Will Taiwan be China’s Ukraine?

The United States wants China to get involved in Taiwan like Russia in Ukraine. It will be a long haul for China. Taiwan’s geography is conducive to such a stalemated conflict. China might attempt to force Taiwan to surrender without getting involved in physical assault and the US would like to sabotage this attempt. But neither China would physically attack Taiwan nor the US and China would engage in a direct combat

By Col Rajinder Singh

Opinion

Most analysts may get it wrong if they think the USA would fight Taiwan’s war with China. They fail to take note of the significance of an old maxim that barking dogs seldom bite. All this talk of a ‘Third world war’ or a nuclear escalation is a bogey. This was not the purpose of the visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives. The real purpose was to provoke China to make ‘Russia’s Ukraine mistake’ in Taiwan. In other words, make Taiwan China’s Ukraine. US solidarity with Taiwan is limited to supporting it with weapons and other materials when China physically attacks it. The question is if China would buy the bait.

In the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China has been blowing hot. As an intent demonstration, China carried out a blockade of Taiwan along with live firing of rockets and missiles around Taiwan. China calls it preparation for ‘Reunification-by-Force-operation’. Is it really so? What is it waiting for? 

According to the Global Times, the PLA carried out live firing drills in the six maritime areas of Taiwan and its air space in its north, northeast, east, south, southwest and northwest. The drills involved advanced weapons, including long-range rocket artillery, anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets and an aircraft carrier group with a nuclear-powered submarine. The Global Times thunders that it was to showcase PLA’s capabilities to not only take over the island but also prevent any external interference including from the US. 

noval

Reunification-by-force 

These live firing drills have been described as a real reunification-by-force operation. The rockets with a range of 300 km were fired from mainland China under the overall direction of PLA’s Eastern Theatre command. Chinese military experts then explained to the Global Times that long-range rocket strikes could be one of the first moves in a potential reunification-by-force operation, as the low-cost weapons can be launched in mass numbers from the mainland across the Taiwan Straits to destroy hostile military facilities including air defence installations, radar systems, airfields, bases and command centres with precision, creating advantages for upcoming operations by PLA warplanes and warships. 

Taiwan has always been an independent island but for a brief period during Qing dynasty rule in China in the 16th century or when it was briefly captured by Japan in the early 20th century. China claims Taiwan because of its subjugation by the Qing dynasty  

All this sounds like a very good military philosophy but can China reunite Taiwan without military boots on the ground? Can mere firepower make a determined opponent capitulate? Has Russia been able to do so in Ukraine? Taiwan has been living in China’s shadows for 73 years and sure it knew what China could do. Therefore, Taiwan must have prepared its civil defence to face the Chinese troops. And definitely, it involves Fighting in Built-up Areas (FIBUA) skills. Are Chinese soldiers adequately trained in FIBUA?

Amphibian operation 

Besides, to conduct FIBUA, China has to land soldiers on the island through an amphibian operation. Does it have adequate amphibian operation capabilities? Are its soldiers trained in such operations? Blockade and AA/AD (Anti Access/Anti Denial) operations are not adequate to subdue a nation of 23 million. In fact, China itself will be cut off from the rest of the world by others. China does not have more than 55 days of reserves in oil and gas for intense operations. This is where lay the real Chinese problem, which will be further complicated when ‘support in kind’ arrives from the USA, Europe and others. 

China’s drills around Taiwan involved advanced weapons, including long-range rocket artillery, anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets and an aircraft carrier group with a nuclear-powered submarine 

This is what the USA aims to do. Sun Tzu has said, “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the real acme of skill.” The USA wants China to get involved in Taiwan like Russia in Ukraine. It will be a long haul for China — a bone stuck in the throat, neither it could swallow nor cough it out. And the geography of Taiwan island is conducive to such a stalemated conflict.

Mountains and foothills 

Taiwan is an island of 394 km (245 miles) long and 144 km (89.5 miles) wide at its broadest point. There are 86 other small islands that make its geography. Two third of the land is covered by mountains and foothills, which makes it ideal territory for defence and resistance movements. Several peaks go up to 10,000 feet high, the highest being around 13,142 feet. Therefore, Taiwan’s mountainous topography provides a very good mechanism for resistance operations. Consequently, it is not easy to be subdued, unless it surrenders itself. And why should it do so? It is the 15th largest economy in the world with a GDP of $ 669 billion in 2020 and a per capita GDP of $33000 in 2021. It is the top player in information technology and communications. It is the largest manufacturer and exporter of 5G chips. Therefore, why would Taiwan accept Chinese suzerainty?  

Taiwan has always been an independent island but for a brief period during Qing dynasty rule in China in the 16th century or when it was briefly captured by Japan in the early 20th century. China claims it because of its subjugation by the Qing dynasty. But ‘One-China’ policy has been in existence since 1949. Why has China not tried ‘reunification-by-force’ until now. It boasts of superior weapons and technology. Militarily, it considers itself at par with the USA, if not superior. But gone are the days of brute force application in military conflicts. The outcome of wars is decided by ‘invisible’ actions.

Mind games 

War in the 21st century would be won more by mind games than lethality of weapons. Winston Churchill was correct in pointing out that empires of the future would be empires of the mind. And Alvin Toffler lays emphasis on ‘Brain Force wars’ in his book ‘Power Shift’. The deadly lethality and precision accuracy of weapons of today deter more than their usage. At risk is the existence of mankind. However crazy a nation’s leadership is, it will always face the Korean war dilemma of Harry Truman — when General Douglas McArthur suggested the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese. 

Taiwan is the 15th largest economy in the world with GDP at $ 669 billion in 2020 and a per capita GDP of $33000 in 2021. It is the top player in IT and communications. It is the largest manufacturer and exporter of 5G chips

Xi Jinping of China would face the same dilemma as do the Western leaders against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In spite of their cherished desire to intervene in Ukraine, they are checkmated by Russian threats. The Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, boasts that it has come miles ahead of the 1996 crisis. It may be recollected that China had tried to bully Taiwan into submission then, but had backed out when the USA threatened to intervene. And it has been under US protection always. It may be noted that although foundries of 5G chips are in Taiwan but technology is patent right of the USA. Therefore, the USA has its economic interests tied with Taiwan. Boasts cannot ensure victory.

Chinese headache

In the final analysis, it is assessed that China might attempt to force Taiwan to surrender without getting involved in physical assault and the USA would like to sabotage this attempt. This is what the whole issue would boil down to. In fact, the USA would certainly posture to force China to physically assault the island and stalemate it. A prolonged conflict would cause internal frustration in the mainland. No quick victory would weaken Xi Jinping’s position and Li Keqiang (current prime minister of China) might appear a strong contender as an alternative. Already there are reports of differences. Therefore, neither Xi Jinping would physically assault Taiwan nor the USA and China would engage in direct combat, let alone a nuclear escalation! The crisis will hang fire! 

Taiwan will remain a Chinese headache unless Xi Jinping manages to engineer an internal coup in Taiwan. On the current reckoning, the crisis will blow away like the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis — a stand-off between the Soviet Union and the USA, when the world was at the doorstep of a nuclear conflagration! In case, China falls for US provocation, then the USA would have successfully engaged its main adversary in a local conflict — this would be a perfect application of Sun Tzu’s doctrine of ‘ultimate acme of skills’.