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Under threat from China, Taiwan monitors the Chinese Communist Party's Congress


No one will be watching the Chinese Communist Party's Congress this week more closely than people in Taiwan. The island has lived with the threat of invasion by the People's Republic of China, or PRC, for decades. And China's leader, Xi Jinping, didn't rule out military intervention in Taiwan at the opening of the Congress. Beijing is offering a one country, two systems policy to Taiwan, something Taiwan rejects, with the leadership in Taipei keen to bolster the island's defenses. So with Xi poised for a third term as China's leader, I asked Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asian studies at Davidson College and an expert on relations between the U.S., China and Taiwan, if there are any signs that China is preparing for war.

SHELLEY RIGGER: The PRC is always preparing in the sense that they are always trying to improve the quality and capability of their military. But we don't have any signs that they are actually getting ready for a full deployment of military resources to, you know, sort of ultimately resolve the tension between the two sides.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, well, that's good news. But I'm wondering, could China afford a war, given the level of trade with Taiwan and China's own economic problems during this pandemic?

RIGGER: Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons why I'm relatively comfortable at this moment that the PRC is not going to pursue a military option in the next few years because not only are the costs really high, just the cost of a war, but also the economic costs to the PRC are extremely high. Even if they got what they wanted - they achieve their goals - they would certainly experience enormous economic costs, both in terms of the loss of opportunities with Taiwan - which is the major investor and a leading trade partner for mainland China - and also in terms of the rest of the world, where China would certainly suffer significant economic sanctions, at least in the near term.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to one country, two systems rule, the way it is with Hong Kong, why is that so problematic for Taipei?

RIGGER: The idea that Taiwan would be able to continue its own political, social and economic systems into the future under a single flag with mainland China is something that I think a lot of Taiwanese just have a really hard time believing. They don't think that it is Beijing's goal to kind of symbolically unify but not actually seek to control Taiwan. And if you look at how things have gone in Hong Kong, I think there's evidence to suggest that from China's point of view, what they really want is control, not that kind of symbolic unification.

MARTÍNEZ: What other ways, other than military options, does Xi have to exert pressure on Taipei?

RIGGER: Lots of ways, right? So there's lots of what we call grey zone tactics. Some of them are more on the military side - so making it hard for people to move around, you know, coming into Taiwan's air defense identification zone so that the Taiwanese military is on higher alert. But then also cyber measures - there's also a huge amount of disinformation and misinformation sponsored by Beijing that's designed to destabilize Taiwan's domestic politics. And then there are also economic things that Beijing has done in the past. The problem is that all of those options tend just to make Taiwanese people more convinced than ever that they don't want to be under the Beijing government.

MARTÍNEZ: How do you think the U.S. fits in here? I know Taiwan produces over 90% of the world's advanced semiconductors. That's really critical to all kinds of technology. Given that dependency, how critical is it for the U.S. to maintain stability in the region?

RIGGER: Well, I think it's really critical for the U.S. to maintain stability for many reasons. But I also think the U.S. is actually right now the primary target of Beijing's messaging. So in his speech to the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping alluded to the fact that it is what he calls external forces who are really driving most of the tension in the Taiwan Strait. And here he means the U.S. So I think U.S. policymakers need to be really thoughtful about how they can unwind this tension in a way that doesn't undermine U.S. substantive support for Taiwan but that also doesn't create unnecessary tension that is not helpful to Taiwan or to the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Shelley Rigger, professor of East Asian studies at Davidson College. Professor, thanks.

RIGGER: You're very welcome. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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