February 28, 2023
The crazy Chinese display of military power in response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has led to a spurt in the region’s nations taking steps to fortify their territories. Such actions have included stronger alliances with the US and within the countries in the region. It has also boosted military modernisation, publicly stating its resolve to safeguard its territories. The apprehension that China should attempt a Taiwan venture, which country’s turn will be the next, has permeated the neighbourhood. The author evaluates Chinese capabilities to also arrive at the comparative threat levels along the Line of Actual Control between India and China and the Taiwanese option.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on 2-3 August 2022 provoked China into an irrationality with which it will have to live for a long time. In the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, political stakes and nationalism in China were at a high. When the frail old lady went ahead with her ‘poke in China’s eye’ visit, she forced Xi Jinping’s hand. He resorted to showcasing the uncompromising and tough Chinese image. China carried out high decibel firing drills around Taiwan. Such belligerent Chinese military action around the first chain of Islands was unprecedented. However, as Newton stated, every action has an equal and opposite reacion. This one had it, too and is still evolving with new posers.
Two things stood out as all nations in the region watched the ‘huff and puff’ of Chinese missile drills. If ever China does make a decisive move against Taiwan, it would have breached the first Island chain conclusively and broken its containment string. Secondly, if Taiwan went down, it could be their turn next. Both conditions are unacceptable to most nations. The result: each one started to beef up its defences and also cooperate with each other. All nations in the region have upped their security profile since then. Clearly, the only way to ward off the Chinese threat is through cooperative security arrangements. However, before taking the issue further, there is also a need to consider the consequences of the Ukraine War on Indo-Pacific dynamics.
The Ukrainian war indicated that war remains a violent business that causes bloodshed and distress. The premise that future wars would be short and intense has become invalid. The stark possibility that violent conflicts could be long drawn is a reality. It will strain countries, and China is no exception. Russia is stuck in a no-go situation which China would like to avoid immensely.
As the war has gone on, Ukrainian resistance has increased. Even if Russia wins, a pyrrhic military victory will result in a political loss. Can China afford such a political and economic price for war with Taiwan, whose outcomes are unpredictable? Most importantly, it carries very high stakes for the CCP. Any outcome even remotely seen as a loss could trigger a revolution in China to eject the CCP from power. Overall, Xi Jinping and his cohorts will have to invest substantial political, financial, diplomatic, economic and social capital in an adventure with intangible outcomes and superlative risk—with an inexperienced PLA in a complicated amphibious operation of enormous scale. On the other hand, Taiwan has to upgrade its capabilities to become a military porcupine-like Ukraine.
Turning back to the region. Japan could be drawn into the conflict if China attacks Taiwan. Accordingly, Japan has formally upgraded China as a defence threat. It has taken significant steps to counter the Chinese threat. It has amended its laws and hiked its defence budget significantly. It is deploying weapons to protect its island territories like Yonaguni, near Taiwan. It has also started minimal military exercises with the Philippines and India. Further, Japan and South Korea have started cementing ties with NATO, which has made its Indo-Pacific stance public. Vietnam has started expanding its outposts in the Spratly Islands in contested areas of the South China Sea. Add to this, Vietnam and South Korea have elevated their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. South Korea barely mentions China in its new Indo-Pacific strategy. South Korea and the US have conducted joint air drills in response to North Korean missile tests. Such exercises have a direct military bearing on China.
The Philippines is not ‘prepared to lose an inch’ of its claimed areas in its newfound resistance to China. The Chinese equations with the Philippines are going southwards, with the latter planning joint coast guard patrols in the South China Sea with the USA. USA and Australia have deepened their ties and vowed to counter China’s dangerous and coercive actions. Most importantly, the USA is set to return to the Philippines and establish four bases. It is the first since it vacated Subic Bay long back.
The emerging defence-security-strategic cooperative arrangements are all directed towards warding off China. In addition, QUAD and AUKUS are hovering in the background. The significance of all this cannot be lost on China. The first Island chain has become stronger. China will find it difficult to break it. While the Indo-Pacific security network, especially along the first Island chain, has strengthened, it remains diffused and amorphous. Something more needs to be done.
Taiwan is the centrepiece of the first island chain and China’s prime target. It has shown a calm and steely determination to protect itself. Taiwan plans to send up to a battalion of troops to the USA for combat training. It is a major upgrade from the usual strengths of a military company. It has extended compulsory military service for everyone from four months to a year. Steadily, Taiwan is acquiring hi-tech weapons, including Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. It will be a no-brainer to surmise that Taiwan is increasing its drone capability. Its cooperation with the US on intelligence sharing would have seen a significant upgrade besides the regular military exchanges between them. Taiwan is building up an asymmetric warfare capability, increasing costs for Chinese military action. It has taken adequate lessons from the Ukraine War and is turning into a military porcupine which China cannot swallow.
China wants to usurp Taiwan as much as Russia wants to carve out Ukraine. However, the prospect of capturing it by force is receding on three counts. Firstly, Taiwan is getting stronger militarily by the day. The requirement of force to overcome it is increasing exponentially. Secondly, any action against Taiwan has a high degree of spillover to the territories of one of the regional nations. Hence, China has to be prepared to take on more than one nation militarily. China might not be prepared for this option. Thirdly, any attempt to capture Taiwan is only feasible if China has adequate comprehensive politico-military strength. At present, it does not appear to have a military that is capable of such a complicated operation. Further, the international situation at the moment is too precarious. The USA and NATO, in all probability, will arm Taiwan to the teeth to make Ukraine look like a picnic. China is unlikely to embark on foolish adventurism.
Further, China’s post-COVID re-opening is tepid. International decoupling from China is well on its way. Its demographic crisis has arrived at its doorstep a decade earlier than expected. Its property bubble is still in the burst zone. Its economy is struggling to recover. It has not been able to influence recent international or geopolitical events.
China has been at its lowest in the past five years. However, it becomes externally aggressive whenever China is beset with internal problems. In 1962, it invaded India despite the great famine of Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. Aggressive actions by China are part of a well-established pattern – internal problems being externalised militarily through conflicts. Even in the current environment, despite the current headwinds it faces, China has been militarily aggressive. It made a blatant attempt at altering the status quo on the LAC with India at Yangtse early in December. On 25-26 December, China conducted a massive air violation of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone with 71 PLA aircraft. Such violations have been continuing unabated. On 29 December, a PLA fighter aircraft carried out unsafe manoeuvres close to a US reconnaissance aircraft.
A report of 12 January 2023 indicates that China sent its largest coastguard vessels to patrol Indonesia’s Natuna Islands in a bid to “send a signal” to the region. Its assertive activities in the South China Sea are rising again. Every day one reads reports of the PLA being equipped with a new military capability as part of its modernisation program outlined by Xi Jinping during the 20th Party Congress. The ‘Balloongate’ reveals that China has been carrying out extensive snooping activities against all nations. The Chinese military seems to be bristling for action.
Overall, there is a belief within China that it cannot be denied its place in the world order. It has launched a lofty Global Security Initiative despite a visible decrease in its comprehensive national power. The larger indications are that China is attempting to compensate for this decline with a military victory. Hence, externalising the situation militarily is entirely on the cards. As the decline extends into the foreseeable future, muscle flexing by China will increase regionally and extra-regionally. Extra-regionally the main target is India which is emerging as China’s main competitor and is playing an increasing role in global affairs. China sees that this is if it is at its own expense.
In this context, whether China will undertake a military offensive against Taiwan is to be examined. Logic suggests that China will hesitate to do so. If China does not go East towards Taiwan, it will turn against India. Against India, it will fancy its chances of capturing some key terrain features along the LAC, which will enhance China’s status and put India in its place. Overall, it must be seen that while precipitate action by China has contributed to enhancing its own containment through the premature display of military power, willy-nilly, the threat to India has increased. While India is strong enough to deal with such actions by China, it is necessary to deter it geopolitically.
An overview suggest that one cannot rule out China’s use of military power in an attempt to capture Taiwan, break containment of the first island chain or attempt salami-slicing by force along the LAC with India. If China is to be deterred from such plans, there is a serious case for greater strategic military cooperation between nations of the first island chain and India to forestall any untoward situation. Such cooperation has to leverage and build on the QUAD, the Indo- US strategic partnership, the US-Taiwan Relations Act and the existing alliances between the USA and other countries in the region. A new Indo-Pacific security initiative is needed to curb Chinese military adventurism before it is too late. Alternatively, the QUAD needs to be expanded.
Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)
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