2022.12.22 Published in the Defence Security Brief of Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan @ https://indsr.org.tw/en/respublicationcon?uid=15&resid=1929&pid=3608
Guest Author : PR Shankar
To succeed in war, there is a need for heavy dollops of political, diplomatic, economic, and military equity. The Chinese song and dance of the past few days indicates that China lacks this equity to capture Taiwan. Hence all this hulla-bulla. Early on I learnt that an implied threat is far more important than the applied threat. A threat which has no credibility is useless. An applied threat with no credibility is huffing and puffing. Ever since Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China has been huffing militarily and puffing diplomatically. Launch of a Chinese missile recorded from different angles is being shown as multiple firings through different videos. I have shown only one video here. A flood of analysis and reports of military manoeuvres which simulate a blockade of Taiwan, or its invasion is information overdrive known to old timers as communist propaganda. All this gives me a sense that the Strait of Taiwan has widened. Taiwan is now an island too far for communist China. One might argue that this is a simplistic view. However, there are cogent factors due to which Taiwan will beyond remain out of China’s grasp.
The vibrant democracy of an economically successful Taiwan is the very antithesis of the Chinese propaganda that communism is the best form of governance. 23 million democratic Taiwanese refute Xi’s authoritarian model of life. Annexing Taiwan fulfils Xi Jinping’s nationalistic goal of destroying a land inhabited by successful, rich and democratic Chinese with communists. Taiwan also has the potential to inject the virus of freedom into 1.4 billion Chinese under the communist yoke. The innate Chinese fear that someday a Taiwanese will fulfil Chiang-Kai-shek’s dream of “recovering the mainland” scares the daylights of communist pundits. For them, Taiwan is full of venom which has to be drained. Taiwan’s prowess in Chip manufacturing makes it an attractive economic proposition to own it by capture. Capturing Taiwan also means defeating USA and showing the latter’s inability to withstand PLA’s military might. That puts China in the superpower category unambiguously. The fall of Taiwan breaks the first island chain irrevocably. The permanent hole in the chain allows unhindered global deployment of PLAN and, brings China into direct contact with USA in Guam. It also prevents direct military contact with mainland China. An unassailable China transfers itself from being a nation consigned to defending itself to an outbound nation which can dominate the seas. Once Taiwan is taken, South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam are next in the line of annexation as the expanding arc of the threat reaches their shores. That, to me, is the geopolitical importance of Taiwan.
A major crisis might be staved off now in the Taiwan Straits. But what happens next is the larger question. The Chinese military exercises have not changed the status quo on the ground. However, they have changed the situation in Taiwan completely as per what one can assesses. 87% in Taiwan did not want to be under China as per a poll. Another poll conducted soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that 73% people in Taiwan were willing to take up arms to defend against a Chinese invasion. After this Chinese show of force, which the Taiwanese have faced with equanimity and quiet confidence, these percentages will go up. PLA war games have stiffened anti-China sentiment in Taiwan. The DPP ‘s ‘independence’ plank will be seen as fighting for the island. Mainland-friendly parties like the KMT will also change stance lest they are politically side-lined. The Taiwanese have also witnessed the events in Hongkong where people have lost freedom and democratically inclined politicians have lost power. Political power in Hong Kong is hereafter for patriots (nee communists) as per Xi. It is doubtful if Taiwanese people are willing to lose their freedom and politicians are willing to lose their power to the communist yoke. Further, China’s ambassador to France, has indicated of ‘re-educating’ Taiwanese if the island is reunified with mainland China. This free ‘re-education scheme’ reminds one of Xinjiang and will only drive Taiwanese farther away. Taiwan is the centre of the global semiconductor industry and is the chip foundry to the world. Its people enjoy a high living standard. It has achieved one of the world’s lowest Covid death rates without resorting to the harsh lockdowns imposed by China. Why will Taiwan keel over and hand itself to Xi and Communist China, which has never ruled it for a single day. As time goes by, it will improve its defense capacities. Nancy Pelosi’s visit has recommitted a prevaricating USA to assist Taiwan. The world is now more alive to the larger perils of Chinese expansionism. Taiwan will hereafter increase the risk and cost of any invasion by China to an unacceptable level. It is committing more into increasing its military capabilities. Taiwan is on its way to become a porcupine which China will find it difficult to swallow citing the Ukrainian model. In fact, Taiwan has no other choice.
China has been nudged into political and military irrationality by Nancy Pelosi who is hated by the communists. China’s ham-handed military actions have virtually closed the door for any political annexation of Taiwan by peaceful methods. Even if annexed militarily, China will not have the political equity to convince Taiwanese to adopt to communist methods. The Hongkong model of subjugation of people and the Xinjiang model of ‘re-education’ is too fresh in Taiwanese minds. The military drills and political intent of Xi and China’s usurpation of Hongkong through false promises will get conflated. China now faces a 23 million political problem in Taiwan loaded with distrust. Even if annexed politically, 23 million people have the potential to stage a ‘colour revolution’ and spread it to the mainland. That is something Xi Jinping is paranoid about. He holds the view that China is beset by malevolent forces and internally prey to centrifugal forces and is a target of colour revolutions. It is a top of the mind issue for him. Dismantling the tech sector, common prosperity, zero covid, draconian censorship, purges and his hard left steering of the Chinese wheel are all part of his ‘anti colour’ strategies expressed through the ‘Xi Jinping thought’. Military take-over of a politically hostile Taiwan could generate a genie which will dismantle China altogether. This is the 23-million-dollar question which has singlehandedly widened the Taiwan Strait in my opinion. The military perspective has added to the width. Chinese military actions might have provided an insight into the fearsome PLA capabilities and its modernization. However, they have also exposed limitations and chinks of China’s military capability. Many military options get restricted heavily when seen in the larger political, economic, and diplomatic context. A blockade of Taiwan sounds nice, but it results in an auto self-blockade. In depressed economic times it is a self-inflicted injury. Other countries have currently backed off since they knew that China was not prepared for an invasion. However, if an invasion was to be actually executed, Japan, S Korea, Philippines, USA and Vietnam would have been forced to deploy their navies defensively even if they did not assist Taiwan. That will result in a blockade of China till stability returns to the area. An extended blockade of China with the danger of escalation into a wider conflict will be an inevitable reality. Is it not a self-defeating argument for China? The current military drills could be a rehearsal of China’s ultimate invasion. However, there are international views that ‘China has the separate pieces of shiny new military hardware, but there have been doubts over whether the forces that operate this new equipment are able to deploy them as a coordinated and cohesive fighting force’. In this context, the huffing and puffing drills have also exposed PLA’s tactical capabilities and vulnerabilities to US and Taiwan. The sinking of Russian warships in Black Sea, vulnerability of amphibious mounting bases, fleets in water and on landing in beach heads are topics which are discussed in China as being dangers of an invasion. What is not discussed is that war is dirty bloody dangerous and risky in which China has not had any recent experience. The value of cyberwar, AI, EW et al are all overblown to good effect as part of Chinese propaganda. They are all force multipliers and not force itself. When firing starts most of these lose value as we have seen in Ukraine. Further, the lesser-known fact is that Western Taiwan is a dense network of urbanised built-up areas interspersed with obstacles consisting of canals and waterways (see map). Taiwan is a defenders dream and an attacker’s nightmare. If the people of Taiwan back their military, they can give bloody hell to PLA. The complication of operating in such terrain after an amphibious operation will defy most battle-hardened professional armies. PLA? I leave it to your imagination. Has the Island got farther from China?
FIGURE: Map of rivers in Taiwan
USA has been jolted out of its somnambulance by Nancy Pelosi. Its gigantic military machine has cranked itself into action. By now, USA would have tracked each and every Chinese move minutely. For those who have forgotten. During Op Parakram (2000-1), USA was able to track the move of a brigade ahead of an agreed to red line. It led to huge repercussions in India. That capability would have been enhanced much more in the past two decades. Every military drill of China informs the USA as to how to counter it militarily. It has the capability to cripple PLAN. Geopolitically, USA is now clear that its position is under threat as never before. It will be spurred to take suitable deterrence measures against China taking any precipitous action. It will arm and train Taiwan to its teeth if it has an iota of sense. It will also now stitch together a more potent alliance against China. It should spur USA to strengthen QUAD and hasten up AUKUS. Most importantly there is bipartisan political support for Taiwan and against China. If I were a Chinese, I would be more worried about that.
South Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam would have realised that their security lies in ensuring that Taiwan is standing. If Taiwan falls, their security is jeopardized. As simple as that. They have no choice but to support Taiwan and USA in any way they can. In a slightly deferred spatial and time dimension, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore also face that risk. They also have no choice in supporting Taiwan in any manner they can. Taiwan might be a three-actor play, but it has a cast of seven strong supporting players who complete the game. The happiness of these seven countries is assured till the time China remains fixated on Taiwan. It is their interest that Taiwan remains out of China’s grasp. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned citizens that the region “may not be as peaceful and stable” as it has been and has stressed on the importance of maintaining a strong military. Japan and Philippines have already gone against China diplomatically while preparing militarily. The game has started to unfold.
In the past one week a few issues have been proven. China, under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping, has become more bellicose. However, it will not risk any major military action across the strait which might result in a US military retaliation or intervention. Further it does not have the wherewithal to invade Taiwan as yet. It now faces the dilemma to escalate further or mend fences with USA and EU or court its neighbours who are also threatened. An economy under stress, global headwinds, internal problems, a declining cum ageing population and an untested military have all contributed to China’s irrational actions. The Taiwan strait has become wider than the 130-160 km and the Island is now too far for China to get hold of.
Lt Gen PR Shankar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired) is an experienced Indian Army officer who retired as a Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Space Department, IIT Madras. He writes extensively on strategic and geopolitical affairs.
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