China ups military ante on Taiwan’s eastern flank

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China has upped the ante on its military pressure on Taiwan, intensifying military drills east of the self-governing island to prepare for a blockade aimed at forcing eventual reunification.

 

This month, China has dramatically increased military drills simulating a blockade of Taiwan since former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island last August.

 

Before Pelosi’s visit, Chinese ships and planes have become more active in the Western Pacific, in the Philippine Sea east of Taiwan.

 

The paper also notes the deployment last December of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier east of Taiwan, followed in April this year by deployment of the carrier Shandong in the same region.

 

In April, a Chinese TB001 combat drone was confirmed east of and around Taiwan on a highly unusual flight path, according to the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense. It also says that in May, a BZK005 reconnaissance drone was spotted off the east coast of Taiwan.

 

Sightings of Chinese aircraft in the airspace east of Taiwan have substantially increased since March, noting that from Pelosi’s visit until February 2023, they were observed no more than three days a month. The number gradually increased from 10 days in April to 12 in May, six in June, and 12 in July.

 

Asia Times has noted that these intensified drills may be part of China’s “squeeze and relax” strategy against Taiwan, consisting of a strategy of military drills which amount to blockades, with a tighter military noose increasing the threat level. Increased military pressure on Taiwan would be followed by some relaxation, a pause for reflection, and talks, with the message being that a large military exercise could become the real thing at any time.

 

Whether China will invade Taiwan any time soon is a matter of intense debate among academics, policymakers, and military commanders, presenting compelling arguments on both sides.

 

In an April article for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Kyle Amonson and Dane Egli aver that Chinese President Xi Jinping has a window of opportunity from 2027 to 2030 to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, noting that Xi’s cult of personality, modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Chinese demographics are strategic harbingers for a reunification attempt within that timeframe.

 

Amonson and Egli note that reunification with Taiwan would be a fait accompli for Xi, exalting him as a figurehead in Chinese history, with failure something he could not afford and would not tolerate. They also say that the move would consolidate Xi as the undisputed supreme leader of China, a position that no other leader since Mao Zedong has held.

 

They also note the PLA’s extensive modernization efforts, with Xi personally giving directives that China’s endeavor to build a “world-class” military by 2027, capable of performing a swift seizure of Taiwan, deterring foreign intervention, and imposing logistical and diplomatic costs and challenges to countries aiding Taiwan.

 

They also say, however, that a premature invasion could result in disastrous failure. At the same time, they note that patience would give time to build military capabilities and concurrently take diplomatic steps to avoid international criticism.

 

Demographics are also a critical factor in China’s calculus for Taiwan reunification. Amonson and Egli say China’s shrinking and fast-aging population produces fewer working-age and military-age citizens, seriously impacting its economy and military readiness.

 

This, they note, may add a sense of urgency for Xi to pursue Taiwan reunification within the 2027-2030 timeframe, as beyond that, China may have to realign its priorities to social welfare programs rather than reunification with Taiwan.

 

Lesson of Ukraine war

However, some argue that China won’t invade Taiwan any time soon. In an April article for Time, Ian Bremmer writes that Xi may have taken a hint from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noting how unpredictable, costly, and humiliating an ill-conceived war can be.

 

Bremmer also notes that Taiwan has been preparing for an invasion for decades, backed by generations of ever more sophisticated US weapons far longer than Ukraine prepared for Russia’s full-scale invasion.

 

He also points out China’s lack of combat experience, noting that Xi understands the consequences of a Pyrrhic victory, something he cannot risk given China’s slow recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and its worst economic slowdown in decades.

 

The chip factor

There is also the issue of semiconductors, of which China is the largest consumer, purchasing 53.7% of the world’s supply in 2020. However, it still struggles to produce the high-end chips necessary for smartphones, smart cars, artificial intelligence, and military applications.

 

Robyn Klingler-Vidra notes in a June article for The Conversation that Taiwan alone manufactures 60% of the world’s semiconductors and 90% of the most advanced chips, arguably making its advanced chips a global common good and a shield against a possible Chinese invasion.

 

Klingler-Vidra writes that while friend-shoring could reduce the global dependency on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, that would take years to implement, citing the example of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation’s multibillion-dollar Arizona facility that will be operational in 2025 at the earliest, and by then may not be able to produce the cutting-edge chips needed by that time.

 

Klingler-Vidra also says that a US military response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would stop chip production on the self-governing island overnight, increasing prices on chips manufactured elsewhere. That, she says, would hinder China’s ambitions of having a “fully modernized military by 2027” and its “Made in China 2025” plan to boost manufacturing.

 

There is also the possibility of a US response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In a July article for the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Satoru Nagao says that should the US renege on its commitment to defend Taiwan, Washington’s allies and partners would be skeptical of its commitment and capabilities.

 

Nagao says such an eventuality would be the undoing of the hub-and-spokes alliance system that has been the foundation of peace and stability in the Pacific since the end of World War II. He also says that allowing China to take Taiwan would remove a critical US breakwater against a near-peer adversary aiming to displace the latter’s long-standing dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

 

He also cites US President Joe Biden’s categorical response when asked if the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, with Biden stating in no ambiguous terms that the US will indeed send its military personnel to the defense of the island if required.

 

Nagao also notes that the US and its allies, such as Japan and Australia, are developing long-range strike capabilities to increase the costs China will pay if it invades Taiwan.

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