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What would happen if China invaded Taiwan?

The Week UK logo The Week UK 9/20/2022 Jamie Timson
Chinese troops on mobile rocket launchers during a parade in Beijing Kevin Frayer/Getty Images © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images Chinese troops on mobile rocket launchers during a parade in Beijing Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

President Biden pledges military support for island in event of Chinese attack

President Biden has insisted the US would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack in what was the third incidence of him pledging military support to the island in less than a year.

In a wide-ranging interview with the CBS 60 Minutes TV news show on Sunday, Biden was asked if US forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. “Yes,” he replied. “If in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

As has occurred on each of the two previous occasions, though, a spokeswoman for the White House said afterwards that US policy towards Taiwan hadn’t changed. But “with the US stance toward China hardening more broadly”, said Bloomberg, it was “difficult to see Biden’s comments as anything other than a refutation of decades of so-called ‘strategic ambiguity’ in which the US declined to make its intentions clear”.

“Under the policy, the US does not specify whether it would defend Taiwan, in an effort to discourage Taipei from declaring independence and deter China from using force to press its claim of sovereignty over the island,” said the Financial Times.

Bonnie Glaser, a China and Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund, told the paper: “In my view, ‘strategic ambiguity’ is being eroded, but what is replacing it is closer to ‘strategic confusion’ than ‘strategic clarity’.”

The president “cannot keep saying one thing only for the White House to suggest another”, agreed The Spectator’s deputy editor Freddy Gray. America’s ambiguous stance on Taiwan “has become increasingly untenable as China becomes increasingly belligerent about the islands under the hawkish leadership of Xi Jinping”, he added.

Regarded by China as a breakaway province, the island is arguably “the most dangerous place on Earth”, said The Economist. For months it has faced “what Taipei views as stepped-up military harassment by Beijing”, Reuters reported – a pattern that has intensified after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island last month. 

While most military analysts play down the risk of an imminent invasion, the longer-term threat cannot be ruled out. As Chinese “military superiority” grows, the possibility that Beijing could deploy “force against Taiwan” is becoming all the more real, The Economist said.

The latest  

Biden’s latest remarks came just days after the Senate foreign relations committee passed the Taiwan Policy Act, a bill that would “force the president to impose sanctions on major Chinese state-owned banks if Beijing escalated its aggression towards Taiwan”, said the FT.

China carried out its “largest-ever military exercises” ten miles from Taiwan after Pelosi’s brief visit to the island in early August, said Al Jazeera.

According to the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, Beijing dispatched “more than 100 warplanes including fighters and bombers” during its show of force. At least ten destroyers and frigates were also said to be involved, along with 11 ballistic missiles. Several airlines “re-routed or cancelled flights… because of China’s continuing military activity”, Al Jazeera said.

The “live-fire exercises” were seen as a direct response to the trip by Pelosi, “the most senior American lawmaker to visit the island in 25 years”, said Sky News.

China had warned that there would be “serious consequences” if she did make the visit, and the Chinese government “views the White House statements and congressional action as a shift in the status quo that requires a stronger response from Beijing”, says Bloomberg. There’s “growing consensus among White House officials that Xi Jinping’s views on Taiwan will only harden after the 20th Party Congress this year and that he could be more willing to forcibly unify the island with the mainland”, Bloomberg added.

The background: military pressure 

In early July, a senior US general warned that while a Chinese attack on Taiwan is not “imminent”, the US is nonetheless watching “very, very closely” for signs they are preparing to launch one.  

Speaking to the BBC, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said that China was “developing a capability” to attack Taiwan, but whether China would do so remained “a political choice”.  

President Xi Jinping has “mentioned that in public forums, he’s mentioned it in speeches, that he has challenged the PLA to develop the capability to attack Taiwan at some point in time”, said Milley, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army. 

“And whether they would or not, it’s a political choice, it’s a policy choice, that will be based off of how the Chinese view the cost risk benefit at the time,” he said. 

The statement came at a time of “increasing anxiety” in Taiwan that China would invade the self-governed island, prompting some locals “to take gun training”, said The Independent

It also followed a warning to China from Foreign Secretary and prime ministerial hopeful Liz Truss, who said at the G7 summit in Madrid that any attempt to invade Taiwan would be a “catastrophic miscalculation”.  

She added that Beijing was in danger of making the same mistake as Russian President Vladimir Putin: “That is exactly what we saw in the case of Ukraine – a strategic miscalculation by Putin.”  

The dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty is the “main issue that risks one day leading to war between the US and China”, said Bloomberg, with “calls growing” among American politicians for a commitment to get involved if Beijing invades the island.   

And China has “steadily ramped up” its military pressure in recent years, regularly sending warplanes near Taiwan and warning the US that the strait separating the island from Fujian province isn’t international waters.  

There has been a “drastic shift in the consensus in Taiwan against any form of integration with China” in recent years, added the news site, due to both the island’s “growing sense of nationhood” as well as in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s “sweeping crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong”.   

War drums  

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

Taiwan 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.  

Beginning on 1 October last year, Beijing dispatched 150 military planes into Taiwan’s air defence zone and Chinese President Xi 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.  

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.  

Independent state  

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. 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’s 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 stance, repression in Hong Kong and “genocidal treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang” also mean that the importance of “standing up to dictatorship is something that most of the world can agree on”, Lloyd-Parry said.  

David and Goliath  

If a conflict were to break out 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. But Taiwan has a defence pact with the US dating back to the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty, meaning the US could 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”.  

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 is also devising “a multi-pronged” response to an invasion that “utilises aircraft, ships and its air defence systems to counter Chinese military incursions”, Bloomberg reported.  

Taiwan is understood to be watching Ukraine’s defence against Russian invasion closely. But it is unlikely that the island would be able to “copy Ukraine’s civil defence blueprint”, according to The Diplomat.  

The “successful deployment” of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force has been vital in its effort to repel Moscow’s attack. However, setting up something similar in Taiwan is neither “legally or politically feasible”, the Asia Pacific-focused magazine said.   

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”.  

If the US decides 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 said. In other words, “Pax Americana would collapse”.  

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

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

Global war  

Following last September’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.”  

ABC global affairs analyst Stan Grant wrote that Aukus “is designed to send a clear message to China that the US is not going to surrender dominance in the Indo-Pacific”. The agreement also means that 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 2021 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 to join its allies.  

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