The US is once again warning that China is desperate to invade Taiwan. This is because Chinese missiles keep flying in the direction of Taiwan resulting in a US aircraft carrier sailing through the Taiwan Strait in a defiant signal of resolve.
Now, tensions are rising over Taiwan again. China has increased aerial and naval patrols around Taiwan recently. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a warning to Beijing that “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change (the) status quo by force.”
The public discourse has started to imply war over Taiwan may again be a possibility. Speaking in early March, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, suggested that China might launch an invasion of Taiwan within six years. However, these assessments are misleading. Although Beijing’s desire to reunify with Taiwan remains strong, and China has channelled resources to put pressure on Taiwan, it knows the costs of any invasion are incredibly prohibitive and could lead to a longdrawn conflict.
Since the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949, reunification has been a primary policy goal for Beijing. But over 70 years, the island has been able to maintain sufficient military deterrence to make an invasion seem too costly or difficult to achieve.
Despite having a population which constitutes just two per cent of China’s numbers, Taiwan overall enjoys certain tactical advantages because of American support, rapid economic growth in the latter half of the 20th century and outsized investment in defence.
In the past, for Beijing, focused on defence of its own borders and often consumed by internal instability, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, an invasion of Taiwan seemed like an unwise task.
However, the opening of China’s economy in the late 1970s, subsequent rapid growth and an effective military industrialisation strategy have seen China leapfrog defence technology development. The military deterrence that Taiwan once possessed is being worn down.
Some estimates suggest the PLA is now not just numerically superior, but technologically on par with Taiwan, meaning that a war across the Taiwan Strait would end in China’s favour.
And yet, Taiwan which sits 100 miles off China’s coast, is separated by open waters where Chinese vessels would be vulnerable to missile and torpedo attacks. Hence, the cost of war on China would be unbearable.
Taipei has also vowed to pepper China’s coastline with missile salvoes. The 2021 Quadrennial Defence Review, released in March, noted that the island’s strategy would be to “resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead.”
China would likely lose tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of troops, to say nothing about the impossible task of pacifying an island of 23.5 million Taiwanese who would likely resist Chinese occupation.
Moreover, while China might be able to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan, the outcome is less certain if the US commits immediately and resolutely to Taiwan’s defence. US nuclearpowered submarines, carrier strike groups and missile forces throughout the region will make any cross-strait operation even more treacherous. In salami slicing, small, incremental changes are made to move towards a larger goal. Those small changes are insignificant enough to fall short of a reason for war, but when added together start to definitively change the facts on the ground.
In China’s near seas, this process has involved a massive increase in the patrols of Chinese military, paramilitary and commercial vessels, island reclamation and more overflights of aircraft.
These tactics work on both land and sea. On its mountainous border with India, China has built a string of villages in disputed territory to create a fait accompli of occupation.
With Taiwan, a similar salami slicing strategy is already in process. In recent years, China has successfully eroded decades-long norms about Taiwanese air zones. In 2016, China began frequent circumnavigation flights of the island. In 2019, regular incursions by Chinese military aircraft across the median line between the two entities began. In the 60 years prior to this, just one intentional crossings of the median line had occurred; now they are commonplace. In September 2020, 37 aircraft crossed the line.
And Chinese aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defence identification zones a record 380 times in 2020, the most since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. On April 13, the largest incursion yet, of 25 aircraft, occurred.
Such flights are becoming so commonplace Taiwan has stopped scrambling jets to every Chinese incursion. It has become too costly to do so. By October 2020, Taiwan had scrambled 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft that year. The same is happening at sea. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had exercised off the coast of Taiwan in early April. By November 2020, Taiwanese vessels had intercepted Chinese ships 1,223 times – a 50 per cent increase over the previous year.In the wake of the new Chinese Coast Guard Law in February, Taiwanese analysts have warned that harassment of Taiwanese vessels by China’s paramilitary force may be next. Sun Tzu-yun of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research noted at a mid-March forum that such grey zone tactics would be harder to counteract.
Meanwhile, Beijing has also started to use commercial vessels as a regular Chinese presence on Taiwan’s outlying islands ~ Chinese dredgers have since mid- 2020 been reportedly “swarming around the Matsu islands”, while the Taiwanese coast guard had ejected 4,000 Chinese dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from Taiwanese waters in 2020, a 560 per cent increase over the previous year.
The threat of war from China should not be ignored ~ reunification with Taiwan would be a crowning moment for any Chinese leader and the PLA is explicitly geared toward an offensive against the island.
It is likely that Washington would react militarily if China occupied one of the smaller Kinmen islands ~ an uninhabited rock just 10 km off China’s coastline ~ in a bloodless operation.