Rising Escalations of China with Taiwan and Beyond

Photo source: Council for Foreign Relations

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In October 2021, China flew its military planes around one forty-nine times around Taiwan, trying to display its military might and thereby putting pressure on the country. In response, the self governing island scrambled its own warplanes, and this scenario looked like a theater of war.

Taiwanese defense ministry described the current situation as most severe in forty years.

Taiwan had split from China since the civil war erupted in 1949. Domestically, the military pressure serves Chinese President Xi Jinping’s propaganda and political agenda. Xi’s defining political idea is promoting the ‘China Dream’ to his people, which entails becoming ‘a strong nation with a strong army’ in the future. China’s nationalist Global Times newspaper even went so far as to call the flight incursions a form of National Day 'military parade'.

This escalation has come at a time, when Chinese Communist Party is at a key period in terms of its leadership reshuffle. It will soon hold its Sixth Plenum, a crucial meeting where party heavyweights will discuss and build consensus on forming a de facto shortlist for the next generation of party leadership, which is likely to be installed in late 2022.

Wen-Ti Sung, in an Oped for The Conversation, commented: ‘At this critical juncture, as Xi faces an internal dissent, a muscular show of force seems to be a natural instrument to generate pro-incumbent, rally-around-the-flag sentiment.’

Taiwanese people had not been very alarmed by the increasing number of Chinese warplanes simply because of the familiar impact it had on them over the course of time. People, in reality, have been used to this type of low-intensity Chinese military provocation. In fact, they have been living in the near-constant presence of Chinese military and diplomatic pressure for over a quarter of the century.

It was in the run-up to Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, when China’s People’s Liberation Army conducted massive missile tests in the waters near Taiwan, which strongly hinted at a possible invasion.

Since then, China has frequently staged flying military jets into the island’s vicinity. These exercises are meant to caution Taiwan against crossing Beijing’s 'red lines'. To display this sense of aggression, Chinese state television, for example, once published a video of the Zhurihe training drills of 2015, which included footage of Chinese soldiers assaulting a building that bore a remarkable resemblance to Taiwan’s presidential office. China is also expanding its ‘grey zone warfare’ against Taiwan, which includes cyber-attacks, and diplomatic isolation to undermine Taiwan’s ability to resist.

The resilient local politics in Taiwan is also another reason for Chinese escalations. When Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president back in 2016, her politics at home was viewed as largely maintaining the status quo in Taiwan’s complex relationship with China. At abroad she is associated with a push for a unique Taiwanese identity that was separate from its historic ties to China. Her administration has also seen a push to revive Taiwan’s domestic weapons manufacturing, including locally made submarines, armoured vehicles, and military aircraft.

Although China believes that Taiwan is part of its territory because of the 1992 Consensus which was reached between representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) party that then ruled Taiwan. The Taiwanese side doesn't agree on the content of this so-called consensus, and believe it was never intended to address the question of Taiwan’s legal status. In an Oped in Council on Foreign Relations, Lindsay Maizland wrote: ‘For the PRC, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated, the 1992 Consensus reflects an agreement that the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to seek national reunification. For the KMT, it means a different thing, and not necessarily unification.’

For these reasons, according to General Qiao Liang, China needs to follow a plan of ‘strategic patience’, until the military balance shifts towards China. When that happens, China can use a military option by overwhelming Taiwan, and even deny any American intervention. Politically, it can even attract its youth leaders, by using the gravity of its economy. But economic incentives to replace soft power is something China lacks at the moment due to the public mood.

However, the law of attraction through economic incentives is in line with Marxist logic, which is fundamental to Chinese communism. In this line of thinking, connections built on infrastructure, for economic common interests are longer-lasting than connections based on a superstructure known as ideational or emotional alignment. This strategy affirms that Taiwanese can let their guard down, if there is increasing dependence on Chinese trade.

For protecting its economy, Taiwan is tightening investment laws for Chinese companies, especially for sensitive technologies. It also needs to ensure that it protects itself from any military escalation, somehow.

What’s interesting is that Taiwan lacks allies other than the United States, but Japan is mindful of the consequences of a US failure to defend Taiwan. It's ocean surveillance and coastal defence capabilities would be exposed if China took Taiwan. But Japan’s constitution forbids direct involvement in defending Taiwan, hinting more problems to Taiwan.

US and its allies are also left with a conundrum when it comes to Taiwan. It is a liberal open democracy and world’s leading computer chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategists refer to as the ‘first island chain’ stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south. Its strategic significance is profound. But having adopted a ‘One China Policy’ since 1979, the US security guarantee is conditional and tenuous. Reflecting growing unease over China’s actions, several polls show strong US support for defending Taiwan.

China, however, does not want war, at least not yet in the whole region, let alone Taiwan. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving, as right now it controls Taiwan’s airspace and believes that it is provocative from the United States side to sell Taiwan weapons, and to navigate its ships near the Taiwan Strait.

For scholars like Brendan Taylor, they have identified three flash points for a possible conflict of China other than Taiwan. They are with Korea, in the East China Sea, and in the South China Sea, but conventional war is not likely at this stage

Although, just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensified its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands.

Similarly, China’s industrial-scale island building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastructure. This will enable the Chinese to consolidate their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine dash line — its vast claim over most of the sea.

The US Navy, however, continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the sea to challenge China’s claims. With thousands of marked and unmarked Chinese vessels operating there, however, the risk of an accident triggering an escalation is real.
The proof of China to avoid 'outright war' is that it evidently reckons that it is better to operate a paramilitary force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.

China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into 'open warfare', and is refusing to present ‘a nail to the US hammer’. This is for good reason. That’s why, it even passed a new law, by allowing its coast guard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law, but it is in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land border with fourteen countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.


Popular Posts