Risk of Taiwan Strait conflict ‘at all-time high’, Beijing-backed think tank says

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen to the point where the risk of armed conflict is at “an all-time high”, according to a Beijing-backed think tank.

The China Cross-Strait Academy released a report on Wednesday on relations across the narrow stretch of water that separates mainland China from Taiwan. It said researchers had looked at factors including the two sides’ military strength, trade relations, public opinion, political events and support from allies, concluding that they were “on the brink of war”.

The think tank, based in Hong Kong, is newly founded and led by Lei Xiying, a committee member of the Communist Party-backed All-China Youth Federation.

Its conclusion was based on an index of the risk level of armed conflict across the strait, which the researchers put at 7.21 for 2021, on a scale of minus 10 to 10.

They also looked at the same factors dating back to the 1950s to come up with comparative risk indexes. They said in the early 1950s, when the anti-communist Nationalist forces had fled from the mainland to Taiwan, the index was lower than it is now, at 6.7.

The think tank’s cross-strait relations risk index suggests the potential for conflict has reached a record high. Photo: China Cross-Strait Academy

It hovered above 6.5 for much of the 1970s but fell to 4.55 in 1978, when Washington established formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. The risk of conflict was also low in the 1990s, as the mainland embarked on economic reforms that drew investment from around the world, including Taiwan.

But the report said the index had been rising steadily since 2000, when the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took power in Taiwan, ending the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang’s 55 years of rule.

It passed 6 again in 2018, with Donald Trump as US president taking an antagonistic approach to China and pursuing a closer relationship with Taiwan. The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is its most important international backer and a major seller of arms to the democratic island.

The Economist this month labelled the Taiwan Strait as “the most dangerous place on Earth” as it is Beijing’s most sensitive territorial issue and a major point of contention between China and the US. Beijing claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring it under mainland control. It has been angered by the warming ties between Washington and Taipei and is concerned Taipei’s administration could be emboldened to declare independence, a red line for Beijing.

A Taiwanese fighter jet shadows a PLA bomber over the Taiwan Strait last year. A Beijing-backed think tank claims the two sides are “on the brink of war”. Photo: Taiwan’s Military News Agency

Lei, who heads the new think tank, said the changing political dynamic across the Taiwan Strait and Washington’s closer relations with Taipei were two “destructive factors” driving up the risk of conflict.

“If the current trend continues … [Beijing’s] unification of Taiwan by force will only be a matter of time,” he said. Lei said the researchers would continue to monitor the deepening of military ties between the US and Taiwan as it had a significant impact on the risk index.

However, Lim John Chuan-tiong, a former researcher at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, disputed whether the current situation was worse than in the 1950s, when there was armed conflict between mainland China and Taiwan.

“But considering the explosive situation now, huge uncertainties and the stakes involved if anyone makes a wrong judgment or a wrong move, it is not wrong to say that the risk level across the Taiwan Strait is at an unprecedented high level,” Lim said.

“Beijing used to believe that as long as Sino-US relations are under control, Taiwan will not be a problem,” Lim said. “But … Sino-US relations took a nosedive under Trump and there are no signs of improvement now with the Joe Biden administration, which is relying more on allies like Taiwan to contain China.”

Author: William Zheng, South China Morning