Until relatively recently, China’s leaders viewed the situation in the Taiwan Strait as unsatisfactory but tolerable. When Taiwan was ruled by the traditionally China-friendly Kuomintang Party, China was able to pursue a gradual strategy of economic integration, diplomatic isolation and military pressure — one that it believed would eventually make peaceful unification Taiwan’s only option. But in January 2016, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party returned to power in Taiwan, upending China’s plans. While the KMT claims that Taiwan and China have different interpretations of the 1992 Consensus — the agreement the party reached with mainland Chinese authorities 30 years ago asserting the existence of “one China” — the DPP rejects it altogether.
China now fears that if DPP leaders and their Western supporters do not pay a price for their affronts, it will lose its grip on the situation. This would not only undermine Xi’s chance of achieving his long-term goal of reunification; it also could invite accusations of weakness that would undermine his standing both within and outside China.
China is probably not planning to launch an immediate and deliberate attack on Taiwan. But it may decide to engage the U.S. in a game of chicken in the Taiwan Strait. It is impossible to predict such a confrontation’s exact form or timing. But it is safe to assume that it would be extremely dangerous, because China believes that only brinkmanship can concentrate all the players’ minds. Like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a new Taiwan Strait crisis might end up stabilizing the status quo — albeit after a few hair-raising days. And that may well be China’s plan. But such a gambit could also go horribly wrong. Lest we forget, the fact that nuclear war did not break out in 1962 was largely a matter of luck.