Chinese amphibious landing exercise

The Real Threat to Taiwan

The U.S. is preparing for a crisis in the Taiwan Strait but getting China’s calculations wrong. The assumptions are twofold: that China won’t invade unless provoked, and that China still needs to get its military built to attack. Most Americans miss the centrality of manipulation and subversion to Chinese strategy. Taiwanese political security, not simply military deterrence and rhetorical balancing, are key to Chinese success.

Taiwan’s politics are a complicated accident of history. From 1949 to 1987 the island was governed by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT. It is now the major opposition party, and because of the Taiwanese system’s design is the largest party in the legislature and holds an informal majority alongside the populist Taiwan People’s Party. The KMT is little more than a series of patronage networks with no formal ideology. Its leaders fantasize about eventual reunification with a democratic mainland China. Unlike the KMT, the center-left Democratic Progressive Party, which just won a third presidential term, has a distinct ideology. It seeks recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign nation, which angers Beijing.

By any modern measure, Taiwan is a state. It has its own government, military, police service, taxation, education and court system. There is no scenario under which Taiwan voluntarily accedes to China’s dominion. Only force can make it happen.

A cross-strait surprise attack is improbable. It would be militarily risky for China, and Taiwan and the U.S. would easily detect preparations. But if Beijing can freeze Taipei’s decision-making process, disrupt its military preparations, and erode state capacity, it can ensure Taiwan remains vulnerable and without allies. China’s insistence that formal Taiwanese independence will trigger war keeps the U.S. from maintaining a large-scale presence on the island. The result is limited diplomatic and intelligence contact between Washington and Taipei.

This leaves Taiwan vulnerable to political subversion. Chinese meddling in its elections is well known. China has sought to co-opt local social groups, including Taiwan’s largest Buddhist association. China has sponsored delegations of former Taiwanese military officers and government officials for nominally cultural and economic visits to the mainland, and it has provided benefits to Taiwanese entrepreneurs who conduct business in China. Politically, the Chinese Communist Party and machinery of Chinese state clearly display a preference for the KMT, while refusing formal contact with the DPP. Just over a month ago, the KMT’s legislative whip, Fu Kun-chi, met with Wang Huning, the fourth-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Song Tao, who is responsible for political subversion in Taiwan.

Read the rest at WSJ.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

Harry Halem is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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