May 18, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1695

Beijing's Taiwan Strategy And The Recent Escalation

May 18, 2023 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1695

In April 2023, the strategic game between the United States, its Western allies, and the People's Republic of China reached a high point.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits China.

In the first week of April, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen made her first foreign visit since the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting Guatemala and Belize, two of Taiwan's diplomatic allies in Central America. She travelled to the United States twice. On April 5, Tsai met with U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou was on a 12-day visit to China, becoming the first former Taiwanese president to do so. He spoke about the "Republic of China" and about "one China" in Changsha, in China's Hunan province, and he held talks with Song Tao, the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council of China.

While Tsai Ing-Wen met with Speaker McCarthy on April 5, China also welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The main purpose of Macron's visit to China was to win large purchase contracts and investment agreements from Beijing, while hoping that Beijing would exert influence on Russia to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible. To Xi Jinping's apparent satisfaction, Macron also expressed support for Beijing on the Taiwan issue.

Xi treated Macron's April 5-7 state visit to China with great courtesy, and in an unprecedented gesture, he personally accompanied Macron to Guangzhou – even visiting heads of communist states have not received the honor of being accompanied by Xi outside Beijing. This indicates how much Xi valued Macron's visit and how much he needs Macron's support.

In interviews on his flight from Beijing to Guangzhou and back to France, Macron actively cooperated with Xi, attempting to distance France and the European Union from Taiwan by saying that Europe should not intervene in the Taiwan conflict because it could not resolve the "Ukraine crisis" and could not provide a credible position commitment vis-à-vis Taiwan.

On April 8, just hours after Macron left China, Xi Jinping ordered the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct military exercises around Taiwan as a warning in light of Tsai Ing-Wen's meeting with House Speaker McCarthy. This is the second time that the PLA has carried out a major strategic "deterrent" exercise near Taiwan, the previous time being military exercise to encircle the island last August. This recent exercise focused on the deployment of troops in the early stages of a hypothetical war against Taiwan, and it involved the flexible deployment of troops, the seizure of advantageous positions, the encirclement of Taiwan, and the suppression of enemy troops.

These events must be viewed in the context of the CCP's overall strategy regarding Taiwan, which consists of the following aspects:

  1. Wooing Taiwanese politicians and political parties to favor the CCP.

  2. Tightening the noose around Taiwan militarily.

  3. Courting foreign support.

This article will provide a brief analysis of each aspect of the CCP's Taiwan strategy, which has been steadily escalating.

The CCP's United Front Efforts to Woo Taiwanese Politicians

It is probably not a coincidence that Ma Ying-Jeou visited China at the same time that Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States: For years, the Communist authorities have waged an aggressive United Front campaign against Taiwan's political establishment, enticing a large number of leading figures from the Kuomintang (KMT) and other blue-camp parties, which generally lean in favor of the One-China policy, with economic benefits and political resources.[1]

In recent years, Beijing's United Front work and efforts to win over key Taiwanese political and social figures in Taiwan have paid off, and the most obvious example of this is the fact that the CCP was able to mobilize former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to visit China for 12 days in order to counter President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to the U.S. and meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The goal of the CCP's efforts is to influence Taiwan's politics as much as possible, so that a presidential candidate from a party like the China-friendly KMT can be elected in Taiwan's presidential election in January 2024 to replace the Democratic Progressive Party, thereby giving Beijing more room to maneuver and time to prepare for a soft seizure of Taiwan or for a military conquest. This would also enable Beijing to further infiltrate Taiwan and cultivate people inside Taiwan who can help the CCP in the future.

It is no wonder, then, that during Ma Ying-jeou's visit to China, some Chinese netizens joked: "The people of Changsha warmly welcome Mr. Ma Ying-jeou, the former governor of Taiwan province."

According to a March poll asking "Who do you want to be the next leader of Taiwan?" conducted by the Taiwanese media Formosa, the support for Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Hou You-yi, mayor of New Taipei City of the Kuomintang, was 43.4 percent and 41.3 percent, respectively. In this regard, Wu Tzu-chia, the chairman of Formosa, said on April 2: "This time, it may be more favorable to the Kuomintang. Lai Ching-te vs. Hou You-yi is a draw."

After Tsai Ing-wen's visit to the U.S. and the PLA's military exercises, the latest poll released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, which is backed by the Democratic Progressive Party, showed on April 15 that three factors, including Ma Ying-jeou's visit to China, have actually boosted support for the opposition KMT by eight percentage points, making it the second-most popular party and helping it close in on the Democratic Progressive Party. (It should be noted that according to the foundation, the Democratic Progressive Party only lost 0.2 percentage points, holding on to its top position.)

According to the analysis of the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, there are three possible factors contributing to the KMT's recent rebound: First, Ma Ying-jeou's visit to the Chinese mainland drew a lot of attention from both sides of the strait, driving a wave of enthusiasm among KMT supporters; Second, Foxconn founder Terry Gou formally announced his bid for the Kuomintang's nomination for the 2024 general election; Third, it has recently become clear that New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi will compete in the upcoming 2024 election.

Closing In On Taiwan Militarily

On the night of then U.S. house speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan on August 2 of last year, the PLA Eastern Theater Command immediately launched a wave of military exercises, which lasted for nine days and peaked with the use of live fire in six areas around Taiwan from August 4 to 7. At the time, the CCP's PLA daily claimed that the participating troops were conducting joint exercises and training around the island on an unprecedented scale.

According to the CCP, the military drills that encircled Taiwan last August were intended as a deterrent against Ms. Pelosi's visit. They were a major escalation in U.S.-Taiwan relations and were meant to serve as a severe warning to "Taiwan independence" forces. The drills focused on joint blockade and control, naval assaults, land attacks, and air control operations, mainly to test the joint combat capability of the forces of the PLA's Eastern Theater Command.

The peak of the exercises was on August 4 when the PLA Rocket Force fired 11 Dongfeng-series ballistic missiles into the waters north, south, and east of the Taiwan island in what Beijing claimed was a test of the PLA's precision strike and "area denial" capabilities. Of course, the regional denial is aimed at the U.S. and Japan to deter them from getting involved in the Taiwan conflict. It is fair to say that sealing and controlling the Taiwan Straits and blocking the United States and Japan was the main purpose of the military exercise around Taiwan last August.

Beijing has taken a different tone with the drills this time, declaring them to be a serious warning against provocations by "Taiwan independence" forces and external forces. The statement, which did not name the United States, was aimed primarily at pro-independence forces within Taiwan. Therefore, the exercise focused on the ability to seize naval territory, control air and information, and effectively deploy troops. The participating troops were required to deploy rapidly, seize tactically favorable positions, and encircle Taiwan quickly.

The latest PLA military exercise is a clear indication of a strategic escalation. Instead of focusing on deterring external forces like the U.S. and Japan, it is an attempt to cut off any escape routes from the island and block economic and trade links between Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Some media sources say that the drill, which began on April 8, was less intense and less extensive than last August's drill, particularly because it did not involve tactical missiles or long-range ground fire. However, this analysis is mistaken because it misses the fact that where the August drill was aimed at the U.S. and Japan, this drill was aimed directly against Taiwan. Indeed, the April exercise focused on the early stage of direct operations against Taiwan, emphasizing strategic projection and strategic development, including the advance of military forces, which is an important prerequisite for starting a real war and an important way to carry out strategic deterrence and containment.

The April exercises are a clear indication that the CCP has entered the final stages of the beginning of a military conquest of Taiwan, and the PLA can now shift from military exercises to actual combat at any time.

The focus of the exercise in April was, for the first time, the use of carrier-borne aircrafts from Taiwan's eastern waters to coordinate with Western forces, forming a "pincer" around the island from east and west. For the first time, the PLA has rehearsed an attack on Taiwan from waters east of the island. In future exercises, the PLA is likely to normalize encircling Taiwan and reduce Taiwan's defensive depth to an absolute minimum.

In August last year, the PLA encircled Taiwan in a military exercise, which for the first time made crossing the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait a regular operation. Since then, on average, about a dozen PLA military aircraft and about five CCP Navy vessels have harassed the airspace and waters around Taiwan every day.

This April, the PLA's Shandong aircraft carrier formation crossed the first island chain and entered the waters about 300 kilometers east of Taiwan. This is of great tactical significance: It is an indication that when it starts its conquest of Taiwan, the PLA will seize a favorable position and "block the outside while sealing the inside" in order to prevent the intervention of foreign forces, block and control the Taiwan Strait, and cover the rear security of forces in the waters east of Taiwan.

According to a report by the CCP's Ta Kung Pao on April 11, a renowned military expert in Beijing said that the Shandong aircraft carrier formation blocking the sea and air space east of Taiwan simulated breaking the "Taiwan independence" forces' attempts to flee east and their dream of begging for foreign aid. The expert said that by doing so, the PLA would complete its "shooting fish in a barrel" layout against the "Taiwan independence" forces.

The report quoted Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher at the PLA's Academy of Military Sciences, as saying: "The three-day military operation first created an urgent situation on the island and achieved the goal of 'cutting off three lines' and 'eliminating two thoughts.'" "Cutting off three lines" means cutting off the energy lines connecting Taiwan with the outside world, the support lines for Taiwan from outside interference forces, and the escape lines for "Taiwan independence" separatists after their failure to reject the reunification by force. In other words, it means that the linkage between "Taiwan independence" separatists and outside interference forces will be completely cut off.

"Eliminating the two thoughts" means eliminating the "Taiwan independence" elements' delusions of "relying on the United States to seek independence" and the delusion of testing and trampling mainland China's red line.

In the future, PLA exercises and training on Taiwan will focus more on making carrier-borne aircrafts play a supporting role in the east of Taiwan. After breaking the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, PLA forces will normalize the posture of besieging Taiwan, which can enhance strategic deterrence and prepare for the strategic blockade and fire attack in subsequent operations against the island.

Importantly, the exercise also encircled the island more tightly than ever before. Task forces from all branches of the PLA entered 24 nautical miles around Taiwan Island, surrounded the island on all sides.

Beijing's intention is clearly to gradually tighten the noose around Taiwan.

Courting Foreign Support

A sudden, all-out military conquest of Taiwan would pose unpredictable risks for Xi Jinping and the CCP. As such, even as China encircles Taiwan militarily, Xi is working to win the support of Western countries in order to undermine America's relationship with its allies.

This is the significance of French President Emmanuel Macron's April visit to China. Macron, who described himself as a "Maoist" in an interview with Le Parisien on March 7, 2017, was in the past a member of the French Socialist Party, which has long had close ties with the CCP. In September 2020 at the U.N. General Assembly, Macron even defended China's crackdown on Uyghur Muslims.

In May and June 1968, there was an unprecedented student movement in France and widespread worker strikes, which were influenced by Maoism and China's Cultural Revolution. All these factors have led the CCP to focus on France as an attractive target for a potential Western ally.

French President Emmanuel Macron had a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden on April 20, after 10 days of condemnation from Macron's Western allies over his comments that Europe should stay out of the Taiwan conflict. But after the call, differences between the Elysee Palace and the White House have continued.

Macron's visit to China, initially intended as a show of unity within the EU in front of Beijing, was accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but ended up showing divisions within the bloc and angering Washington.

An Elysee Palace statement on the Macron-Biden call did not mention Taiwan directly, saying only that France and the United States shared a desire to "support international law, including freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific."

In an interview published in Politico and Les Echos, Mr. Macron said at the end of a trip to China that Europe had no intention of accelerating the Taiwan crisis, citing its strategic autonomy and the possibility of becoming a third pole outside the U.S. and China. He argues that European policy must be based on its own interests rather than purely on American decisions and that Europe must accelerate its military, technological, energy, and financial autonomy and wean itself off the U.S. dollar.

The obsession and focus of Xi's rule has always been on Taiwan, and he wants to leave a legacy in history just like Emperor Kangxi, who conquered Taiwan over 300 years ago. In order to achieve "victory without a fight" as much as possible, or to reduce the interference of external forces as much as possible, he certainly needs to seek as much external support as possible, which is why Macron's visit to China was so pivotal.


As soon as Macron left China, Xi Jinping ordered the military exercises and on April 11 inspected the navy of the Southern Theater Command in Guangdong. Clearly, Xi is preparing for both war and peace.

To safeguard Taiwan's democratic system and national existence, we can only rely on the firm determination and attitude of the United States and its allies. Only when the U.S. and its allies clearly and unequivocally state that if Beijing attacks Taiwan, then the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other allies will definitely defend Taiwan with force will Xi's mind become clear.

The United States and its allies should make it clear that if Beijing invaded Taiwan, they would not rule out blockading or attacking the cities on China's developed east coast areas. Chinese military expert Dai Xu has expressed concern that this could happen. The economic lifeblood of China is almost all in the eastern and southeastern coastal areas. If these areas are paralyzed, China's economy will be devastated. The discontent of the people will lead to civil unrest in China, and the wishful thinking of the CCP and Xi that by conquering Taiwan they can bring national unity and confidence, and bring legitimacy to the regime in Beijing will be completely defeated. That could well lead to the collapse of the regime in Beijing.

Beijing is now draining Taiwan's power. If the U.S., Japan and other countries do not draw red lines or otherwise intervene, the CCP will surely make the judgment that the U.S. will not intervene militarily in the Taiwan crisis, since the CCP has repeatedly tested the waters.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.


[1] These individuals include: former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou; former KMT Chairman and former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan; former KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu; People First Party chairman James Soong Chu-yu; former Kuomintang presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu; former Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin; former New Party Chairman Yu Mu-ming; Taiwanese crime boss and China Unification Promotion Party chief Chang An-lo; Democratic Progressive Party officials such as chairman Hsu Hsin-liang; and many others.

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