Hong Kong (China), August 10: Many are concerned at China’s more assertive military posture – whether it be outrageous territorial claims in the South China Sea, or incessant “salami slicing” of Indian territory along the Himalayan border – but there is one country above all others most at risk of Chinese military adventurism.
That country is Taiwan, even though Beijing would furiously reject the appellation of “country” being given to what it terms a”renegade province” of the People’s Republic of China. China has two options – either to give up on reunifying Taiwan, or to make even more concrete plans to invade and conquer it. The brand of nationalism espoused by Xi makes the former virtually impossible.
In 1995-96, China launched missiles into waters off Taiwanese harbors in a mark of its displeasure, but there is a growing chance things will go much further next time. China officially spends twelve times more on its military than does Taiwan. This balance of military power, which continues to tilt more heavily in Beijing’s favor, is enough to make military action even more viable in Beijing’s eyes.
Rapprochement with Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou’s administration (2008-16) went as far as it could. At that point the 23 million populace voted for the opposition party of Tsai Ing-wen, and that led to an immediate reversal of cordial relations. Nevertheless, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has declared, “We will not succumb to pressure from China…Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country.”
Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, told media that Taiwan has always been central in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine. “Xi Jinping has been much more focused on preparing to one day occupy the island. It’s always been the party’s and the PLA’s main strategic direction ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is the main war plan scenario. This is the main justification for the military build-up. This is the thing they train for, that they teach officers about in military academies and command schools.”
The media was very interested in Easton’s thoughts on the most likely method China could use to attack Taiwan. He responded honestly, “I don’t know that I have an answer to it, but it’s something we have to ask ourselves. What’s the most likely course of action and what are some of the black swans [the term “black swan” refers to an unpredictable event that deviates beyond what is normally expected] – the sort of things they could do but we would not anticipate for the element of surprise?”
Last year Easton published a thoroughly researched book called The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. In it, he highlighted five possible scenarios that could lead to an invasion, although he warned the number of scenarios depended only on one’s imagination.
He expressed, “My personal view, at least right now, is that the most likely course of action.is to seize Taiwanese-controlled islands. Taiwan controls over 100 islands – tiny islands in most cases. China could attempt to seize Itu Aba [Taiping Island] in the South China Sea. It’s already surrounded on three sides by massive military or civil-military facilities constructed on the many islands.”
Taiping is the largest natural island in the South China Sea, yet Taipei guards it with only coastguardsmen in an effort to avoid escalating militarism in the maritime region.
Easton continued, “Slightly more difficult but strategically tempting from China’s side, I’d think, are the Pratas Islands [just 310km southeast of Hong Kong].” Another inviting target would be Taiwanese-controlled islands just off the coast of the mainland, such as Kinmen, which is just 2km from the Chinese coast, or Matsu. “There are a lot out there that China could look to pick off. In terms of an actual kinetic low-scale conflict scenario, I could certainly imagine them doing so.” Easton said he could imagine China deliberately creating a crisis in the next few years in order to give an excuse to capture such islands.
Easton described yet another possible method of military coercion, that of a blockade. “China could do many things short of a massive international incident. They could start gradually and ramp it up, or they could go back and forth with different periods of intensity that are generally not lethal. They could use everything from naval capabilities to threats of naval capabilities.to cyberattacks and psychological warfare attacks. They can run the gamut and, then, if they want to, they can escalate. I think it should be an appealing option for the Chinese because they could have massive political effects on Taiwan, and they could potentially undermine the US position in the region without really doing anything that starts a conflict.”
Indeed, this is precisely the methodology China has used in the South China Sea. It reclaimed reefs and built military bases to give de facto control over vast swathes of maritime region. The PLA Navy follows foreign warships traversing these waters and it interdicts fishermen from other countries. It has acted in small ways that have gradually built up into a major military presence, even though each individual step was rather innocuous at the time.
Therefore, the greatest danger is such “gray zone” operations, where China can use some ambiguous degree of force and hope to get away with it.
Easton suggested that in some respects an international “blockade” of Taiwan has already begun. Examples include ostracizing Taiwan within international organizations or pressuring foreign firms to list Taiwan as part of China on their websites. “It’s really, really intensified in the past six months,” Easton observed.
Is it conceivable that China and the PLA would contemplate a full-blown invasion of Taiwan? It would be a formidable military task and the operation would be fraught with risk. For example, Easton lists only 14 possible landing beaches on the Taiwan coast and perhaps four weeks of permissive weather conditions in the notoriously rough Taiwan Strait. And these are just the geographic and climatic challenges, let alone a fairly well-equipped military who would be expected to put up stiff resistance.
The fact remains that, if China wants to control Taiwan, it must put boots ashore in a huge amphibious operation. And yet to achieve a successful landing, the attack would have to be all-encompassing and massive. Such an invasion would thus represent the most serious scenario Taiwan could face against the PLA. Ironically, however, this would require more preparations by the PLA, thus giving more warning to Taiwan’s defenders.
Roger Cliff, a senior researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses, a US non-profit research organization, spoke recently at a meeting organized by the Global Taiwan Institute think tank, Cliff listed four scenarios in which Beijing could ostensibly use force against Taiwan. One is if Beijing thinks the USA will not intervene or it can be kept at arm’s length until Taiwan collapses. Second is apathy or a lack of resolve on Taipei’s part to resist China. Another is if China’s leaders reach the conclusion that the USA will not intervene. A fourth scenario is if domestic pressure or internal crisis pushes Beijing into action, even at the cost of failure.
This all means that Taiwan must have the wherewithal and the determination to defend itself and hold out until the US war machine spools up and gets into action. It also requires the USA to make clear its intentions and obligations to military assist Taiwan, rather than hiding behind ambiguous or vague promises.
Yet, are some hyping up the possibility of a full Chinese invasion? Easton’s considered opinion is, “No, it’s not scaremongering – it’s definitely possible. The question is, is it probable? And I think the answer is, no, it’s not probable. Look at it and it would be so incredibly dangerous to everyone concerned, so that any logical or rational leader in China is going to say, ‘We could do that, we could attempt it, but I’m not sure that we’re going to succeed and it would be so dangerous that it isn’t worth the risk.’ That’s how a rational leader or politburo could view it.”
However, Easton pointed out problems relying on this line of thinking. The American warned, “There are two things that make a full-scale war much more likely over the coming ten years or so.”
“One is that China’s leadership may not be rational. “We don’t know. If there was a crisis in China that we may or may not know about, like a coup attempt or some kind of disaster. Most authoritarian governments, especially communist-Leninist political organizations like theirs, sooner or later do things that we’d consider irrational.”
The other problem is that Xi Jinping may not receive sage advice from his inner circle. “The reason that he might not get good information is that he’s become a dictator. He’s purged so many of his top political rivals and so many of his top military generals, and in that kind of environment when there’s purging going on, it’s very, very brutal. There’s an incredible amount of fear.”
Regarding the Taiwan situation, for example, “If Xi asks the right questions about Taiwan, people could tell him what they think he wants to hear. He could then come to what he thinks are rational conclusions, and then make terrifying decisions based on that information.” Easton is of the opinion that war becomes more likely the longer that Xi remains in power too.
Easton gave the example of the restructuring into theater commands as evidence that Taiwan is the number one priority. “The whole military reform program that we’ve seen since 2016, the public rhetoric, is that it’s to build up a joint-capable PLA who wants to be able to conduct joint operations. But if you look at China’s war plans, there’s only one that requires joint operations – the invasion of Taiwan.”
Operations along the mountainous Indian border, for example, would be firmly army-centric. “The point is, if you look at China’s doctrinal writings, their military textbooks and theoretical writings, there’s only one scenario where they envision they need a truly joint-capable military. So that suggests, at least to me, that now they’re doing the military reform program to get ready for an invasion of Taiwan.”
Significantly, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, which faces Taiwan, was the only one not to have group armies cut during the reorganization. That particular command is also listed first in protocol order. In a rigid communist system where everything is linear and ordered, this is hugely symbolic. Previously, under the old Military Region structure, units in the north protecting against a potential Soviet land invasion were the most important. Now, units in the Eastern Theater Command get all the best equipment first since they have priority.
New weapons for the PLA are also determined by the Taiwan situation, and the need to fend off its US ally. It is precisely why such weapons as the DF-21D ballistic anti-ship missile were developed.
To date, China has failed to convince the Taiwanese people as a whole that joining the ranks of communist-led China will be good for them. Additionally, Taiwan has been able to witness Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics in Hong Kong, where freedom of expression and political liberties are now being smothered.
Unable to make progress ideologically, China has resorted to heavy-handed measures in a wide-ranging campaign of coercion. However, its absurd bullying, which is ramping up to unprecedented levels, is backfiring even further. People in Taiwan and all around the world have had ample opportunity to see just how an authoritarian state truly behaves.