Taiwan is in "imminent danger", the US Senate has been warned. Now the world has to decide what it will do about it.
The influential US Senate Armed Services Committee was this week addressed by former national security adviser to Donald Trump, HR McMaster.
Fired after little more than a year in the top job, he's now a member of the Hoover Institution think-tank at Stanford University.
"Taiwan is the next big prize" now Beijing had entrenched itself in the East and South China Seas, he said.
"What China's trying to do is to create in the South China Sea a barrier that would make it just far too costly for us to come to any ally's defence."
Time is no longer on the island democracy's side, he warned.
Chairman-for-life Xi Jinping "has a fleeting window of opportunity that's closing, and he wants – in his view – to make China whole again".
That makes Taiwan "the most significant flashpoint" in the world that could lead to a large-scale war.
"There's a race ongoing right now to help Taiwan harden its defences to make itself indigestible."
"The decade of concern has begun," King's College London analyst Dr Alessio Patalano tweeted in response to McMaster's testimony.
"I'd keep an eye on the small offshore islands controlled by Taiwan if one is to be really worried. Pratas [Atoll] being at the top of the list."
La Trobe University on Wednesday assembled a group of strategic analysts to assess the risk of Taiwan becoming the next "global flashpoint".
All agreed the region posed a substantial challenge to Australia and the international rule of law.
Now all eyes are on Beijing's "Two Sessions" of parliament, where Chairman Xi Jinping gets to inform his Communist Party government of his latest thinking.
Decade of concern
Predicting the future isn't easy. Especially when it comes to Chairman Xi Jinping.
"On the one side, you see people like Kevin Rudd saying Asia today is like Europe on the eve of the First World War and that the major powers are kind of sleepwalking towards a big conflict," Australian National University's Professor Brendan Taylor told the La Trobe online conference.
"And then, on the other side, you have people like Linda Jakobson, from China Matters, who [says] that China's tactics are more likely to be a kind of 'all measures short of war' for what it calls reunification with Taiwan."
But both forms of coercion need to be assessed, he said.
"My own view is that the chances for conflict are quite worrying. And they are increasing. And I think sometimes we're a little bit complacent about the chances for conflict."
The world is very different from that of 1914, on the eve of World War I.
"So I personally don't buy the argument that Xi Jinping has a plan sitting in his top draw to take Taiwan militarily this year, or even by 2049," Professor Taylor said.
Instead, any conflict will likely be the result of being pushed into political corners.
"I think that history does tell us that events can spiral out of control, even with the best of intentions."
Professor Taylor adds if China's extraordinary military expansion program continues to overhaul the US at its current rate, that will become a "game changer".
"My own assessment is that within the next decade, I think we are going to see quite an important tipping point when the US seriously does begin to lose the capacity to come to Taiwan's defence."
A friend in need …
Taiwan's quasi-independence, says Project 2049 Institute analyst Jessica Drun, has always received bipartisan support in Washington.
What hasn't always been bipartisan is how to achieve that.
"The Biden administration has continued to deepen ties with Taiwan, much like was pursued under the Trump administration for the past four years," she told the online conference.
"But I think what we're gonna see differently than under Trump is that any progress or advancement in the relationship with Taiwan will come with less fanfare."
Beijing, she says, appears compelled to respond to public declarations of opposition to its stance, "and more often than not, they choose to punish Taiwan, over punishing Washington".
Taiwan, Drun says, is beginning to think of itself as being more Taiwanese than Chinese.
"Overall, you're seeing that identity trends in Taiwan are giving shape to policies that focus more on Taiwan. And this is further from China's desired direction of closer ties, and a so-called 'shared greater Chinese identity' as the path to unification."
But Lowy Institute research fellow Natasha Kassam said she believed Beijing was putting itself under pressure.
"Perhaps it's becoming clearer in Beijing's mind that Taiwan is not available to be annexed or unified in the way that they see fit," she said.
"The vast majority do not want to be a part of China."
But that is Chairman Xi's declared goal.
"We have to assume that China's policies are aimed at forcing Taiwan to unify with China," Kassam said.
"And we know that's the long-term goal. It's written. It's in law. But I think in the short to medium term, that there is a different goal of preventing Taiwan from declaring independence."
Australia is not compelled under the Anzus treaty to fight for Taiwan's freedom.
"But I do think that Australia would find itself in a really challenging position," Kassam adds.
"We've followed the United States into every major conflict since World War II.
"The alliance is a part of the DNA of our foreign policy. So if it came to that … I do think there would be a strong imperative for Australia to be involved in some way."
Moving the goal posts
Beijing's flexing of military muscles across the Taiwan Strait is nothing new, noted Kassam. "Having said that, we have seen a real uptick over the past year, but in particular the last six months".
Kassam pointed to an incident last year where a Taiwanese fighter intercepted a Chinese aircraft approaching the "median line" dividing the two nations in the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese pilot radioed a warning that the median line was about to be breached. The Chinese pilot responded that "there was no median line".
Such challenges to the long-established status quo significantly increase the chance of a clash, she warned.
Kassam said Beijing was testing the capabilities of its forces and those of Taiwan to respond. But it's also about draining Taiwan's defence budget and signalling Washington.
"I believe that the PLA may be attempting to change the facts on the ground in the Taiwan Strait in the way they've done in the South China Sea," Kassam said, "trying to change the ideas of what is considered Taiwan space and trying to limit and isolate Taiwan."
Meanwhile, Professor Taylor says the West is coming to grips with the implications of a Taiwan under Beijing's control.
In World War II, the island was regarded as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that could dominate Asia.
That thinking has changed little since.
"The worry is that if China were to be able to gain control of Taiwan, that it would enable it to more easily project its military power further out into the western Pacific".
It wouldn't be game over for Asia's democracies, he adds.
"But certainly, it would make life a lot more difficult for the US and its allies, particularly Japan, if that scenario were to eventuate."
Out on a limb
Unification? Or anti-secession?
Judging Chairman Xi's thinking holds the key to the next decade, Kassam argues.
And the authoritarian leader's few public appearances, such as this weekend's Two Sessions, offer a rare insight into "Xi Thought".
It's undoubtedly an issue playing out in Beijing's back corridors. Last year, a reporter from the Communist Party-controlled Xinhua news agency asked if Beijing would "upgrade" the Taiwan anti-secession law into a unification law.
"That would be really changing that dynamic," Kassam said. "We don't know if that's gonna happen."
It's a matter of judging the balance.
"In the short term, I think we can think of that more primary goal is to prevent succession, to prevent that formal Declaration of Independence," she says.
Beijing's ramped-up military posturing is aimed at scaring the Taiwanese while reassuring its own public that it holds all the cards: "I think that distinction is kind of confusing, but important: unification versus anti-secession."
But Beijing struggles to maintain its message that the Chinese Communist Party is the sole provider of wealth, security and pride. Which means it must turn to nationalism to whip up public support.
"I think that's getting hotter," Kassam said. "They've been able to rely on this rising tide of development and economic growth and China taking its place in the world.
"But now, I think they're running into more obstacles as growth is slowing and demographics are not on their side. And so I think we see increasing reliance on issues and benchmarks like Taiwan."