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Geopolitical hotspot: China and Taiwan

View of sunset over South China sea from 100 floor of ICC building in Hong Kong View of sunset over South China sea from 100 floor of ICC building in Hong Kong Shutterstock/Marisa Estivill
30 Jun
Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls

This year many foreign affairs analysts have asked the question: ‘Is China about to invade Taiwan?’ General Sun Tzu probably had the answer about 2,500 years ago - ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’. Given that Chinese authorities typically take the long view, a better question is: ‘Why would the Communist Party risk everything by invading?’ 

An amphibious assault is probably the most difficult military tactic there is. An unsuccessful invasion would create a massive loss of confi dence in the Party. Even a successful invasion would probably result in economic sanctions and a decoupling of the major economies from China’s system, which depends on exports. This in turn would wreck its economy, leading to massive unrest.

As long as these risks exist, they should restrain Beijing from attempting a forcible re-union of the island with the motherland. However, if the USA fails to signal that it would come to Taiwan’s aid, and other powers hint they would not take economic reprisals, then the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would soon enough be on its way across the Taiwan Strait.

As it is, last year there were 320 instances of Chinese military aircraft entering Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. This spring its largest-ever fleet – 31 fighters and bombers – flew into the zone. Such activity, among other factors, is why US Asia Pacific commander, Philip Davidson, says that China could invade in the next six years. This sparked a flurry of articles in the American and Australian media that the PLA could be on the beaches within a couple of years. 

south China sea map

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That’s doubtful. An assault on Taiwan would be far more difficult than the D-Day operation which to date is the biggest amphibious assault ever undertaken. Then, the allies had air supremacy, allowing ships to gather just ten miles off the Normandy coast while keeping the Germans guessing as to where the invasion would be centred. The PLA would have to assemble up to two million troops, which given today’s technology, would be easily spotted weeks in advance. They would then have to cross 100 miles of rough sea in a region of unreliable weather patterns. They would be under fire from long distance weapons and heading for only a handful of beaches capable of landing heavy equipment. The Germans only had about 50,000 troops above the landing zones; Taiwan could muster 400,000 defenders behind the beaches and on the surrounding cliffs which are honeycombed with bunker systems. Directly behind them are urban areas, home to the two million Taiwanese reservists who would join a military equipped with some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems. An attacking military usually requires a minimum of a three to one superiority over the defender given the casualties the assault force would suffer.

As a deterrence to this scenario coming to pass the Americans operate what is called ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ – it declines to state specifically if, or how, it would come to Taiwan’s assistance, but hints that it would, and it positions military assets in the region.

What’s in it for all the players? Taiwan is the jewel in the crown of the First Island Chain – the string of islands starting with Japan and leading down to Malaysia. The chain holds back China’s dominance of the Indo-Pacific – if it took Taiwan the island would become a PLA naval base. That would threaten what the US regards as its national security interests and its role in keeping the international sea lanes in the South China Sea open to all. Japan would be extremely alarmed. Currently 90 per cent of its oil imports pass through the Taiwan Strait, a Chinese blockade would require much longer sea journeys and reduce supplies. That in turn would threaten Australia which uses oil refined in Japan.

And the Taiwanese? They live in a flourishing democracy and have seen how the ‘one country, two systems’ governance has worked in Hong Kong. Most are ethnically Han, but that does not mean they wish to fall under the same one-party dictatorship as their Han brethren across the strait. Push comes to invasion – they would fight.

The prize is great, but so is the risk. China hasn’t fought a war since 1979 when it did badly against the Vietnamese, and it hasn’t fought a naval battle for more than a century. Beijing has few friends and many weaknesses, not least that its navy remains several decades behind that of the Americans, especially when it comes to aircraft carriers and submarines. They can bide their time, continue to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, continue to build their navy, they could even risk taking one of the small Taiwanese islands off the Chinese coast, but Taiwan itself? That would risk everything.

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