As military tensions between China and Taiwan resurface, it is vital to grasp China’s long-term strategy – and what it means for Taiwan and the United States.
On Friday, October 1, Beijing launched 38 fighter jets into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), followed by 39 more on Saturday, 16 on Sunday, and 52 on Monday, October 4, for a grand total of 145 aircraft in four days. The frequency of incursions into Taiwan’s (officially the Republic of China or ROC) airspace continues to climb. At the same time, the warnings from the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are increasingly acerbic. “The one-China principle is the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on October 1 at a daily news briefing.
In mid-October, the United States and Canada sent a warship into the Taiwan Strait, a body of water roughly 180 kilometers wide that separates Taiwan from mainland China. The Chinese military slammed the move, saying Canada and the U.S. were “seriously threatening peace and stability.” This was in reaction to increased Chinese military pressure on Taiwan, which the People’s Republic of China considers to be a rebellious Chinese province. On the other hand, this frenzied military effort by China in early October is in response to a U.S. geostrategic policy that is slowly but surely emerging in South and East Asia through the strengthening of ties with reliable allies.
Time is running out for China, which knows that even with a strong navy, it will be unable to combat the American superpower once U.S. naval forces are redeployed in the region. While the Chinese industrial sector can mass-produce battleships of all shapes and sizes, the same cannot be said for troops, whose training is time-consuming and difficult. Furthermore, establishing a navy from the ground up requires China to discover everything on its own, without the benefit of traditions or actual friends.
If China is not yet ready for a fight with the United States, neither is the United States. President Biden is carrying out President Obama’s Asian pivot agenda while posing as a protector of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). To contain the Chinese juggernaut, he is establishing a network of local partners and supporters. The latter share democratic values with the U.S., but more importantly, the capacity to use armament compatible with that of the U.S., allowing them to share optimal battle logistics. Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Australia will soon get technologically sophisticated military systems from the United States, including the Aegis combat system, P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft, and the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets. The latter can be easily transported by U.S. aircraft carriers.
Most likely in response to China’s assertiveness towards Taiwan and other Asian states, an Anglo-Saxon US-led front against China is taking shape. On October 15, U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had a video conference to sign an “Indo-Pacific security treaty,” known as AUKUS. The treaty includes, among other things, billions of dollars in nuclear submarine production. According to President Biden, the purpose of this alliance is to “ensure long-term peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” While U.S. Republicans regard it as a “message of strength” to Beijing’s resurgent dictatorship, Johnson insists the pact is not aimed at China. Nonetheless, Beijing blasted it, saying it reflected the “Cold War mentality.” The establishment of the AUKUS allows for the formation of a central nucleus of countries around which other countries, such as India, Japan, and possibly South Korea, may rally. However, creating a powerful alliance takes time and a lot of financial and logistic resources, which the U.S. and its allies are most likely to lack after the Covid-19 crisis has passed.
Neither China nor the United States, along with their allies and partners, want to be involved in a massive showdown. However, President Xi Jinping may be tempted, for domestic political reasons, to use his nation’s nationalist sentiments in order to shift attention away from the country’s economic and health challenges. Even though recent big weaponry orders from the U.S. have reinforced Taiwan’s defenses, he may be tempted to launch a large-scale attack on the island in order to catch Taipei off guard.
The air operations conducted by the Chinese naval and air forces were precursor events that allow Beijing to assess Taiwan’s defense capabilities. By utilizing a large number of aircraft of all types at the same time, the Chinese are testing Taiwan’s defense reaction times, tracking fire-control and surveillance radars, and electro-optical systems. China’s strategy is to keep the intimidation continuing for as long and as fiercely as possible in order to lead Taipei to fear and drive it to act in an illogical way that would enhance China’s advantage. The ultimate goal of Chinese President Xi Jinping to recover Taiwan is inextricably tied to a national rejuvenation program known as the “China dream.” President Xi has set a goal of realizing the China dream by 2049, but he wants “solid, tangible progress” toward national rejuvenation by 2035. Time is on China’s side in its dispute with Taiwan. If the current trajectory of the economic and military power shift continues, it will be a cakewalk for China in a decade.
Should we expect Taiwan to declare an impending attack during these high-intensity operations?
The chance of an accident increases as the number of military operations is on the rise. A pilot or operator of Taiwan’s defense weapon system miscalculating the threat could result in the loss of a Chinese aircraft. Such an incident would give President Xi Jinping justification to interfere. It is not too Machiavellian to suppose that he seeks this in order to justify a large-scale surprise military strike that can be carried out quickly and declared a success?
Even if the treaties governing Washington-Taipei relations do not include an automatic intervention clause in the case of hostilities, China’s strategy is always at risk. The Taiwan Relations Act, which took effect on April 10, 1979, replaced the Mutual Defense Treaty signed on March 3, 1955, by the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan). It formalizes the U.S.-Taiwan alliance and restricts U.S. military support to defensive weaponry only. In both treaties, the name “Taiwan” refers to both the main island of Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands, an archipelago of 90 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait. Other islands or archipelagos ruled by the Republic of China are not mentioned in the treaty, including Jinmen, the Matsu, the Wuqiu Islands, the Pratas, and Taiping.
On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which authorizes the U.S. to increase economic, diplomatic, and military support to countries that improve their relations with Taiwan while decreasing support to those that do not. In October of the same year, the U.S. State Department sanctioned the sale of up to 400 Boeing-produced Harpoon anti-ship missiles and 100 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems and related equipment for an estimated cost of $2.4 billion.
In the event of a Chinese invasion, the fact that no U.S. military is officially stationed on the island of Taiwan benefits the U.S. There would be no direct participation of U.S. soldiers, sailors, or airmen in the conflict, leaving the U.S. command free to interfere if it deemed it necessary.
A plausible scenario would be for Washington to launch a remote attack on Chinese military installations located beyond its national borders, as recognized by the UN, the loss of which would have devastating economic ramifications for China. The surgical military strikes on the newly built islands of Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Cuarteron Reef would leave Beijing unable to resolve the “Malacca dilemma,” i.e., the blockade of vital trade flows to China’s economy caused by the closure of the Malacca Strait. In a little over two years, China has constructed more than 3,000 acres of artificial land in the South China Sea and they have since become sites for both civil and military infrastructure projects. Its marine soldiers (militia, coast guard, and navy) would struggle to defeat Taiwan in the long run if it lacked bases and, consequently, logistics.