China and Taiwan marked the Lunar New Year holiday this week with dueling propaganda videos showcasing their respective military might, released on social media. It was the latest sign that North Korea may no longer be the world’s most volatile hotspot, the nation most likely to unleash a major crisis that could spiral out of control. Now that dubious distinction may be shifting to Taiwan.
The root of the problem is, of course, that China considers Taiwan an inextricable part of its territory ripped away in 1949 when the government of the Republic of China, facing military defeat against communist forces on the mainland, moved to the island. Beijing always saw this as temporary—something to be rectified when it had the power to do so. Now that time is at hand. Massive economic growth has given China a degree of influence and resilience that it never had before. Its military capabilities have grown extensively. And while America has long been committed to Taiwan’s separation from China, the willingness and ability of the United States to back Taipei with force seems shakier than ever. For strategists in Beijing, imposing reunification on Taiwan probably appears more feasible than at any time since 1949.
What is making the situation particularly dangerous now is China’s mounting internal problems, especially a slowing economy. Its short-term economic prospects, at least, are troubling. This matters because the Chinese Communist Party sustains its rule in part by buying off internal dissatisfaction. The Chinese people tolerate authoritarianism in exchange for stability and prosperity. But if economic imbalances and problems mount, the Communist Party may have a harder time fending off political opposition. As often happens in authoritarian political systems, economic frustration could turn into dissent.