Hong Kong Today, Taiwan Next? | Opinion

Something is happening in Beijing, and it goes well beyond last week's Hong Kong power grab. On multiple fronts—from the border with India to the South China Sea to the seas and skies surrounding Taiwan—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has decided to adopt an even more aggressive policy. If Washington fails to respond appropriately, Beijing could target Taiwan next.

Brushing aside its international obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing has decided to tighten its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong. The Trump administration, in response, is now moving to end Hong Kong's special economic status.

That's appropriate, but Washington should view Beijing's actions on Hong Kong as part of a larger CCP policy that could culminate in military action against Taiwan.

To be sure, any predictions regarding the likelihood and timing of such an attack should be proffered humbly and viewed critically. The truth is that no one outside of the core group of CCP decision-makers knows for sure.

It is indeed possible that Beijing may continue to wait until the military balance of power erodes further before acting. But history is littered with examples of nations ignoring growing threats or consoling themselves that an attack was unlikely, only to be suddenly and tragically proven wrong.

Such an attack would be a catastrophe for Taiwan. It would also put Washington on the horns of a horrible dilemma—forcing the United States to either go to war with China or look the other way. A failure to honor Washington's obligations and defend Taiwan would deliver a devastating body blow to America's interests, reputation and influence.

Prudence, therefore, demands that Washington and Taipei assume military aggression could come sooner than expected. And there are reasons to believe the burden of proof rests with those who dismiss such a possibility.

The CCP, of course, has long cast a covetous eye at Taiwan, eager to bring the free and prosperous island under authoritarian control.

And at the broadest level, the CCP does not view Hong Kong and Taiwan as fundamentally different situations. From Beijing's perspective, the absence of unchallenged Chinese authoritarian control in both Hong Kong and Taiwan is an antiquated and unacceptable remnant from a time when China lacked sufficient power to do anything about it.

But the reasons for concern don't stop there.

In the lead-up to January's Taiwanese presidential election, Beijing threw all but the kitchen sink at Taiwan in an attempt to undermine incumbent and pro-sovereignty candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Despite a robust disinformation campaign, military intimidation and efforts to stifle Taiwan's economy, Tsai earned a resounding re-election.

Her successful campaign on democracy and freedom, and her subsequent inauguration last month, may have left the CCP with the conclusion that force—and not guile—represents the best path forward.

Adding to the CCP's heartburn, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a stark contrast between Taiwan and the authoritarian mainland. The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, likely inflicted many avoidable deaths worldwide due to the CCP's lack of transparency. Taiwan, on the other hand, was a model of transparency and governmental effectiveness, earning widespread praise for its handling of the virus.

This has likely left the CCP embarrassed and seething.

Meanwhile, the economic fallout from the crisis is undermining Chinese economic growth—which has been the primary perceived source of domestic credibility for the CCP. Some are beginning to quietly question President Xi Jinping's leadership.

All of this is happening within the backdrop of a military balance of power that has shifted for years in Beijing's favor.

For these reasons, it is perhaps unsurprising that Beijing has already started to ratchet up military pressure on Taipei, with frequent shows of coercive air and maritime force near Taiwan. In light of developments in China, Beijing might come to view a military conflict as a means of encouraging domestic unity and solidifying political control.

To deter such a decision, Washington's response should include diplomatic, economic and military elements.

Diplomatically, congressional leaders of both parties should spend less time worrying about the CCP's reactions and more time signaling strong support for Taiwan. That should mean more visits to Taiwan by prominent senators and representatives. These trips may seem like meaningless political theater, but they actually send an important signal to Beijing that the U.S. stands with Taiwan.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Consistent with the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law this year, Washington must also aggressively advocate for Taiwan's membership in key international organizations. This will be easier if Washington does not leave these organizations itself, as it is currently doing with the World Health Organization (WHO). Instead of departing the WHO in protest of Chinese influence, Washington should fight for Taiwan to be added as a member.

Washington talks regularly about the great power competition with China. It is difficult to effectively engage in this competition if Washington vacates the field of competition like a child that has been frustrated and outmaneuvered—gathering his marbles and going home.

The TAIPEI Act also expresses the sense of Congress that Washington should explore ways to strengthen "bilateral trade and economic relations between the United States and Taiwan." A U.S.-Taiwan trade deal would do just that, spurring the two economies and reducing Taiwan's economic reliance on China.

Militarily, Washington must act urgently to redress the worsening military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Concern about angering Beijing persuaded the Obama administration to withhold some military support for Taiwan. The Trump administration has taken some positive steps to better equip Taiwan to defend itself—but these steps are far from sufficient.

While the Taiwanese military will never as be as powerful as the CCP's People's Liberation Army, such a goal is unnecessary. Rather, Taiwan only needs select military capabilities in order to make an invasion of Taiwan too costly to ever consider.

The CCP's authoritarian grab in Hong Kong is deeply concerning—and one part of a broader and more aggressive Beijing policy. If Washington does not act comprehensively and urgently, it could be Hong Kong today and Taiwan next.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.