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Fears of Chinese Move on Taiwan Weigh on U.S.-China Relations

Taiwan and China have had an unstable coexistence for more than seven decades. But concerns are rising that China may move against Taiwan to force a unification. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains some of the causes for worry. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Video Transcript

GERALD F. SEIB: There are plenty of things to worry about in the US relationship with China. But one worry in particular has been climbing up the list recently, and that's the explosive question of Taiwan. Taiwan, of course, is the island state that considers itself the one true China, but that the communist government in Beijing considers to be nothing but a breakaway province that ought to be reunited with the mainland.

That's been the state of unsteady coexistence for more than seven decades now. A concern has been some recent Chinese activity that suggests it might be considering using military force to compel Taiwan to reunite with the mainland. Some analysts consider these Chinese moves to be nothing but saber rattling and posturing, perhaps designed merely to stop Taiwan from declaring its independence. That is to say, from declaring itself to be an independent state no longer interested in reunification with the mainland.

But nobody can be sure. And the nationalistic bent of Chinese President Xi Jinping is a cause for worry. A more particular cause for concern has been some recent military activity by China. Taiwan has reported that in recent days, Chinese military aircraft, including fighter jets, bombers, and anti-submarine aircraft, have flown over nearby waters. Japan also has reported that Chinese military aircraft have flown into Japan's self-declared air defense zone as well.

And all these moves come shortly after a fairly contentious meeting in Alaska between Chinese officials and officials of the new Biden administration, a meeting at which Chinese officials apparently said some fairly aggressive things about reunification with Taiwan.

One other area of concern is that if the Chinese actually believe their own rhetoric about how the US and the West are in the early stages of an inevitable decline, they may conclude the West is in no position to respond to a Chinese move against Taiwan. That could lead to miscalculation. Again, none of these moves mean that military action is either imminent or inevitable, but they explain why the worry level is rising.