Perspectives on Tensions in the Taiwan Strait
The Pulse

Perspectives on Tensions in the Taiwan Strait

The increase in Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait over the last few months has caused global concern. With Chinese warplanes flying across the half-way point in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing amping-up cyber pressure, and Chinese newspapers calling for long-range missile strikes on U.S. allies if they intervene, calls for “unification by force” are growing louder by the minute. During times of escalation like this, it is important to take a step back and examine international security dynamics from different perspectives. The following comments provide insight into a range of different opinions from experts in Australia, China, New Zealand and Taiwan, painting a complex picture of the Taiwan Strait issue.


Professor Robert Ayson discusses escalation risks in the Taiwan Strait, including the potential use of nuclear weapons by China, the US or both.

Prof. Robert Ayson

Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

The more that rising tensions between China and Taiwan reflect the wider US-China contest, the more we need to wonder if the next Taiwan Strait crisis could go nuclear. Escalatory pressures, encouraged by overlapping asymmetries in military power, could prove difficult to manage without greater trust and communication between Beijing and Washington than is evident today.

Facing China’s striking power in the early stages of a conventional war, Taiwan may seek to draw in the United States as quickly as possible. China’s desire to put American forces at risk could spread the conflict well beyond the confines of the Strait. And the United States may be unable to target the non-nuclear parts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) without China concluding that it may be time to forget about its no-first use nuclear posture.

But as I argue in a new APLN Special Report, each of the many steps from crisis to nuclear exchange offers policy-makers opportunities to reduce escalatory temptations. Even if negotiated arms control seems far off, the key actors can still develop informal understandings that reduce the chances of a Taiwan Strait crisis going really bad. Yet this means Beijing and Washington realizing that as adversaries they can be partners too.


Gareth Evans discusses the Australian government’s mishandling of its relationship with China, which has sunk to a new low after Canberra talked up Australian participation in any war over Taiwan.

The Hon. Gareth Evans

APLN Chair and Distinguished Honorary Professor at the Australian National University. He was Australian foreign minister from 1988–1996 and president of the International Crisis Group from 2000–2009.

In diplomacy, words can be bullets, and far too many over-heated ones have been flying in recent times between Australia and China. There are many legitimate concerns here – as in many other countries – about China’s human rights record, discriminatory economic behaviour, efforts to influence policymakers, over-assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, and potential aggression over Taiwan. But too many Australian political leaders and parliamentarians, egged on by sections of the media and some influential think-tanks like ASPI, have chosen to express those concerns in language which has been deliberately provocative, counterproductively strident or simply dumb. Government ministers, for example, constantly refer to the government of China, in a way they would never do with that of Vietnam, as “the Communist Party”, and are now going out of their way to talk up the possibility of Australia participating in all-out war over Taiwan. Such talk inevitably generates an escalatory reaction – as we have seen in Chinese media and diplomatic commentary – and makes ever more difficult the kind of quiet, constructive, problem-solving diplomacy for which the present tensions cry out. It is time for both sides to heed the counsel of the great French 19th century statesman, Talleyrand: “Above all, gentlemen, avoid excessive zeal”.


Dr. Tong Zhao addresses the ambiguity of the Taiwan Strait situation and the diminishing hopes of a peaceful reconciliation between the two parties.

Dr. Tong Zhao

Senior Fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Over time, Taiwanese people have had less trust in the Mainland’s “One Country, Two System” policy and many countries have become more sympathetic to Taiwan’s struggle to uphold democracy and maintain autonomy. On the other hand, Chinese leaders’ promise to achieve unification with Taiwan remains important to their domestic political legitimacy. As China’s power grows, Beijing has signalled with more confidence and a stronger sense of mission that its unification with Taiwan cannot be postponed forever.

There is no realistic hope of reconciling these positions, which means it will be increasingly difficult for regional countries to support Taiwan and befriend Beijing at the same time. There is no strong evidence of a Chinese plan to take over Taiwan militarily in the near-term. After all, Beijing understands it can achieve peaceful unification by eventually shifting the balance of military power in the region to China’s advantage, at which point the United States and its allies would no longer be able or willing to interfere and Taiwan would have to accept Beijing’s political arrangement. Until then, China appears determined to use its growing power to set rules of behaviour for Taiwan’s international sympathizers. The geopolitical fault line between Western democracies and China will deepen, increasing the risk of a more intense regional arms competition.


While the big powers are caught up in strategic competition in the Taiwan Strait, many people in Taiwan are more concerned about the pandemic. Professor Chyungly Lee shares these concerns.

Prof. Chyungly Lee

Research Fellow and Professor, Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.

Rising strategic tensions are exacerbating anti-China sentiment among the people of Taiwan, increasing public awareness of military threats. Beijing blames Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen for these worsening tensions. But although strategic tensions are real and growing, to many people in Taiwan, the most immediate source of cross-strait anxiety is the pandemic and the issue of Taiwan’s desire to participate in the World Health Assembly (WHA). The World Health Organisation (WHO) is blocking Taiwan’s participation, despite strong international support. No matter how well Taiwan has done in managing the COVID-19 crisis, for the sake of health equality, Taipei deserves to participate, at least as an observer. The WHO secretariat claims the decision to deny Taiwan’s wish is made collectively by its 194 members, but the whole world understands that geopolitics and PRC disapproval are the real reasons. These developments have frustrated many people in Taiwan. Anxiety over being excluded from the global public health system is more real than Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation in world politics. If Beijing continues its procedural manipulation to block Taiwan’s meaningful involvement in international organizations, more and more Taiwanese will lose confidence in Beijing’s claims that it prioritizes their welfare.


Image: @Sean824 via iStock.

Related Articles