Taiwan is on alert for a possible invasion. Chinese fighter jets have been flying over Taiwanese airspace recently, and the presence of Chinese ships in the Straits of Formosa –an average 180km stretch of water that separates the two countries– only adds to the feeling of danger.
In recent years, China has had no qualms about showing its power in those places with some kind of dispute, such as in Tibet, on the troubled border with India. His relations with the United States have cooled to such an extent that some journalists liken it to the Cold War period. On its internal affairs, China blatantly ignores the UN’s objections to the “re-education camps” of the minority Uyghur in the Tarim Valley, not to mention the protests in the autonomous territory of Hong Kong. These demonstrations derived from the new Chinese National Security Law, deprive the former British colony of some freedoms and have been resolved in an authoritarian manner: mobilizing the army and through political arrests.
As if all this weren’t alarming, China says it reserves the right to take Taiwan by force. These were the words of Xi Jinping himself, President of the People’s Republic of China: “We do not promise to exclude the use of force and we reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”
Many international analysts agree: China is in full expansion and preparing to take the next step. But what does China want from Taiwan?
As we explained when talking about the flag of Taiwan, it all started during the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the Chinese communist army surpassed the nationalist forces on the mainland to end up establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The nationalist government and its army, along with 1.2 million people fled to the Island of Taiwan, resulting in both a territorial and population separation in China, and created a new state: the Republic of China (ROC).
Today, both countries officially proclaim a single China, but as the years go by, fewer and fewer people in Taiwan identify as Chinese people. In the last survey carried out in May 2020, the results revealed an evident generation gap between the young and the old, where the former have been educated in values and a culture closer to that of the West.
The isolation of Taiwan
The great stumbling block for Taiwan is international recognition: only 15 countries recognise the ROC, while the others are in favor of the PRC. In Europe, only the Vatican recognises its sovereignty, despite the fact that Taiwan represents a model of democratic, technological and individualist state, that is, aligned with Western culture.
There is no doubt that China has much more influence in the international sphere, both economically and diplomatically, and this conditions the position of the vast majority of countries. Taiwan is not part of the UN or the WHO, which Taipei considers a boycott that excludes them from the international community.
In 1979, the United States stopped recognising Taiwan as the only China and shifted its recognition to the PRC, isolating the Taipei government more than ever. However, they would continue to provide weapons for the defense of Taiwan and would maintain their military presence in the Pacific, even if this did not include military intervention in the event of conflict. Given this ambiguity, we cannot define this agreement strictly as an alliance.
Despite the fact that Taiwanese weaponry has been much more advanced than Chinese for decades, this has changed in recent years. Now, the Chinese military vastly outnumbers Taiwan’s in numbers and annual spending.
China’s national ambition
Furthermore, from the Chinese perspective, the desire to take back Taiwan is encouraged by the return of Hong Kong in 1997, leaving Taiwan as the last piece to complete the puzzle of unified China. The Chinese people feel that they have been humiliated and suffered under foreign powers for the past two centuries, and this sentiment should not be underestimated.
Some precedents are worrying. Looking back in history, each time a nation has been fragmented by external political processes, an armed conflict has ended up trying to reunify those territories or avoid their reunification. Some examples are: the humiliation of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, which later led to World War II and the recovery of what its rulers considered rightfully theirs; the conflict between Israel and Palestine, two states in the same territory; the Falklands War in the South Atlantic, a chilled but not extinct dispute; the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian army, caused by the polarization of Ukrainian society; and more recently the outbreak for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region with an Armenian population that officially belongs to the state of Azerbaijan.
Taiwan, more than an island
But it is not just a question of nationalism: the geostrategic factor in control of Taiwan is key to the China’s future. The location of the island and its Exclusive Economic Zone –also called the patrimonial sea– would allow China to extend its plea for the claim of control of the China Sea, currently in dispute with neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan itself.
And not least, China could deploy its fleet in the Pacific, eroding the power of the United States in this area and increasing its presence in international politics –even more–. The main countries affected would be Washington’s allies: Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, where the US bases closest to China are located. Taiwan represents a magnificent bastion for the defense of China, and is in turn one of the greatest fears for Beijing, since if they do not control the island, their enemies will.
China speaks clearly on the Taiwanese issue: in 2005 the Communist Party approved the Anti-Secessionist Law, according to which reunifying the homeland is a sacred obligation of the Chinese people. Members of the government assure that, if Taiwan were to annex peacefully, they would allow it to preserve its economic system, as long as sovereignty resided in Beijing, as it happens with Hong Kong. One China, two systems.
However, the Hong Kong experience may not be the best example. China’s extradition law has raised the tone of protests in the region, which denounce the increasing meddling of the Chinese government in its judicial system.
As we have mentioned before, with each passing year China is better prepared, with a larger fleet and deterrent missiles, for whatever interference they see as internal affairs. This military power already surpasses that of Taiwan, and would even be capable of defy the American equipment.
The victory of the Chinese communist army over the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang took place in 1949, and that is why in recent years there has been speculation within the party, in relation to a possible celebration for communist China’s centenary in 2049, in which China might be able to achieve its grand goal of total reunification. For this to happen, the conflict would have to take place over the next decade, around 2030.
What is the future of Taiwan in case of conflict?
In February 2020, Taiwan posted a photo of a Chinese bomber flying over its airspace, and being closely watched by one of its fighter jets. This photo is just one of the maneuvers that China has been repeatedly carrying out.
Ian Easton, Senior Director at the Project 2049 Institute, explains how this apparent Chinese intimidation tactic goes further, and becomes a wear and tear for Taiwanese aviation. Every time an F-16 takes off from Taiwan air bases to respond to this invasion of airspace, they are forcing their aviation to mechanical stress and adding unnecessary flight hours for their pilots, rather than completing any training program.
For China, these maneuvers do not suppose a great effort, since they simply take advantage of the end of their training maneuvers in the China Sea to return to their bases in a provocative way. In addition, they also obtain valuable information on the time and type of response that Taiwan offers to these incursions.
Wear occurs on various fronts. Taiwan is used to receiving cyber attacks from China to intercept its communications and install its spying and disinformation network. These actions are considered hostile, although they are not considered as a frontal attack.
Of course, the tools of propaganda and espionage try to undermine the authority of the government in Taipei. Chiaoning Su, doctor in Media and expert in Disinformation, believes that from China they believe that the openness of Taiwanese society makes them especially vulnerable to disinformation, and they intend to cause confusion, mistrust and division in the government, to the point where that the system collapses and the boundary between democracy and authoritarianism is blurred.
If this plan to discredit the government in Taipei does not work, another option to provoke Taiwan would be the occupation of some peripheral islands under its sovereignty, such as the small Kinmen Islands, located 2 km away from the Chinese port of Xiamen, the largest in southeast China. These islands were already the focus of conflict in the post-war 1950s, as they control the entrance to Xiamen Bay and it is a granite fortress that Taiwan uses as a military and intelligence base.
Any pretext would be enough to trigger the occupation of Kinmen, but even if there were not, it is unclear what Taiwan’s position would be on the matter. For China, it would be very easy to isolate and occupy the islands, but for the Taiwanese government, responding to this move could have fatal consequences. Is the conflict over Kinmen worth escalating?
The annexation of Crimea had little retaliation for Russia. Despite the opposition of Europe and the United States, they were only able to impose sanctions. In this scenario, China would see a favorable precedent for its interests, and it is unlikely that the United States would use force or take action on the matter beyond some trade or diplomatic measures to punish China.
However, what does seem likely is that Washington would take this move as a serious warning of Chinese aspirations and would be forced to reinforce Taiwan from a preventive point of view. James Fanell, former chief of the US Navy Intelligence, believes that the occupation of the Kinmen Islands is not convenient for Chinese interests, and thinks that if China wants to force conflict with Taiwan, it will do so with all consequences.
The last possible scenario would be the invasion. The current economic slowdown that China experiences recently is accentuated after the COVID, and makes the Chinese government look to Taiwan as a great propaganda alternative. The weakening of the White House following the withdrawal of much of the western Pacific fleet, coupled with pressure to salvage national pride from a stagnant China, and Taiwan in a situation of international neglect, present a unique opportunity for China.
According to James Fanell, the Chinese offensive would involve neutralizing its defenses, as well as its ports and airports throughout the island, using missiles from the mainland. Next, the air forces would try to neutralize a possible response from Taiwan, and would ensure that all air bases were rendered useless. In parallel, they would secure the beaches with their warships to allow the landing of their troops and from here, they would enter to take the cities.
From Taiwan’s point of view, the key to defending the island would be to use a very different tactic: protecting its army through deception and camouflage. Being far outnumbered by the number of Chinese forces, they should reduce their casualties and consider attack targets such as ships, helicopters or missile platforms before China reached the coast of Taiwan. This would make it possible to protect the population of the cities while the army delays the invasion as long as possible.
But without a doubt, the best option for Taiwan would be to avoid the war or prolong its beginning so that its potential allies could take positions. The logistics would be complex for the United States, in case it defended Taiwan, and it would fight thousands of kilometers away from its coasts, in the islands of Guam and Okinawa (Japan). The escalation of the conflict would mean a clash between two world superpowers that would last for years, with the increasing risk of a nuclear war if one of the two sides lost its head.
International positions on Taiwan
At the moment, this is only a hypothetical scenario, and the truth is that the United States has been adopting a policy of strategic ambiguity with Taiwan for years, who does not feel 100% supported, and that generates that the risk of invasion is higher.
Faced with this situation, a bill presented in the Washington Congress aims to authorise the use of military force if China attacks Taiwan. However, the consequences of such a law would have to be weighed, as this could provoke China or encourage the Taiwanese government to take more risks in its relations with China.
Regarding Europe, it has been publicly in favor of safeguarding democracies, the values of freedom and Human Rights, but in this type of situation it has also been quite ambiguous –we only have to remember the refugee crisis or the occupation of Crimea.
This is why Taiwan requests the recognition of its government and its inclusion in international institutions. Unfortunately for their interests, the commercial network that China has been weaving for decades is a great obstacle for Taiwan, since many countries depend to a large extent on trade with Beijing, and fear that even a simple rapprochement with the Taiwanese state could unleash economic retaliation against them.
If China finally prevails and takes Taiwan by force, the message that will reach the rest of the democracies in its geographical area will be alarming, because China is expanding and Taiwan could be only the beginning.