While China is likely to constrain Taiwan's international space as much as they can, they are not likely to make a unilateral, unprovoked move, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opined.
Taiwan is China's core interest
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Aug. 2, hosted by Washington D.C.-based think tank Aspen Institute, PM Lee took stock of the situation in Taiwan, noting that the Taiwan issue is "the mother of all core interests" for Beijing.
Responding to the moderator's question on the likelihood of a Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island, he said, "I mean it is the most important national subject for them, and Taiwan independence is an absolute bright red light."
He added that besides Chinese President Xi Jinping, who views "Taiwan reunification" as part of the great rejuvenation vision for China, the Chinese people believe in this vision as well, including the intelligentsia, the armed forces and the population.
However, he noted that the concept of "one country, two systems" has gained "little support" in Taiwan, even before the recent developments in Hong Kong.
He further said while Beijing was able to work with several Kuomintang governments in the past, they are unable to do so now as Taiwanese President "Tsai Ing-wen has said: "No, the 1992 consensus is not acceptable".
Attack on Taiwan holds high risk
Therefore, considering the shifting attitudes among the Taiwanese population, with two thirds of the Taiwanese now viewing themselves as Taiwanese and also wanting to maintain the current status quo, this is "a situation where the mainland is looking carefully, wondering what they can do", he said.
He added, "If they squeeze, it turns the Taiwanese against them. If they relax, the fear that the Taiwanese will have more international space."
Hence, he opined that while China is going to constrain Taiwan's international space "as much as they can", they are not likely to move unilaterally against Taiwan unprovoked.
Such a move is "high risk", he said, adding that even if it works, the victory would be "pyrrhic" as the "20 something million people" on the island are not "willing citizens".
Danger of mishap that could threaten peace in region
However, with that being said, PM Lee cautioned that there is a danger of "mass miscalculation or mishap" that could result in "a dangerous position quite easily".
He raised the 2001 incident where an EP-3 from the U.S. brushed against a Chinese fighter off the Chinese coast, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot.
The U.S. subsequently "spent several weeks working on an apology" to get the aircraft and crew back from China, as they made an emergency landing in Hainan.
Should a similar incident happen today, the U.S. will be "in quite a hard spot", as he wasn't sure if the outcome would be as benign, he said.
U.S.' position on Taiwan is consistent
Expanding on the American stance on Taiwan, PM Lee said the Biden administration has taken "a very careful" position.
The first quote was: "Nobody -- no one wants to see a unilateral change to the status quo with respect to Taiwan."
PM Lee opined that the U.S. meant "nobody is supposed to make a unilateral change" to the current status quo.
The second quote he cited from Austin that "the U.S. is committed supporting Taiwan's capability to defend itself in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, and the U.S.' one China policy".
This meant that the U.S. is taking the same position that past administrations had taken, PM Lee said, adding that Austin's statement signalled to both China and Taiwan that moves to change the status quo are not welcome.
He ended his response by saying should this careful position be "clearly and consistently maintained", peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is able to be maintained.
Therefore, while the Taiwan situation is something to worry about, it is "not tomorrow's conflict", he added.
Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory, and has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island into the mainland fold.
Besides the South China Sea, Taiwan is said to be a potential flashpoint for armed conflict between China and the U.S.
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