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China expert Bonnie Glaser on Taiwan-China tensions

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, about the history of Taiwan, current political perceptions of it within China and the Communist Party, and whether Chinese president Xi Jinping has a timeline for achieving reunification. Morell and Glaser also discuss Xi’s likely perceptions of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and of the effect of the United States’ longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • View on Chinese leadership: “I think for any Chinese leader and for the party itself, Taiwan is a legitimacy issue. If the Communist Party does not stand up for its sovereignty and the territorial integrity issue, if it were to not respond effectively if Taiwan declared independence, if other countries recognize Taiwan as independent – important countries, not just small island states – then potentially the Chinese Communist Party could come under a great deal of criticism.”
  • U.S.-Taiwan relationship: “I think that the attitudes in in Taiwan towards the United States haven’t changed very much. That is, they value the relationship. They want to continue to sustain it. They would like to hold the U.S. as close as possible. Most people in Taiwan think that the United States, I think, would help Taiwan if there is a crisis. But there’s no confidence that the United States would full bore flow large scale forces to Taiwan and defend it. There’s some people who hold that view, but there’s always been doubts.  And when the United States demonstrates that it doesn’t have resolve in other parts of the world – such as when, for example, Obama drew a red line in Syria and then did not follow through – I think people in Taiwan ask themselves, ‘Well, we, Taiwan don’t even have a commitment from the United States, so what does that mean for us?'”
  • Xi’s calculus: “Xi Jinping’s priority is to prevent Taiwan independence, and he is confident he can do that today. The toolkit that China has to use to coerce Taiwan is huge. It’s diplomatic. It is economic. It’s military. It’s cyber disinformation. It’s quite significant.  So the question is, again, what are the circumstances in which Xi Jinping would use force? And he might lose confidence at some point that reunification could be achieved peacefully. He might see that there is an opportunity and that the risks are low; he could miscalculate. That’s also possible.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – BONNIE GLASER
PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Bonnie, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s an honor to have you with us.

BONNIE GLASER: And it’s a privilege to be your guest, Michael.

MICHAEL MORELL: So lots to talk about. I really want to unpack the Taiwan issue with you. We have not done that before on Intelligence Matters, and I’m excited to do that.

But quickly, before we dig into that, I’d love to ask you how you came to study Asia and China and how you came to devote your life’s work to it.

BONNIE GLASER: Well, I started studying Asia when I was in college. In fact, I designed my own major in a political science department, although I started at Oberlin, ended up at Boston University and I did a deep dive into – as much as an undergraduate can do – into China as a case study in modernization.

I studied Chinese a few summers in Middlebury College, where they have an intensive language training school, and then I went to Taiwan in 1979. I arrived there three weeks after the United States broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It was a bit tense at the time. It was a real transition for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

And then didn’t pay all that much attention to Taiwan for a couple of decades until we had the 1995-96 crisis. And I have been to Taiwan every year since then, probably several times up until COVID, so haven’t been there for two years.

But I studied China in graduate school as well. And I would say, the first 10 years of my career, I focused more on China itself and its foreign policy and decision-making and debates about its foreign policy. I was there visiting in the early 80s and U.S.-China-Soviet Triangle was what I was focusing on at the time. But in the last 10 years, I’ve been far more interested in how the world views China than how China views the world. Not surprising.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right, right. It’s changed a lot. So, what was it about Asia and China that drew you, do you think?

BONNIE GLASER: I think I was looking for something that was extremely different from the West, I was attracted to studying the language, that was really challenging, and the culture and the history seemed – just, it was a draw to me. And I’m glad I did. I have watched China in Asia evolve in their importance to the United States, and it’s it’s never gotten boring.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Bonnie, Taiwan. Let’s start with history. I think that’s always the best place to start. Can you tell us sort of the short story of how we got to where we are today?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to August of 1945, and when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Taiwan’s status was left uncertain. The KMT, or nationalist party, was fighting the communists in China. And when they were defeated in 1949, they retreated to Taiwan.

And that’s where the history begins to diverge a little bit in the interpretations of what Taiwan’s status is. So China’s position is that Taiwan was returned to China on what’s called Retrocession Day in October of 1945. But Taiwan has a different interpretation and in fact, the KMT has one interpretation, and the opposition party, the DPP, has a different interpretation.

So the KMT basically shares the People’s Republic of China’s interpretation. But it underscores that Taiwan was in fact returned to the Republic of China in 1945. And so to this day, the party holds that there’s one China; Taiwan is part of China, which is also Beijing’s position. But the KMT underscores that China is the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China.

DPP stance is different. That was officially put forward in 1999 and the resolution on Taiwan’s future. And it states that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent state, and any changes to that status must be done through a popular vote.

The United States says that Taiwan’s status is still unsettled, and so it does not recognize Taiwan’s claim to be an independent, sovereign state. It doesn’t recognize China’s One-China principle, which in its full statement is there is one China in the world, Taiwan is part of China, the government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. And so the United States basically says we just don’t know if Taiwan is sovereign or not, and that remains to be determined.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bonnie, can you shed a bit about how strong is the view in China that Taiwan belongs to it? Among the leadership, the elite, ordinary Chinese? Are there any differences of opinion within China on Taiwan? How salient a political issue is Taiwan in China? How salient is it within the internal politics of the Communist Party? Can you sort of parse that for us?

BONNIE GLASER: Sure. For many years, I doubted that Taiwan was a very important issue for China, in terms of its public attention to the issue. It has certainly always been important to the elite, and every Chinese leader has said that reunification is an inevitability.

And Jiang Zemin, when he was the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, even tried to set a deadline for the unification of Taiwan with China. But I always had the sense that it wasn’t that important to the public, but that changed. And I think it was gradual, but particularly under Xi Jinping stoking nationalism, paying more attention to the importance of sovereignty and security, and bringing back the territories that China claims – so, attention to the South China Sea, of course, the Indian border, the territories that are the islands that are disputed with Japan. But particularly Taiwan, because the Chinese, they teach their people about this century of national humiliation, which began in the middle of the 19th century with the Opium Wars.

And they say, ‘This is the last piece that has not been reunified, reintegrated into the People’s Republic of China.’ So, particularly after Hong Kong has now been, of course, reabsorbed in 1997, but in recent years become, shall we say, less separate from China and more just like any other Chinese city, Taiwan is the last piece of removing that humiliation that the party faces.

And I think for any Chinese leader and for the party itself, Taiwan is a legitimacy issue. If the Communist Party does not stand up for its sovereignty and the territorial integrity issue, if it were to not respond effectively if Taiwan declared independence, if other countries recognize Taiwan as independent – important countries, not just small island states – then potentially the Chinese Communist Party could come under a great deal of criticism.

But I have to caveat at least the public opinion by saying that there really isn’t good polling in China about public views. And when I’ve been in China and talk with individual scholars who probably tend to be more liberal, some of the younger scholars – I’ve actually heard scholars say, “Well, eventually, even if Taiwan isn’t reintegrated into China, it is not the highest priority for China,” that it doesn’t have to happen sooner. It can happen later. But I think there is a sense that eventually Taiwan has to return to what they call the motherland.

MICHAEL MORELL: So we talked a little bit about the different views in Taiwan between the two political parties. Where does the public stand on the issue and how has that evolved over time?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, the attitudes of Taiwan’s public toward reunification in at least one way have been consistent for more than 20 years. The majority of the people in Taiwan want to maintain the status quo, at least for the time being. There are very small percentages of people – and there are very good public opinion polls in Taiwan; they ask the same questions every year. And today, those who support reunification as soon as possible is now just over one percent – very tiny.

But if you go back to the early 90s, it was about four percent. So it hasn’t changed all that much.

But those who support maintaining the status quo, either just for the time being or indefinitely, is 87 percent. Why is this? Because the people in Taiwan know that if they declare independence that China’s likely to attack, they’re not certain that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense. They don’t know if their own country can send off an attack from the People’s Liberation Army. So they’re really very smart.

And in fact, I would say if there’s a candidate that runs for president – which, the next elections in Taiwan will be January 2024, I think that the vast majority of people in Taiwan would not risk voting for a candidate if that candidate said, as part of his or her platform, “If I am elected, I will make Taiwan independent. I will declare independence so we will become, in a legal sense, de jure independent.”

But what has really changed in Taiwan is, when they ask the question in these polls – you have a choice of saying, the respondent can choose between independence as soon as possible or independence eventually. And if you combine those numbers, that’s now 31 percent of people who say, “Yeah, eventually I would like to Taiwan to be an independent country.” So that number has really been growing.

The number of people who support a percentage, who support reunification either immediately or in the future is still about five percent. It’s very low.

BONNIE GLASER: So Bonnie, you mentioned Hong Kong earlier, and I’m wondering if what happened in Hong Kong over the past few years has had an impact in Taiwan, either politically or in terms of public opinion.

BONNIE GLASER: Yes. Well, I think it had a major impact, though, it is true that China’s model for reintegrating Taiwan into China, which is called One Country, Two Systems – we all think of that as the model for Hong Kong. But it was actually developed for Taiwan.

And for many years, polls in Taiwan showed that the people do not support the application of One Country, Two Systems to Taiwan. 

So that is really, I think, the most important thing that affected the attitudes of people in Taiwan. It was watching China renege on its promises to Hong Kong that it was no longer going to allow the people freedoms. It has essentially taken away most of the media freedom. Of course, people are not allowed to protest. There have been obviously many people who have now been arrested and imprisoned.

And I think the people of Taiwan looked at that outcome and said, “Wow, this is not a country we want to be part of.” And if China were very open and liberal and democratic, I personally believe the attitudes in Taiwan would be quite different.

BONNIE GLASER: Bonnie, the Taiwanese relations with the United States. Can you talk a little bit about Taiwan’s view of the United States, the importance of the relationship. You mentioned doubts about whether the United States would come to their aid if the Chinese attacked. Can you talk about maybe how that view has changed over time? Can you sort of unpack all of that for us?

BONNIE GLASER: For Taiwan, the United States is their most important partner in the world. The United States, of course, is the only country that will sell weapons to Taiwan. The U.S. had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan from 1954 to 1979, and even when the U.S. normalized relations with the PRC in 1979, it very quickly created the Taiwan Relations Act, which set out the parameters and procedures and the institutional mechanisms that would be used to manage and sustain the very close relationship between the United States and Taiwan.

And I think it really has stood the test of time. It has been, perhaps, reinterpreted in some ways as the situation has changed. The United States, even though we say we have a One China policy, nevertheless, that has been fudged to some extent as China’s threat to Taiwan has grown. The United States has, I think, developed, for example, more closer defense ties with Taiwan.

We occasionally see leaks or read reports about how there’s American military officers training in Taiwan. Sometimes there have been joint exercises, certainly information sharing. So that, I think, has been very consistent, but it has really expanded in the, I think, defense and security area.

And the expansion, I think, really took off after the 1995-96 crisis, where the United States realized that we just didn’t know very much about Taiwan’s military. We didn’t have enough direct dialogue with them.

And at the time, Kurt Campbell was the deputy assistant secretary of defense. And he said, “We need to have a dialogue with Taiwan,” and he established what came to be known as the Monterey talks, which do not include just the military, but also have representatives from other departments from the U.S. and Taiwan.

They used to do simulations, and that would help them to try to understand where they were misreading each other or what the expectations are of Taiwan in a crisis.

But I think that the attitudes in in Taiwan towards the United States haven’t changed very much. That is, they value the relationship. They want to continue to sustain it. They would like to hold the U.S. as close as possible. Most people in Taiwan think that the United States, I think, would help Taiwan if there is a crisis. But there’s no confidence that the United States would full bore flow large scale forces to Taiwan and defend it. There’s some people who hold that view, but there’s always been doubts.

And when the United States demonstrates that it doesn’t have resolve in other parts of the world – such as when, for example, Obama drew a red line in Syria and then did not follow through – I think people in Taiwan ask themselves, “Well, we, Taiwan don’t even have a commitment from the United States, so what does that mean for us?”

BONNIE GLASER: So Bonnie, I want to switch from the views in both countries toward each other to policy. And I’m wondering what your sense is of China’s strategy for bringing Taiwan back into the fold. What is that? And as part of that, what’s your sense on the view that we hear sometimes that Xi Jinping has a timeline for reunification

MICHAEL MORELL: For Beijing, Taiwan is first and foremost a political problem left over from the Civil War. So I like to describe it as a political problem with a military component, rather than the reverse.

I think it’s in China’s interest to achieve unification without bloodshed, if possible. No leader, including Xi Jinping, would give up the option of using force. But I still believe that that’s a last resort.

China’s strategy is aimed at inducing a sense of despair among the Taiwanese people, so they eventually conclude that their only viable future is to join the mainland.

So, what we’ve seen recently and I think, you know, debates and discussions about Taiwan have emphasized the military threat to Taiwan, and it has grown enormously. And we heard Admiral Davidson, who was previously the commander of Indo-Pacific Command, say in testimony to Congress last year that China could use force by 2027, he said, in the next six years.

And my understanding is that that statement was primarily based on an assessment of PLA capabilities. A few months later, our chairman of the Joint Chiefs said something different. General Milley said, “Well, we have to look at capabilities and intent.” And he said today, “China does not necessarily have the intent to invade now.”
So there there’s a debate, I think, in the community about whether Xi Jinping has given up on using coercion and also economic enticements to unification. There’s also debate as to what Xi Jinping’s risk benefit calculus is. In my view, Xi Jinping sees the risks as quite high now. This year, Xi Jinping is going to get his third five-year term in office in the fall of the 20th Party Congress. So he’s certainly not going to take risks this year. We can talk about later if you want, whether there is some connection with Ukraine, as many people believe there is, but the risks are high.

I’ll just tick off what I see as the risks. The PLA might be defeated. A significant portion of its navy and air force can be destroyed. China would be risking an all out war with the United States. There would certainly be implications for Chinese Communist Party legitimacy and domestic support if China lost that war, if they demonstrated they couldn’t defend the territorial integrity of the country.

I think that Xi Jinping would set back progress toward more important goals for China. And the most important goal, of course, is national rejuvenation, which requires competing successfully in advanced technology. And an attack on Taiwan could result in the formation of a much firmer anti-China coalition than we see today, with a willingness to prevent that technology from going to China.

So I think for all those reasons, the risks are quite high. And Xi Jinping’s priority is to prevent Taiwan independence, and he is confident he can do that today. The toolkit that China has to use to coerce Taiwan is huge. It’s diplomatic. It is economic. It’s military. It’s cyber disinformation. It’s quite significant.

So the question is, again, what are the circumstances in which Xi Jinping would use force? And he might t lose confidence at some point that reunification could be achieved peacefully. He might see that there is an opportunity and that the risks are low; he could miscalculate. That’s also possible.

I also wanted to just comment on your question about whether there is a deadline. I think we have to recognize that at the 19th party Congress, Xi Jinping did say something different than prior Chinese leaders had said. He said reunification is a requirement for national rejuvenation, and the target date for national rejuvenation is 2049.
So we know that’s the Chinese dream. But I still think that, you know, Xi Jinping probably won’t be the leader of China in 2049. I think he’d be 96 years old. So actuarial tables, right? Probably won’t be leader. Another leader or even Xi Jinping himself could modify that statement, so I don’t see it as a hard and fast deadline, but he has at least linked the two together in a way that’s worrisome.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you mentioned, Bonnie, just now the impact of Ukraine on the Taiwan issue. How do you think about that?’

BONNIE GLASER: Well, China is undoubtedly watching very closely the situation unfolding with Russia and Ukraine. And I think it is particularly interested in the responses of the NATO alliance. China will assess its cohesion and where weaknesses may lie, that can be exploited. So if the U.S. and its allies can prepare punishing sanctions to be used in the event of aggression, well, that might signal the will and ability to do the same in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Now, Beijing might potentially draw conclusions about U.S. resolve, based on the fact, at least today, where President Biden has said that he won’t send troops into Ukraine.

But I think that the Chinese know that for the United States, Taiwan is more important than Ukraine. American interests in Taiwan run far deeper. They have much stronger roots. As we’ve discussed, the U.S., even after breaking the diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, helped Taiwan transform from a poor military dictatorship into a prosperous liberal democracy, and that democracy stands today as a compelling alternative to China’s autocratic system.

There’s statistics we could talk about. Taiwan is America’s ninth largest trading partner. We know that it dominates the foundry operations for semiconductors. Everyone is talking about Taiwan Semiconductor, TSMC. Taiwan’s, I think, location is more strategic than Ukraine. It sits in the middle of the first island chain.

And most importantly, for Japan, Taiwan is existential. And if the U.S. were unwilling or unable to defend Taiwan, I think that that would have huge consequences for Japanese confidence in U.S. resolve to defend Japan. And I think China knows all of that.

So I don’t think that the Chinese will conclude that if the United States does not use troops and military assets to come to the defense of Ukraine and prevent Russia from taking over that, that would make China’s takeover of Taiwan a cakewalk. I don’t think that’s the way they see it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Bonnie, I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you said about how the Chinese think about Taiwan and under what circumstances they would go to war and the costs they would pay. I agree with all of that.

So given that, I’m wondering if you have a sense of what’s behind all of the recent Chinese military maneuvers vis a vis Taiwan? Is it simply getting their building their military capabilities? Or is it that plus sending sending messages to Taiwan and to the United States? How do you think about all that?

BONNIE GLASER: Well yo’ve already hit on some of the reasons, Michael, I think that training is important. I hear from people in the PLA that Xi Kinping has underscored the need to train realistically and sending their air force around Taiwan circumnavigating the island, conducting more realistic naval exercises. Training is definitely a part of it.

Secondly, I think they want to stoke nationalism within the public, unify the party, demonstrate to their people that the Chinese Communist Party is resolved to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

And then thirdly, I think China clearly wants to warn both the DPP-led government in Taiwan and the United States to not cross Chinese red lines and deter them from going too far down the road towards Taiwan becoming independent.

And they always warn the United States not to embolden Taiwan’s leader to pursue independence – and I’ll mention a couple of what I see as those red lines.

The actual declaration of independence is certainly a red line. But if Taiwan were to hold a referendum on Taiwan’s status – Chen Shui-bian held a referendum when he was president in the early 2000s, and that really provoked strong responses from China. So that’s an example of, I think, crossing China’s red lines.

Or, you know, permitting the United States to deploy large-scale forces on Taiwan, I think, is also a red line.
But the last goal that China has, I think, is perhaps the most important. It takes me back to something I talked about earlier; that this coercion, this pressure on Taiwan, is part of a longer term Chinese strategy to induce this sort of despair within Taiwan that they really should just concede to Beijing, unify with Mainland China, that they should at least begin political talks and try to negotiate an outcome where Taiwan can retain some of the freedoms that it that it has and not have to be faced with a military takeover.

But I think that so far, at least, China’s military pressure and its other forms of pressure have really had a probably a contrary result. It’s been counterproductive for China, and the Chinese may eventually see that, and that could lead them to adopt a harsher strategy, maybe even to use force or perhaps go in the other direction and conclude that they need to use somewhat of a softer hand. Xi Jinping is unlikely to draw that conclusion.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bonnie, how do you think the Chinese think about the debates that occur in American think tanks about our China policy and our Taiwan policy? You know, I’m thinking in particular of the arguments that we should end the One China policy, recognize Taiwan again, or we should change our policy of strategic ambiguity in terms of the circumstances under which we would defend Taiwan, and we should just come right out and say we’ll be there for them.

How do you think the Chinese read all of that? Do you think they understand that as chatter in the think tank community? Or do you think they think about that more seriously?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, the debate over whether the United States should abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity and adopt strategic clarity, and that would mean a position where the president would say, “Under all circumstances and contingencies, the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense,” which, the United States again has not had that obligation or had a clear policy on that since 1979.

The Chinese are alarmed by that debate. When it first started a few years ago and was made quite popular by the article that Richard Haass published in Foreign Affairs with David Sachs and the Chinese that I was speaking to at the time wanted to understand what that meant, whether it was likely to happen and whether there was support within the administration.

I recall at one point, maybe even more than once, our coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs in the Biden administration, Kurt Campbell, did say quite clearly that this was not something that would be in U.S. interests. He didn’t go into great detail, but my sense is that it’s not being considered at all by the Biden administration.
But that has not reassured the Chinese. And one of the main reasons is that there are many members of Congress that continue to push for adopting a position of strategic clarity.

The Chinese have a very clear memory for past historical events, and when Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui wanted to visit the United States and the United States told China that they really were not going to give President Lee Teng-hui a visa. But there was a lot of pressure from Congress to do so, and at the end of the day, the U.S. caved in, allowed Lee Teng-hui to come. He went to his alma mater, Cornell University, and that speech in the aftermath led to the 1995-96 crisis where China was firing missiles toward Taiwan.

And the Clinton administration ended up dispatching two aircraft carriers to the region around Taiwan in order to signal China that it was not going to tolerate this kind of coercion against Taiwan. So China remembers all that, and it concluded we would not want to see this change.

Another thing that I think myself would be a dangerous outcome if we adopted strategic clarity is that the Chinese believe that this was part of the understanding that Nixon had with Mao, that Taiwan would be set aside. It would be dealt with in a way that the United States would not deploy troops in Taiwan. It would break its treaty with Taiwan, and its relationship with Taiwan would essentially be unofficial.

Now today, China believes the United States has more than just an official relationship with Taiwan, but the U.S. has stuck to those really core commitments. And I think that returning to a position of strategic clarity could be interpreted by Beijing as an abandonment of our obligations and our commitments that we made as part of normalization. And China could end up concluding that it has no choice but to respond forcefully.

And since we are in a moment where China has a conventional advantage over Taiwan – and there are lots of people in the defense community who think that this window of opportunity, even though China could end up losing, but it could believe that it might in fact be able to take Taiwan – that this could last a decade if the United States goes to war today, or five, even 10 years, it’s going to go to war with the weapons it has today.

We might have different operational concepts that enables us to be perhaps more effective at defending Taiwan than today, but if we push Xi Jinping into a corner and we say, “We have abandoned our understandings of normalization and we are going to defend Taiwan no matter what, “I think there’s a higher possibility that Xi Jinping would attack.

So I think it’s a bad idea, and I think that the Chinese believe that it would really send this relationship into a tailspin and perhaps cause them to feel they have no choice but to go to war.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us. Fascinating discussion. We’ll get you back at some point in the future to talk about the changing view of China in the world. I’d love to do that, but thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure.

BONNIE GLASER: Thanks for having me. 



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