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Crisis in the Taiwan Strait likely in 2024, experts say

A majority of experts said they believe a crisis in the Taiwan Strait is likely in 2024, with a Chinese blockade or “quarantine” of the island seen as the most likely scenario.

That’s according to a new survey from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which asked 87 leading U.S. and Taiwanese experts on cross-strait relations for their expectations for the future.

Most of these experts said China has the “capabilities to execute a law enforcement led-quarantine [or] a People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-led blockade of Taiwan,” but fewer believed a forceful invasion was possible.

The survey draws a distinction between a “quarantine” and a “blockade.” According to the report, a quarantine against Taiwan — the stifling of commercial routes by Chinese, nonmilitary actors — would signal a plan to coerce rather than usurp Taiwanese government.

A military blockade by the PLA would likely signal a goal “to force immediate unification in the next five years.”

A “crisis” is defined as a “significant increase in cross-strait tensions that is accompanied by at least a major PLA exercise aimed at coercing Taiwan and renewed Chinese threats to use force against the island.”

Kristen Gunness, senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation and speaker on a CSIS panel Monday morning, described the attraction of a quarantine/blockade approach as “a lower cost or lower risk means of coercing Taiwan” that simultaneously “puts pressure on Taiwan, the U.S. and our allies to figure out how to respond — it puts the burden of escalation on us.”

Gunness said U.S. decisionmakers need to calculate how to respond to scenarios in the Indo-Pacific short of an outright invasion.

According to the CSIS survey, 68 percent of U.S. experts said a Taiwan Strait crisis was likely or very likely in 2024, compared to 58 percent of Taiwanese experts. About three-quarters of U.S. experts and two-thirds of Taiwanese experts said ongoing efforts to stabilize U.S.-China ties would not stave such a crisis.

A majority of both U.S. and Taiwanese experts said a quarantine of outlying Taiwanese islands was the “likeliest action if Beijing seeks to punish or coerce Taiwan.”

A combination of factors has experts anticipating some sort of escalation in 2024.

Taiwan once against went against China’s wishes with the election last week of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, who is skeptical of China’s ambitions toward the island. Most experts expected Beijing to change its approach in reaction to the election.

China has called Lai “dangerously separatist” and characterized the election he won as a choice between peace and war. Following his election, communications between Lai and Beijing officials are nonexistent.

Chen Ming-Chi, CEO at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said there is a “temptation” for China to test Lai, “who does not have a background in military affairs.” He noted declarations of Taiwanese statehood from Lai’s party undermine Beijing’s promise of “inevitable reunification.”

A majority of the surveyed experts agreed that U.S. intervention is less likely as the severity of Chinese action decreases. Gunness speculated that “Beijing could perceive that a quarantine offers opportunities for the U.S. to deescalate, or for Taiwan to capitulate without either side resorting to military force.”

According to the report, experts “were not as confident of U.S. intervention in the event of a quarantine” — especially Taiwanese experts. There was more confidence that the U.S. would intervene militarily in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Lee Hsi-min, a previous admiral in the Republic of China armed forces and senior fellow at the 2049 Project, said that “from China’s point of view, quarantine can be used to prevent Taiwan from doing things China cannot accept.”

“However, quarantine cannot be used to compel Taiwan to do things it wants,” he said. Hsi-min said a blockade is more likely than a quarantine, adding that China would be willing to use “extensive bombardment” to apply pressure.

Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS Ivan Kanapathy said the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars could also affect the U.S. approach to Taiwan by disincentivizing more conflict. Kanapathy called experts’ anticipation of a coming crisis “surprising,” given Washington and Beijing’s “desire not to do things to provoke each other” on the global stage.

The CSIS report places Taiwan’s ability to resist a quarantine/blockade at between one and three months with no or very limited U.S. intervention.

“There are tradeoffs,” Kanapathy said of the U.S.’s potential intervention. “You have to be able to back it up with your defense budget.”

U.S. lawmakers are already chafing at the cost of America’s support for Ukraine and Israel, with President Biden’s supplemental foreign spending request hung up on demands from Republicans who want to prioritize immigration across the country’s southern border.

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