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What could happen if China tries to invade Taiwan?

The Week logo The Week 05/10/2021 The Week Staff
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Ever since Taiwan’s rapid economic and democratic transformation in the 1980s and 1990s, relations with its superpower neighbour China have swung between frosty silence to outright threats of invasion.

Described by The Economist as “the most dangerous place on Earth” due to its proximity to Beijing, which views it as a breakaway province, the island has for months faced “a pattern of what Taipei views as stepped up military harassment by Beijing”, Reuters said.

The ongoing dispute has drawn in powers from around the globe, with Joe Biden restating the US’s commitment to defending its Asia-Pacific ally and Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for the island’s “meaningful participation” at the UN. 

But as Chinese “military superiority” grows, the possibility that Beijing could deploy “force against Taiwan” has become all the more real, The Economist added.

The latest

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) this week “launched combat readiness drills near the Taiwan Strait”, The Washington Post said, stating that the exercises “targeted the seriously wrong behaviour of the relevant country”.

Declaring that the operations were specifically aimed at Taiwan marked “a rare reversal of the PLA’s standard practice of denying that its manoeuvres target a particular country”, the paper added.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said six Chinese warplanes, including “including four J-16 fighter jets and two surveillance planes”, had flown into the country’s air defence identification zone during the drills, reported Reuters.

The action came after the Ministry of Defence in Beijing described the use of a US navy plane to fly US lawmakers into Taiwan for a routine trip as “sneaky”.

“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will stay on high alert at all times and take all necessary measures to resolutely smash any interference by external forces and ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist plots,” spokesperson Tan Kefei said after the unannounced trip.

Asked about the visit by “unspecified members from both the US House of Representatives and Senate”, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang told reporters that Taiwan-US relations are “very important”, describing it as a “visit between friends”.

The Pentagon responded to China’s condemnation by saying that “it was not uncommon for congressional delegations to be transported in military aircraft”, Reuters said.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said “it was not unusual”, adding that it was the second such congressional trip to Taiwan this year. Asked which lawmakers had been in attendance, he “did not provide details on who was on the flight”, the news agency added.

War drums

Beginning on 1 October, Beijing dispatched 150 military planes into Taiwan’s air defence zone and Chinese President Xi Jinping later said he would complete the “historical task” of reunifying the island with the mainland. Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president, has dismissed the claim.

“There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure,” Tsai told troops, politicians and foreign diplomats on her country’s national day.

“We will continue to bolster our national defence and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

Tsai continued that Taiwan is “fully committed” to working with international forces “to prevent armed conflict in the East China, South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait”. 

She said that the country “will do whatever it takes to defend itself” against any Chinese aggression, also writing in an article on Foreign Affairs that there would be “catastrophic consequences” if a conflict were to break out between the two nations. 

Her intervention came as it emerged that US military personnel have been covertly operating in Taiwan for at least a year in preparation for an attempted Chinese invasion.

Around two dozen special forces troops are training soldiers to “shore up the island’s defences” as the threat of “aggression” from Beijing “mounts”, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said. Marines are also “working with local maritime forces on small boat training”.

Taiwan has also bought “billions of dollars of military hardware” from the US, but experts now believe that “deepening ties between US and Taiwan units” will be more effective than supplying equipment, the WSJ added.

China and Taiwan were divided during a civil war in the 1940s. However, Beijing has always maintained that the island should at some point be reclaimed. Beijing considers Taiwan a province of China and has described Tsai’s government as separatists, while refusing to rule out the use of force to bring it back into China’s direct orbit. 

Video: Cotton: US allowing ‘China to annex, invade’ Taiwan would be catastrophe of ‘historic proportions’ (FOX News)

The island held the Chinese seat at the UN until October 1971 before it was voted out as the representative of the country in favour of Beijing. “Since then, Taipei has regularly sought increased participation at the UN and its array of bodies,” Al Jazeera said.

It has full diplomatic relations with only 14 out of 193 United Nations member states – as well as the Holy See – because China has urged its allies to refuse to recognise its legitimacy as an independent nation. The island also has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders and around 300,000 active troops.

Experts have warned for months that “Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned that Taiwan’s government is moving the island towards a formal declaration of independence”, the BBC said, though Tsai’s government has maintained the position that “Taiwan is already an independent state, making any formal declaration unnecessary”. 

Should a conflict break out between the two, the international community would be left facing “the central question of our age”, said The Times’ Asia editor Richard Lloyd-Parry, namely “working out what, in practice, ‘not bowing’ to China means”. 

“Facing up to Xi brings large and diverse costs” that make engaging in “a full-scale military invasion and a war that could quickly spread far beyond the island” an unattractive option for many countries.

But Beijing’s “aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours, Japan and India, its repression in Hong Kong, and its arguably genocidal treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang” also means that the importance of “standing up to dictatorship is something that most of the world can agree on”.

David and Goliath

If a conflict were to break out between the two neighbours it would be “a catastrophe”, reported The Economist. This is first because of “the bloodshed in Taiwan” but also because of the risk of “escalation between two nuclear powers”, namely the US and China.

Beijing massively outguns Taiwan, with estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showing that China spends about 25 times more on its military. However, Taiwan has a defence pact with the US dating back to the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty, meaning the US could, in theory, be drawn into the conflict.

“Beijing’s optimistic version of events” after the decision to invade would see “cyber and electronic warfare units target Taiwan’s financial system and key infrastructure, as well as US satellites to reduce notice of impending ballistic missiles”, Bloomberg said.

“Chinese vessels could also harass ships around Taiwan, restricting vital supplies of fuel and food,” the news site continued, while “airstrikes would quickly aim to kill Taiwan’s top political and military leaders, while also immobilising local defences”.

This would be followed by “warships and submarines traversing some 130 kilometres [80 miles] across the Taiwan Strait”, before “thousands of paratroopers would appear above Taiwan’s coastlines, looking to penetrate defences [and] capture strategic buildings”.

According to satellite imagery seen by military news site The Drive, China has also begun “beefing up its combat aviation infrastructure across from Taiwan as invasion fears grow”. 

Beijing “is upgrading three air bases located opposite” the island, “boosting its air power capability in an already tense region that is flush with air combat capabilities.”

“Construction of the new infrastructure began in early 2020 and continued uninterrupted through the pandemic, underlining its priority,” the site added.

Taiwan would be reliant on “natural defences” – its rugged coastline and rough sea – with plans to “throw a thousand tanks at the beachhead” in the event of a Chinese invasion that could result in “brutal tank battles” that “decide the outcome”, according to Forbes.

The island’s top military leadership has also “warned China that the closer its aircraft and ships get to the island the harder Taipei will respond”, Bloomberg reported, with “a multi-pronged approach that utilises aircraft, ships and its air defence systems to counter Chinese military incursions” in the works.

“Chinese state media has dismissed the idea of Taiwan retaliating,” the news agency added. But a report by the island’s defence ministry sent to legislators shows the island is preparing to “take tougher measures” should they be necessary.

Pax Americana

This would all be complicated by the US pledge to defend its ally in what The Economist called a “test of America’s military might and its diplomatic and political resolve”.

Asked last week during a CNN town hall meeting whether the US would mount a military response if Beijing attempted to take the island by force, Biden responded: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

The Guardian said that Biden “made a similar pledge in August”, when he told ABC News that the US has a “sacred commitment” to defend its Nato allies in Canada and Europe and it was the “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan”.

If the US had decided against intervention, “China would overnight become the dominant power in Asia” and “America’s allies around the world would know that they could not count on it”, the paper added. In other words, “Pax Americana would collapse”.

That would be unacceptable in Washington, especially as “Joe Biden pivots US foreign policy towards a focus on the Indo-Pacific as the main arena for 21st-century superpower competition”, The Guardian said.

Biden’s comments during the CNN event were “at odds with the long-held US policy” of “strategic ambiguity”, The Telegraph said. Historically, Washington has helped “build Taiwan’s defences” but has “not explicitly promised to come to the island’s aid”.

US manoeuvres have so far consisted of building up “large amounts of lethal military hardware”, The Guardian added, with “the steady buildup of troops and equipment and the proliferation of war games” meaning there is “more of a chance of conflict triggered by miscalculation or accident”.

The primary danger that comes with US involvement lies in the fact that both Washington and Beijing possess nuclear weapons.

Leaked documents published by The New York Times earlier this year revealed the extent of Washington’s discussions about using nuclear weapons to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the 1950s.

Provided to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower behind the 1971 Pentagon Papers, the documents appeared to show an “acceptance by some US military leaders of possible retaliatory nuclear strikes on US bases”, CNN noted, raising the spectre of how the nuclear powers would square off in a 21st-century conflict.

Global war

Following last month’s signing of Aukus, a historic military pact between the US, UK and Australia, former prime minister Theresa May expressed her concern about the “implications” of the agreement if China were to launch an invasion of Taiwan.

Speaking in the House of Commons, May asked Boris Johnson of “the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”

At the time, Johnson responded by saying that the pact is “​​not intended to be adversarial towards any other power”, adding: “The UK remains determined to defend international law and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world, and the strong advice that we would give to the government in Beijing.”

In response to the Chinese jets’ incursions, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told ABC that the country is “very concerned that China is going to launch a war against Taiwan at some point”. And as the broadcaster’s global affairs analyst Stan Grant wrote: “Whether the US fights alongside it will determine Australia’s fate.”

Aukus “is designed to send a clear message to China that the US is not going to surrender dominance in the Indo-Pacific”, Grant added. Australia has “dropped the pretence” of playing both sides by “doubling down on the American alliance”.

All of this seems to suggest that Australia could join the US and Japan, which in July also pledged to defend Taiwan, in mounting a resistance to a Chinese invasion, raising questions over what the UK would do if the call came from Washington or Canberra to join its allies.


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