taiwan, it would break through the first island chain and gain much freer access to the Western Pacific at large. As Jones writes: “China would suddenly gain naval bases beyond the first island chain. The southern coast of Japan would be much more vulnerable to the Chinese PLAN and American defenses in the rest of the Western Pacific more exposed to Chinese power.”
It is precisely because the strategic consequences are so dramatic that we should assume that the US (alongside allies such as Australia and Japan, which have both indicated possible military support) is prepared to defend Taiwan militarily – and that this would lead to a great power war. Unless someone who is an advocate of radical retrenchment assumes the US presidency, this scenario would likely hold true in the foreseeable future and under both Republican and Democrat administrations.
Why It’s Time for Investments in Deterrence
The key to peace in the Taiwan Strait is deterring Beijing from violently changing the status quo. And for deterrence to work, it will be crucial to influence the cost-benefit calculations of the Chinese leadership. The aim must be to persuade Beijing that Taiwan cannot be conquered “at an acceptable cost.” The military component of this endeavor is the task of Taiwan, the US and their regional allies. Both Taiwan and the US still have a lot of work ahead of them to achieve success in this regard. For a long time, Taiwan has failed to invest in the right military capabilities, and the US has been losing ground militarily against China in the region in recent years. But even a military hardening of Taiwan and a strengthening of the military capabilities of the US and allies like Australia and Japan alone would likely not convince Beijing’s leadership that the costs of an attack on Taiwan are too high. Only if Beijing believes that the political and economic consequences of an attempt to conquer Taiwan pose a fundamental threat to the “Chinese dream” and the foundations of the Chinese Communist Party’s “great national rejuvenation” project will it refrain from attacking Taiwan. As China’s key trading partners, Germany and Europe have a central role to play in this non-military component of deterrence. The former German Ambassador to the United Nations Christoph Heusgen, who now heads the Munich Security Conference, summed up what is necessary: “Beijing should not delude itself about the consequences of an invasion [of Taiwan]. Our possible response should be coordinated within the European Union and clearly communicated. This is not about military intervention – there are other options for sanctions. Beijing should know that it will not be treated as leniently as it was after the Hong Kong takeover.”
Within the EU, Germany should push ahead with contingency plans for a non-military deterrence of Beijing and then coordinate these efforts with the US and other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific. One thing that is clear: the less dependent Germany and Europe are on economic relations with China, the more they can credibly threaten to cut off economic and technological relations in the event of an attack on Taiwan. After Germany woke up to its fundamental dependence on Russian energy in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Lars Klingbeil – the co-chairman of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Social Democratic Party (SPD) – very rightly argued: “I do not want us to be in a similar situation with China in ten years. We need to drastically reduce our dependence on authoritarian states. (…) With China, we can start now in the technology sector, in medicine.” We may not have the luxury of ten years to make this shift. European states – and Germany in particular – need to speed up their efforts to rely less on China in critical areas.
At the same time, together with the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific, Europe should prepare to apply very concrete points of pressure in areas where China has dependencies. For example, Beijing is unlikely to succeed economically if it is completely cut off from the semiconductor value chain. China will remain reliant on foreign technology in this area for the foreseeable future, despite fervent efforts to develop its own capabilities. Without access to advanced semiconductor technology, China’s economic development would be critically paralyzed – which is why sanctions in this area would be a particularly effective deterrent. To make this threat credible, the US, Japan and Europe must become less dependent on production on Taiwan and build production capacities outside Taiwan to a much greater extent than has happened up to this point.
A German contribution to a non-military deterrence of Beijing is especially crucial for maintaining a peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait. This must also be a key element of the German Federal Foreign Office’s upcoming China strategy as well as Germany’s first-ever national security strategy, which is set to be adopted by late 2022. In military terms, Germany should not aspire to a significant role in the Indo-Pacific, except when participating in freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) and intensifying defense cooperation with other allies in the region. Instead, Berlin should focus on finally beefing up its efforts to provide security in its own increasingly troubled neighborhood. Increasing European defense capabilities would also be an important contribution to deterring Beijing. Observers have noted that the US cannot fight a war on two fronts in both Europe and Asia – one against Russia and one against China. If Europeans can more effectively provide conventional and eventually also nuclear deterrence in their own region, the US can focus its efforts on the Indo-Pacific theater. And the more the US can concentrate on the Indo-Pacific, the more credible its military deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing becomes. Europe and the US need to prepare for the scenario of a possible two-front war in which Russia challenges NATO in Europe (or helps China by engaging Japan in the Indo-Pacific) while Beijing launches an assault on Taiwan. Brussels and Washington also need to coordinate on how to respond to any coercive measures short of war that Beijing can – and will – use to put pressure on Taiwan.
Lessons Learned from Putin’s War
We are still in the early days of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. So far, it looks like Chinese President Xi has chosen to support Russia’s military action in line with the Sino-Russian alliance celebrated during his meeting with Putin ahead of the Beijing Olympics in January 2022. So far, Beijing’s stance has veered between tacit and active support of Russia’s actions, reserving blame for the US alone. Beijing appears willing to accept the political and economic costs that come with its support of Moscow. Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at ECFR, pointed out that Xi seems to already have decided that there is an “overriding Chinese interest in building a new world order” and that “here short-term political and economic interests need to take a back seat.” Whether Beijing’s calculation will hold as Putin’s war becomes increasingly brutal remains to be seen.
What is not in question is that Ukraine, Europe and the US can make sure Xi learns the right lesson from the conflict in Ukraine, namely: when a bully decides to launch an invasion against a proud people with a fighting spirit and a media-savvy leadership with global appeal, there will be a high price to pay. That price also applies to those who are in a “no limits” friendship with the bully. If there is one silver lining from the horrific war in Ukraine, let it be more German and European investments into security. That would be not only a necessary reaction to Putin’s invasion – it would also allow the US to focus more on Indo-Pacific in the medium term. Moreover, if Europe can demonstrate unity and staying power with its sanctions against Russia, this should impress on Xi that seemingly weak democracies can mobilize the strength and political will to pay a significant economic price in defense of the principles to which they are committed.
In all this, as Sebastian Heilmann has pointed out, Germany and Europe should make sure not to forget about one particular parallel between Putin and Xi: “We should not under any circumstance underestimate Xi. China’s military build-up will serve to push forward its own great power interests by force in the event of conflict. Many in the West still think that Xi is different from Putin in this regard. That assumption is wrong.” International attempts to deter Putin from invading Ukraine have failed. We cannot allow the same mistake when it comes to Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan. The consequences would be even more dire.
This commentary was originally published in German in Internationale Politik on February 28, 2022. The English version was published in Internationale Politik Quarterly on March 16, 2022.