Taiwan at the Crossroads

Sub Title : The Looming Threat of Chinese Military Intervention

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 57

Category : Geostrategy

: March 22, 2024

The future of Taiwan remains one of the most delicate and potentially explosive geopolitical issues today. The question of whether China will attempt to forcibly reunify with Taiwan not only affects the regional balance in the Indo-Pacific but also poses significant global economic and strategic implications. With tensions simmering beneath the surface of international diplomacy, the spectre of a military intervention looms, raising concerns about the extent to which the U.S. might become involved and the broader ramifications of such an act.

Will China Seek to Reunify Taiwan by Force?

Will they? Won’t they? Will China attack Taiwan and seize it by military force? And will the US intervene? And if so, what will be the consequences? These are questions that have plagued policymakers across the world. Even as the wars of Ukraine and the Middle East occupy centre stage, there is a graver confrontation looming in the Indo-Pacific – a likely Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

When the nationalist government forces of Chiang Kai- Shek were defeated by the communists in the mainland in 1949, they fled to Taiwan and established their own government there. Since then, reunifying the island with the Chinese mainland has been a “sacred duty” for the Communist leaders. Taiwan – or to use its official name, The Republic of China  – has retained its independent system of democracy, as opposed to China’s authoritarian communist rule, following a policy of “one nation, two systems.” But it has not yet declared itself as an independent state. And though China has resorted to range of coercive measures to push Taiwan into re-joining the mainland, it has not resorted to actual war. Not yet.

Perhaps the enormous cost and casualties, and the probability of failure has prevented the Chinese from an actual assault.  But, as China’s economy slows, world reaction to its policies increases, and Xi Jinping’s own position becomes insecure, perhaps he would like to regain his pre-eminence by becoming  the great leader who got the breakaway island back into Chinese fold. With the world pre-occupied with the wars of Ukraine and Gaza – and the US leadership now engaged in an acrimonious presidential elections – can he choose this moment to strike? The PLA has been conducting an unprecedented series of exercises, practising an air, ground and naval invasion of Taiwan. Could one of these exercises be converted in to the real thing?

If Taiwan is re unified with the Chinese mainland (by force, if necessary) it would add 58,000 square kilometres to its area and over 23 million trained and educated people to its population. Taiwan’s strategic location at the junction of the East and South China Sea will provide a spring board into the Pacific Ocean. Most importantly, Taiwan produces 60  percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductor chips. Should China get control of the worlds semiconductor production, it will have a stranglehold to control the world economy for decades.

But will China take the chance? And if it does, how will the USA react?

China, Taiwan and the USA

The island of Taiwan lies 130 km from the Chinese mainland. Around the main island are a series of smaller islands, some of them like Kinmen and Matsu,  just 3 kilometres  away from Chinese shores. Both the eastern and the western side of the island are dotted with beaches suitable for an amphibious landing. The population is originally Han Chinese, with strong cultural and ethnic ties to the mainland, but the present generation are staunchly Taiwanese, with their own distinct identity.  They are proud of their democratic values which they want to preserve – especially after seeing China’s clampdown on Hong Kong in 2019.  More and more of the youth now favour outright independence (Around 54% as per polls conducted in 2023). The results of the February 2024 elections, has also brought the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power for its third term. This is a pro-independence and anti-unification party which does not harbour any illusions of re-joining the mainland and may consider outright independence.  All this may prompt China to act before Taiwan moves completely out of its orbit.

Under Xi Jinping, the movement to reunify the island has intensified. He has repeatedly called upon the PLA to be prepared to take the island by force by 2027. That is considered to be the watershed year. By then, China would have built up to peak strength.  Beyond this, Taiwan would also become stronger and more difficult to subdue. More importantly, the new generation of Taiwan would gain ascendency and could even declare themselves an independent nation.

Yet, the date can be preceded by a few years – maybe even 2024. The world is pre-occupied with the wars in Europe and the Middle East. If Putin gets away with his aims in Ukraine, it could embolden Xi Jinping to try a similar gambit in Taiwan. US policy and resources have been severely stretched in both the Middle East and Europe, and it has been deflected from the area of its main threat – the Indo-Pacific. Like his good friend Putin, Xi Jinping could seize the ‘once-in-a-century moment’  to attack Taiwan and seize it by military force. And if he does take the gamble,  how will the USA respond?

USA – the champion of democracy and human rights (notwithstanding its own record of violations across the world) has always stood for Taiwan’s democratic way of life, as opposed to China’s Communist autocracy. But will it fight and shed American blood for democratic ideals in an island 12,000 kilometres away  – and that too in election year?

The USA has no mutual defence treaty with Taiwan like they have with Japan and South Korea. On the contrary, since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, it has explicitly recognised the island as part of China under the ‘One China, Two systems policy’. It maintains a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan, but has armed and aided Taiwan and provided it with F-16 fighters, 155 mm howitzers, tanks, ships and submarines to make the island capable of defending itself – another sore point with China. The US has no forces on the island itself, but holds bases in Guam and Japan, which can respond should Taiwan be threatened.

US-China relations have gone rapidly downhill since 2014 – ever since Xi Jinping took over. When Nancy Pelosi – the Speaker of the US house of representatives visited Taiwan in August 2022, it raised a howl of protest from China, which called the move as “a dangerous provocation.” President Joe Biden, too raised a hornets nest when he announced publicly, “US forces will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.” It was a direct affirmation of US support and was repeated four times in different forums. But even then, it is not clear if the USA will actually respond. More so, since the US Presidential elections are due in November 24, and the period of transition (and the likely return of Trump to the White House) could delay the US response, and provide a brief window of opportunity for China.

Chinese and Taiwanese Forces

If one looks at the forces of China and Taiwan, there is a vast disparity. Taiwan’s standing army of 1,69,000 is dwarfed by China’s 2 million strong armed forces. But Taiwan has over half a million reservists who can be called up rapidly for military duty. A lot hinges on Taiwan’s defensive forces being strong enough to delay the enemy;  prevent him from landing, or decimating the invasion force by cutting off its long supply chain extending 130 kilometres across the Straits of Taiwan. Buying time till the US arrives, is the heart of the Taiwanese defence strategy.

A Chinese invasion will not be easy. They will require a force of around 300000 – 500000 men, 4000 ships, 2100 planes, and  around 3 million tons of equipment – even greater than those required for the Normandy landings. These will have to be assembled in secrecy, then ferried 130 kilometres across the Straits of Taiwan. The assaulting force would then have to establish a beach head, and then move with additional forces across the difficult mountainous terrain to seize ports and cities, especially the capital, Taipei. All this while under contending with a likely US response from the Pacific. The Chinese vulnerabilities of crossing the 130 kilometre long channel, and maintaining its forces on the other side, can be exploited.

How could the Flashpoint Erupt?

The most likely date for a Chinese invasion is anticipated to be around 2027, but can take place even as early as 2024. By 2025, the PLA would have built up its capabilities to invade Taiwan. Their navy has already expanded to become the largest navy in the world, with  350 vessels – even surpassing the US naval strength of 293 ships. The US has a distinct edge in technology and sophistication, but its forces are engaged both in Europe and in the Middle East, and would be divided.

For years the PLA has been ramping up its aggression, by intruding into Taiwan’s  air defence identification zone and entering Taiwan’s waters and air space.  In 2023 itself, there were over 2000  air and naval violations of Taiwanese territory, including 103 in a single day in September. Taiwan has been struck by cyberattacks and disinformation almost on a daily basis.

China has also been practicing amphibious operations for years. They could follow the time tested formula of converting one of these exercises into an actual invasion. A pretext – such as the shooting down of a Chinese fighter, or an attack on one of their ships that moves dangerously close to Taiwan – can be used to trigger the invasion. China could perhaps start the operations by seizing islands close to the mainland,  like Matsu or Kinmen. This would be like salami slicing and enable them to test the waters, gauge the Taiwanese and US response and also back down without loss of face, if things don’t go well. Concurrently, China could  launch an air and naval blockade of Taiwan. China would seek to establish complete air and naval ascendency over the 130 kilometre wide Straits of Taiwan, so that its amphibious forces could cross with impunity. Under intense naval and air bombardment, the initial assault forces  would establish beachheads on both sides of the island. Once the beachhead(s) is established, the main invasion force would follow, to move inland to capture Taipei and other critical targets.

The crux of the  operation hinges on how the USA will react. Should the US keep its commitment to Taiwan and respond to the Chinese aggression, they could form a coalition with Japan and South Korea and use their bases in Okinawa and Guam to respond, while the rest of the fleet moves in from the Pacific. Speed would be of essence As per a study, should the response be delayed by more than 4-5 days, it would be too late.  Once, China establishes its beachhead on the Island,  it will be difficult to evict them. Delaying the US forces is thus a critical part of its plan.

As per a war game conducted by the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, a confrontation such as this, could cost the USA and its allies over 350 aircraft and 40 ships –  including one or two aircraft carriers.  China was expected to lose around 200 – 250 aircraft and almost 150 ships, including most of its invasion force. Even then, the outcome is imponderable. In some war games, the US is staved off, enabling the Chines to take over the island – albeit with heavy losses. But more than the materiel damage are the long term costs. The war would reduce the GDP of China by up to 25% and US GDP would drop by 7-10%. The clash between the world’s two largest economies would cripple supply chains and plunge the global economy into recession. It is the fear of the economic costs and the immense losses that may prevent this scenario from unfolding.

But, should the USA refuse to get involved, (and merely impose sanctions) it is estimated that Taiwan would be able to stave off the invasion for just 2-3 weeks and fight on the island for perhaps a month or two before being forced to capitulate. China would suffer very high losses of men and materiel, but once it absorbs Taiwan, its pre-eminence is assured. It would be able to control the Indo-Pacific, dominate the semi-conductor industry and be the unchallenged power in the region – if not the world. If the USA does not take on the challenge, it will lose its status as the world’s superpower, and pass on the mantle to China.

The year 2022 saw the war in Ukraine; 2023 saw the eruption in Gaza. Will 2024 see an even graver confrontation in the Indo-Pacific over Taiwan? As of now, it still seems unlikely, but a possible window between 2024 and 2027 exists. Will Xi Jinping decide to take a gamble and exploit it? This superpower confrontation in the Indo-Pacific could have far greater consequences than that of Ukraine and Gaza, and coupled with the turmoil caused by these wars could well see the entire world engulfed in conflict.