China's rulers have long regarded the island as a rogue province, with regaining control a point of honor for the ruling Communist Party and military alike. In a major speech on Wednesday, Xi warned the “problem” could not be held over for another generation. While he talked primarily of “peaceful unification,” he said Beijing reserves the right to use force if necessary. The speech brought a sharp rebuke from Taiwan, where residents remain strongly opposed to rejoining China, even under a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” deal.
Nothing in Xi's speech suggested China sees conflict as imminent. However, Xi's comments about support for peaceful “reunification” included a warning that “we do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures” to prevent Taiwan's independence. Ultimately, if Beijing truly wishes to reassert control over the island, military force may be its only option. That would be a risky step for a government that has not fought a war against a foreign state since a brief and unsuccessful conflict with Vietnam in 1979. It would also put Beijing on a collision course with Washington, which does not support Taiwan's independence but has what the U.S. State Department describes as “a robust unofficial relationship” with Taipei.