Territorial revisionism pursued by Russia in Ukraine raises questions over the prospect of similar policies being pursued elsewhere. Amid souring relations between Washington and Beijing over the recent visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taipei it would not be unrealistic for Beijing to seize a string of isolated islands in close proximity to mainland China: the Kinmen islands, the Wuqiu islands, and the Mastsu islands.
- Pelosi visit: There has been a recent souring of tensions between the United States and China over the anticipated visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi: this may provoke China’s culturally resonant idea that it must not allow itself to be a victim or be humiliated by external powers again. (There is huge political capital surrounding the trauma China faced during the ‘Century of Humiliation’, upon which the CCP often draws to justify its rule). Pelosi’s visit could be seen as Western interference into a domestic issue, possibly triggering a reaction that would be positive for the domestic legitimacy of the CCP in the face of Western posturing.
- Domestic CCP politics: Compounding the above are internal party concerns. One of the reasons Xi has been entrusted with such power is his assumed ability to defend China from external aggression. This could prompt him to conduct a hard response to perceived US aggression.
- Military capability: China’s ongoing development of missiles (both ballistic and hypersonic), poses a significant threat to US operational capability in the region (including its carrier groups and airbases). The Chinese military is now in a better condition to conduct an operation against the islands than at any time in the past.
- Limited strategic value: The islands offer little in the way of strategic value in any planned confrontation with Taiwan. They would not give China access to any significant resources (such as oil and gas), and offer no operational capabilities that China doesn’t already have in the region (it already has access to runways on artificial islands in the region).
- BRI opposition: China is particularly vulnerable to souring relations with Western nations following its pursuit of the international belt and road initiative. Although mostly in the developing world, the USD1trn global infrastructure project has a significant footprint in some Western countries, and would be jeopardised by a negative Western diplomatic response to the seizure of these islands.
- Sanctions: One of the CCP’s goals is to become a global hegemon that rivals Western power by the centenary of the PRC in 2049. Incursions into Taiwanese sovereignty are likely to be met by substantial Western sanctions, seriously threatening this goal.
- Power ambiguities: China cannot be completely confident that it would win a confrontation with the United States. Unlike Russia, where power polarities have been increasingly heading in the direction of the West, it is in China’s interest to delay operations against Taiwan: in a decade or so China is likely to be much more powerful and militarily confident of a victory in the region.
Although there are hawkish agents in China (such as a former colonel of the People’s Liberation Army, Liu Mingfu, who argued that the Taiwan dispute has been going on too long and should be resolved through a war of unification), it is unlikely that China would pursue such incursions now. The islands offer little strategic assets, and present more risks than opportunities, reducing the appeal of such a decision. Taiwan is an important issue for China, but it is in China’s interests to wait: acting on Taiwan now is not in their strategic interest.