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Annexing Taiwan is the number one task for the People’s Liberation Army.
The US position on Taiwan seems to me to be ambiguous in a way that’s helped keep the peace for decades.
Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s.
China says it will fight rather than allow Taiwan to become independent.
China is rising to superpower status. And as it does so it’s showing more and more attention towards reclaiming territory that it has long regarded as its own. This can be seen in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and along its Himalayan border with India.
The tensions in all these areas are increasing the focus on Taiwan, a self-governing island of 22m people that Beijing regards as its sacred territory. China says it will fight rather than allow Taiwan to become independent. Recently, it’s increased its military exercises near Taiwan.
And unusually, some official Chinese newspapers have been mentioning Taiwan in the context of the Korean war, which China says it was drawn into against its will in the 1950s.
Worryingly, some commentators appear to prepare a similar argument about the present situation. We’re seeing disinformation being spread about alleged provocative moves by the US and Taiwan, which hawkish Chinese commentators then seize upon to call for military action against Taiwan.
China’s armed forces and government have also started describing military drills close to Taiwan as necessary to protect national sovereignty. They allege that the US is upending stability and that Beijing has no choice but to defend its interests.
So Kathrin, what’s the feeling at the moment in Taiwan about the recent manoeuvres by China’s People’s Liberation Army in the waters around Taiwan?
Taiwan really has been rattled this time around. Of course, summer, especially July and August, is the traditional season for military exercises also around here. And Chinese military capabilities have been growing rapidly. Of course the armed forces would want to master this new equipment and train on it.
Also, annexing Taiwan is the number one task for the People’s Liberation Army. And therefore, it’s not surprising that we are seeing operations around here. What is surprising however, or what is abnormal actually, is that China is abandoning, or appears to be abandoning, the practises that kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades. And the political language out of Beijing is getting harsher and harsher.
By and large, Beijing and Taipei both respected the Taiwan Strait Median Line. This line is an unofficial dividing line proposed by the US more than 60 years ago. In March last year Beijing violated that line for the first time in 20 years. And since then the PLA air force has crossed it at least five more times.
Earlier this year Chinese forces did even a night-time exercise right on the edge of that median line for the first time. And more recently, in September, the PLA held a two-day large scale manoeuvre on Taiwan’s side of the strait.
This kind of activity is called grey zone operations. They don’t constitute a breach of international law. They are not an act of war. But they instigate fear in Taiwan society because they remind the country that this standing threat China has had to invade if Taiwan doesn’t toe the line, that this threat might actually be real.
Of course, the tensions in this arena are not limited to Taiwan and China alone. The other big player is the United States. And the US position on Taiwan seems to me to be ambiguous in a way that’s helped keep the peace for decades.
On the one hand, it doesn’t recognise Taiwan as a country. But on the other hand, it does supply weapons for Taiwan’s defence that help Taiwan maintain its de facto status as an independent state. But it now looks to me, Kathrin, as if this so-called strategic ambiguity is fraying a bit.
If we look back, the beauty of this ambiguous policy was that it long worked to deter China from aggression because China couldn’t be sure what Washington would do in case it attacked Taiwan. And the policy, on the other hand, worked to discourage Taiwan from political moves that could have raised tensions, for example to officially declare the independence it, in fact, already has.
Now there’s a growing debate in Washington over whether the deterrence bit of this equation still works. The People’s Liberation Army has, in some respects, become a peer for the US military, at least in Asia and the Western Pacific. So some US lawmakers, military experts, and some China hawks are calling for Washington to make its commitment to Taiwan’s defence more explicit.
At the end of August, Washington declassified a set of documents that contain assurances to Taipei that its security support would continue. The US also publicly stated that it does not take a position on sovereignty over Taiwan. And it said that certain of its agreements with Beijing were premised on China taking a peaceful approach to Taiwan.
That move, for some China hawks and Taiwan supporters in Washington, has worked like a dog whistle. They believe that in the light of China’s more aggressive stance, all bets are off and the US could move much further.
The other factor in all of this is the changing view within China of China’s place in the world and the growing influence of the People’s Liberation Army on Chinese politics. This has been a long-run thing. But certainly, since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, Beijing’s growing assertiveness has been very clear.
According to President Xi, China has, in the last 70 years since the communist revolution, managed to stand up, get rich, and become strong. And now, he says, it’s time for China to take its place at the centre of world affairs.
There is now a realistic debate about whether China could actually win a war over Taiwan, something that had long been considered impossible. I think the single most important reason for this change is the immense progress the PLA has made in modernising itself.
If you look back, China increased defence spending by double digits for more than 20 years straight. And although that rate of growth has now slowed down, Beijing keeps outspending Taipei on the military by a factor of 15. So at first sight Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s.
At the same time, China acquired a large arsenal of intermediate range missiles with which it can hit US aircraft carriers and US military bases in the region, from Japan all the way to Guam, the US territory in the Western Pacific.
Therefore, Taiwan under growing pressure from the US, has pledged to adopt an asymmetric way of fighting. It would use many cheap, mobile, distributed weapons to make it as difficult and costly for the PLA as possible to take out its defences.
With that strategy it could take advantage of Taiwan’s geography. Two-thirds of the island are mountainous. And large stretches of its coast are unsuitable for bringing an army ashore. They are either sheer cliffs or mud flats.
Given that there are only a handful of beaches where an amphibious landing is possible, it would probably need to rely on other ways. One example would be trying to take out Taiwan’s air defences first and then grabbing a port or air dropping special forces in. If Beijing wanted to invade Taiwan it has been estimated that it would need up to one million soldiers. And even after enough soldiers had come ashore, they would face a formidable fight to control all of Taiwan and keep it under control.
Judging from how challenging that is, some defence experts believe that China has a different playbook – coercion. Instead of a full-scale invasion the PLA could keep raising military threats and pressure on Taiwan, maybe seize an offshore island just to make its case and prove that it can, or conduct cyber attacks and add on an embargo on maritime trade until public morale is so shaken and so weakened that the government in Taipei would agree to negotiate.
So the short answer is that we don’t know what is going to happen. The PLA is a formidable threat. But on the other hand, they may not be there quite yet.