Warnings over the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait have reached fever pitch. Admiral Philip Davidson, then commander of US forces in the Pacific, told US senators in March that the threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan “is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years”. The Economist last week described Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on earth”.
It is time to take a step back and ponder the fact that much of the anxiety has arisen from the misinterpretation of one Chinese Communist party document.
According to US defence officials, a key reason behind Davidson’s prediction is the Chinese Communist party’s talk of a new interim goal, in 2027, for developing the People’s Liberation Army. A US defence official calls it “a new interim milestone for PLA modernisation”, asserting that this is “an eight year acceleration from 2035”.
Several things need clarifying here. First, it is wrong to say Beijing has changed its medium- or long-term targets for the development of its armed forces. At the end of a high-level meeting in October last year, the Communist party said it wanted to “ensure that the 100-year military building goal is achieved by 2027”.
The South China Morning Post inferred from that communique that the party meeting called for “the construction of a fully modern army by 2027” — the centenary of the PLA’s founding. But achieving a full modernisation of the military is a goal which the party leadership has set for 2035, and it aims to transform the PLA into a “world-class” military by 2049.
“Some are saying that the modernisation goal of 2035 has been moved to 2027. That is simply not correct,” said Meia Nouwens, an expert on Chinese military modernisation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She believes the misunderstanding happened because the party spoke of the need to “accelerate progress toward military modernisation” in the same paragraph — stock language which can be found in almost every Communist party document regarding the PLA.
Taylor Fravel, an expert on the PLA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points to the fact that party documents published since the emergence of the 2027 goal continue to mention the 2035 and 2049 goals, a sign that those two remain unchanged.
Moreover, experts challenge the notion, increasingly peddled by US military officials, that Beijing is getting confident enough in its military capabilities to risk an attack on Taiwan.
“They are confident that they can pump out modern ships,” said Nouwens. “But how to operate is a lot more complicated,” she added, pointing to huge remaining challenges in making different PLA branches work jointly and with the use of networking technologies.
To start a war — which would likely draw in the US and its allies — Chinese leader Xi Jinping would have to be either pushed into a corner or know beyond doubt that there was no risk of losing that war, analysts say.
None of this is to downplay China’s growing military prowess, or the pressure it is putting on Taiwan by using it. Chinese military aircraft are flying into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on an almost daily basis now, and those flights are increasing in both frequency and range.
But rather than a step towards war, these moves are more likely to be part of a campaign to intimidate Taiwan with so-called grey-zone tactics. Constant fear-mongering over the risk of a Taiwan war only plays into the hands of such a Chinese strategy.
Some security experts see the US Indo-Pacific Command’s warnings of a heightened war risk as an attempt to secure budget funds for propping up the US military presence in the region, as well as to influence the Biden administration’s China policy review.
“This is a defence-driven assessment in the US,” rather than a systemic analysis of Chinese interests in the region, said Bonnie Glaser, a veteran China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US.* “They have really done a disservice to American national interests.”
*This article has been updated to clarify Bonnie Glaser’s views.