If Taiwan were independent

Security policy: The Taiwan conflict is extremely dangerous

The People's Republic of China didn't like the fact that the "USS Curtis Wilbur" appeared in the Taiwan Strait this week. Beijing complained loudly that the presence of the US Navy guided missile destroyer would undermine regional stability. The US was unimpressed in its reaction: It was just a routine trip, it was said from Washington.

The maneuver by the United States can, however, also be seen as the next act of competition between the two countries: In the days before, Chinese bombers and fighter planes had penetrated Taiwan's airspace. Washington sees itself as the protecting power of Taiwan, and Beijing flexed its muscles when the new US President Joe Biden took office.

This in turn made it clear from the start that he sees China as a strategic competitor. The tone and the concrete measures may change under the new US administration - the direction of China policy remains the same as under Donald Trump. "Outdoing China will be crucial for our national security in the next decades," said CIA director-designate William Burns before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Taiwan question is arguably the most dangerous conflict between the established great power USA and the emerging great power China. Because nowhere else is the probability so high that the two states will collide in a serious military conflict.

The CP agrees: Taiwan must be incorporated

The island, to which the Chinese nationalists fled after the lost civil war against the communists at the end of the 1940s, is more than 90 percent inhabited by Chinese. It is de facto independent and, unlike China with its one-party system, it is a solid democracy. But China's Communist Party sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and wants reunification. The rulers in Beijing are apparently also little concerned about the fact that a large majority of Taiwan's people oppose reunification under the current circumstances.

The internal dynamics in the People's Republic do not indicate that this situation will change. Quite the opposite: no matter how many factions there are within the CP, however different the views on future economic and foreign policy may be, the party cadres agree on one point, as well-known China observers point out time and again: That Taiwan Must become part of the People's Republic - and a military strike, if the situation appears favorable, is a realistic option.

Taiwan's integration is part of a broader strategic thinking that sees the People's Republic as a new world power in the long term. And hardly anything would move Communist Party leader Xi Jinping closer to and successor to state founder Mao Tse-tung than a solution to the Taiwan question in Beijing's spirit.

People in Taiwan are also aware of this. The official position is: Taiwan is ready for talks with Beijing at any time, albeit on an equal footing and without preconditions - but at the same time does not rule out the possibility of war. Therefore the island tries, as far as possible, to keep up militarily with the People's Republic.

However, Taiwan's politicians know that in the event of a war they would have little chance without foreign aid. At most, Taiwan's armed forces could drive up the price of China and buy time for allies to step in. But anyway, the Taiwanese are counting on the security guarantee of the USA and currently with good reason. If Washington were to drop Taiwan, it would send a devastating signal to its allies in the region and would massively shift the balance of power in the Pacific region in favor of the People's Republic.

Geographical proximity is a great advantage for China

However, many observers are concerned about a development. "China has expanded its shipping capacities enormously in recent years, so that the People's Republic would be superior to the USA in a regional scenario due to its geographical proximity," says Christian Wirth from the German GIGA research institute, which deals with the security architecture in the region. "The US and its bases are too far away from Taiwan to be able to intervene with concentrated force."

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also wrote in a highly regarded article in the journal Foreign Affairs that China was building its military capacities with the aim of being superior to the US on all military issues affecting Taiwan by 2027. "Beijing has come to the conclusion that the US would not wage a war that it could not win," writes Rudd. But Xi threatens to speculate here, emphasizes the studied sinologist. Not least because the US reaction also depends on unpredictable domestic political dynamics in Washington.

An alternative threat scenario to the military one is being considered

In fact, there are already mind games in the USA on how to create an alternative threat to the military to protect Taiwan. For example, economic sanctions are being considered, which should hit Beijing hard in world trade, which is still dominated by the US dollar.

However, China is so closely interwoven with numerous economies that it is questionable to what extent Beijing can be intimidated here in a credible manner. For example, through its Silk Road initiative, in which it is promoting infrastructure projects around the world, China has become more closely connected with numerous countries, and China's huge, growing market is more or less indispensable for Western exporters - from cars to ski gondolas.

The Taiwan question thus remains an unpredictable area of ​​conflict. Most observers agree that the short-term risk of war is rather low. "In the past 20 years, however, with each crisis the tensions have increased to such an extent that the danger that the conflict will escalate in the medium term", says Wirth. And then there is no threat of a brief regional conflict, but of a conflagration that could also drag other countries, such as Japan, which is allied with the USA and Taiwan, into a war.