Taiwan case, updated Big Picture
Context of the great power relations, the US – China competition
In early 2010s, China began to realize that being capable to create something new and magnificent in the world, the greatness of China has returned. Since the presidency of incumbent Xi Jinping (2012- ), China’s political focus has moved and changed in concrete way to underlining the sovereignty, territorial integrity and great power position of China, along the cooperation and peaceful policy, in its foreign and military political doctrine.
In 2017, Xi cemented his power as a lifelong president, enshrining his political views in the constitution. In Asia, the concept of sovereignty has an absolute character and is considered paramount. Noninterference in domestic affairs is taken as a fundamental principle of interstate relations.
China is the main geopolitical competitor to the US. This fact is shared by overwhelming majority of Western researchers and experts as well as Chinese researchers like professor Liu Mingfu. An interesting book “The China Dream; Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era” by Liu Mingfu, a Chinese colonel and professor (published originally 2010 and in English 2015). In his book, professor Mingfu states that “no matter how much China commits itself to a peaceful rise, conflict is inherent in US-China relations.
The relationship between China and the US will be “marathon contest” and “duel of century”. Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum game; the only alternative to total success of one side is humiliating failure of other side.”
Key“hot spots”of Chinese foreign policy are Taiwan, North Korea, Japan and today also region of South China Sea.
I have analyzed this topic in several articles, here the links to some recent ones:
More material on Taiwan crisis can be found in the sections of “Visiting Stars” and “News and articles”, on my website.
Many well-known, prominent researchers, politicians and experts have analyzed the processes and chain of events of Taiwan crisis, like John Mearsheimer, Henry Kissinger, Graham Allison and Liu Mingfu as well as tens of think tanks and various research institutes.
Process, chain of events
China’s conceptions of sovereignty and territorial integrity, covering Taiwan and South China Sea, have been on the collision course with the US concept of “Taiwan political position” as well as “freedom of navigation” principle, although the US has publicly pledged its commitment to “One China policy”. During last five years various incidents and military maneuvers have frequently taken place, by sea and air.
The latest incident, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, is the most serious one. Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei on Tuesday, August 2, marking a significant show of support for Taiwan despite China’s threats of retaliation over the visit. Pelosi’s stop in Taipei is the first time that a US House speaker has visited Taiwan in 25 years. Her trip comes at a low point in US-China relations and despite warnings from the Biden administration against a stop in Taiwan. A Taiwanese official said that Pelosi is expected to stay in Taipei overnight.
According to Pelosi the visit “honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.” The White House said Tuesday that Pelosi’s trip was consistent with US policy on Taiwan and that the US would be watching China’s actions closely after Pelosi leaves.
Besides unprecedented strong and wide-range diplomatic warnings, joint military exercises around the island by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued Wednesday with joint blockades, sea assaults, land attacks and air combat trainings with the participation of advanced weapons including J-20 stealth fighter jets and DF-17 hypersonic missiles.
PLA drills around Taiwan continue to “rehearse reunification operation” so that exercises blockading island to become routine. The exercises are unprecedented in that conventional missiles are expected to fly over the island of Taiwan for the first time, the PLA forces will enter the sea area within 12 nautical miles to the island and that the so-called median line will no longer exist, noting that by surrounding Taiwan entirely, the PLA is completely blockading the island demonstrating the Chinese mainland’s absolute control over the Taiwan question.
On August 7, the eastern zone of the PLA Combat Command reported that exercises around Taiwan are proceeding as normal. They are held on land, in the air and at sea. China is using a wide variety of weapons in the exercise launched in response to the recent visit by Nancy Pelosi. The exercise began in August 4 after Pelosi left Taiwan. About 10 Chinese and Taiwanese warships passed in close proximity to each other in the Taiwan Strait, with several Chinese ships crossing the midline between the mainland and the island.
The exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan are not the only ones. The PLA leaders planned to hold exercises in the southern part of the Yellow Sea, which will last at least until August 15, earlier similar exercises were held jointly with Russian troops.
Live-fire exercises that began on August 5 were not a drill but the real thing, namely a blockade of the island that China can prolong at will. The current PLA exercise is the equivalent of a three-day blockade. This time is different, with Beijing breaking tacit cross-strait understandings and showing better planning of massive exercises meant to warn Taiwan. Pelosi left behind a regional strategic situation that is changed fundamentally.
The outside world has long speculated that one of China’s preferred strategies for attacking Taiwan is a blockade.This encirclement action is to prevent any commercial and military ships and aircraft from entering or leaving Taiwan, as well as to prevent the advance of Taiwan by US troops stationed in the region. Song Zhongping, an independent Chinese military analyst, said the Chinese army “obviously has all the military capabilities to enforce such a blockade”.
China indeed has the capability to completely blockade Taiwan. As the whole area is also under cover of China’s land based ballistic missiles and in reach of its air force a blockade is easy to establish and hard to breach.
In addition to the exercises, Beijing also imposed sanctions on two Taiwanese foundations, banned the export of natural sand and some fruits to Taiwan, Pelosi herself and her family. Beijing also suspended dialogue with Washington on such issues as climate change, the process of returning migrants, drug control.
In addition to the maneuvers China has taken political countermeasures against the US. Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday announced the following countermeasures in response:
– Canceling China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk.
– Canceling China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).
– Canceling China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.
– Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
– Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.
– Suspending China-U.S. cooperation against transnational crimes.
– Suspending China-U.S. counternarcotics cooperation.
– Suspending China-U.S. talks on climate change
Calls by the Pentagon chiefs to China now go unanswered. The US wants to further provoke China with another warship passage through the Taiwan Strait, freedom of navigation operations. But China’s legal understanding is that an uninvited military passage through its economic zone is not allowed. The US makes the same claim when it comes to its own economic zone. As China has broken off all military communication with the US the risk of a passage is now much higher. One should not be astonished when China reacts to it.
What neither the White House nor Pelosi appears to have grasped is that in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the Xi government took the irreversible decision to systematically force the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. This incident persuaded Beijing that Biden’s administration or the next US administration would continue to vitiate and ultimately aim to discard the One China policy.
Chinese Global Times Editorial
August 3, stated:
To defend China’s core interests, any countermeasures taken by China are legitimate and necessary and are exercising the rights that a sovereign country has. In fact, compared to the forms, the effect of the countermeasures is more important.
First of all, the great risk Pelosi created must backfire on herself. In other words, we should create the risk of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit to significantly increase the cost of her political performance and enhance the price she has to pay.
Second, China’s countermeasures will not be one-off but a combination of long-term, resolute and steadily advancing actions.
Third, China’s countermeasures fundamentally aim to promote the process of national reunification. The time and momentum to achieve the reunification of the motherland are always firmly in our own hands. No matter what form they take to support Taiwan and contain the mainland, forces like Pelosi cannot change the historical and legal fact that Taiwan belongs to China, nor can they hinder the trend of China realizing full reunification.
Why Pelosi crossed China’s red line
What has changed and why has it changed? The answer lies in the details of diplomatic redlines. US diplomatic relations with China began with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, which states:
The Chinese side reaffirmed its position: the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; … Taiwan is a province of China … the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan.
The US side declared:
The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.
Pelosi’s visit clearly violates the spirit of the Shanghai Communique, which stems from the Constitutional status of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is next in line to the vice-president for succession. Because of the Speaker’s Constitutional position, she is the third highest official in the United States. A presidential or vice-presidential visit to Taiwan would cross China’s red line. A visit by the Speaker nudges the red line.
That is precisely how Beijing understands the issue. Xie Maosong of Tsinghua University’s National Institute of Strategic Studies wrote on August 5:
The United States and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen government took the initiative to break and change Taiwan’s status quo in substance. China was therefore forced to activate the anti-secession law of 2005, and undertake the reunification process at any time of it is choosing. Whether that means reunification by force, or to advance reunification by threat of force, is up to China. There are complete and legitimate reasons for this.
Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law to which Xie Maosong refers states:
In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
After then US President Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018, Kissinger believed that Sino-US relations would never return to the way they were before. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China. As a special envoy in 1971, Kissinger was an advance man and icebreaker. When Pelosi landed at Taipei Songshan Airport, the status quo in Taiwan was unilaterally changed by the United States and the Taiwan authorities and it will never return to what it was in the past. Kissinger, as the icebreaker for Sino-US relations fifty years ago, has been invited by all US presidents since Nixon to meet at the White House and discuss his views on Sino-US relations … The sole exception is the current US President Joe Biden.
Defense Ministry’s spokesperson Tai Kefei put it recently “The historical course of cross-Strait reunification is unstoppable. The momentum towards and circumstances surrounding the resolution of the Taiwan question are always in favor of the power to promote the national reunification.”
China’s Taiwan Strait drills: the new normal
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) completed a three-day military exercise in six locations surrounding Taiwan last week after Nancy Pelosi visited the island. The drills may show China’s military battle plan aimed at winning early advantage in a real war
The PLA’s missiles flew across Taiwan but the island’s military did not intercept them or alert the Taiwanese people. Now that the PLA has crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s 12-nautical-mile line, its military drills that simulate actual battles have become the new normal. China can now decide whether a future exercise will seamlessly be turned into actual combat. They are also an effective demonstration of China’s determination to achieve reunification. China is consistent in its words and has no need to follow others’ plans when it takes actions. The exercise came later than that of the United States but it has achieved its goal.
It is unlikely that the PLA started working on the exercise plan only when they knew for sure that Pelosi was on her way. The PLA may already have had a full plan in place well before Pelosi’s canceled Taiwan trip in April. It is certain that the Joint Staff Department and Eastern Theater Command had their own plans for the Taiwan Strait and it is possible that they were just taking one of them out and modifying it for implementation.
The exercise had six directions. These six directions allowed the PLA to choose to land on Taiwan directly or just block Taiwan by sea and air. In wartime, either choice can achieve the goal of reunification by force. Peaceful reunification is always preferred but reunification by force should remain an option. Reunification by force is ideally a quick war but can be a protracted one. All options are valid only when they are realistic options, instead of last resort.
From now on, PLA’s drills near Taiwan have become a new normal. Whenever similar provocations against China happen, the PLA will do these again. It is up to China to decide which exercise will seamlessly be turned into actual combat.
In mid-August, the visit of five more US lawmakers to Taiwan, following the heels of Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip, serves only to further prove that Washington has been deliberately sabotaging peace across the Taiwan Straits, which justifies still more forceful counter-measures from Beijing.
The official American visits, in addition to the arms sales, are deliberate attempts by the US to keep challenging China’s sovereignty on the Taiwan question. By continuing to ante up the signal that “the US is on Taiwan’s side”, those moves by the US side are hollowing out the one-China policy that Washington has committed “no change” in following and they are leading the “Taiwan independence” forces further down a dangerous path. The one-China principle is the overwhelming consensus of the international community. It is also the political foundation of the US-China relations.
As a reaction to US latest provocation, the PLA Eastern Theater Command organized multi-unit joint combat readiness patrols and real-combat drills in the sea areas and airspace around the Taiwan island, serving as a firm response and deterrent to the US and the Taiwan island. The PLA’s military exercises and training activities surrounding the island are expected to become routine until reunification, some experts said. Besides, the PLA is conducting more naval exercises in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China will take resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The latest visit by the US lawmakers showed that the Biden administration has not learned a lesson from Pelosi’s reckless trip that caused growing risks to the Taiwan Straits and turbulences to the global order. The Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Wu Qian said on Monday that the joint combat exercises and training conducted by the PLA Eastern Theater Command in the sea areas and airspace around the island is a resolute response and deterrent to the US-Taiwan collusion and provocation.
The frequent congressional delegations to Taiwan signal that the US has no plans to ease tensions with Beijing. Chinese officials have repeatedly warned against such trips, which they view as the US moving away from the one-China policy that was the foundation for Washington and Beijing’s normalization efforts in the 1970s.
China is preparing to go to war
Last month, Chinese entrepreneurs making medical equipment for consumers said that local officials had demanded converting production lines so that they could turn out items for the military. Moreover, Chinese academics privately say the ongoing expulsion of foreign colleagues from China’s universities appears to be a preparation for hostilities.
The People’s Republic of China is preparing to go to war, and it is not trying to hide its efforts. Amendments to the National Defense Law, effective the first day of last year, transfer powers from civilian to military officials. In general, the amendments reduce the role of the central government’s State Council by shifting power to the CMC, the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission. Specifically, the State Council will no longer supervise the mobilization of the PLA.
In August 2017, amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Russia made large scale deployments of advanced air defense systems and air superiority fighters to its far eastern region with coverage over the whole of North Korea – accompanied by stern warnings that it would not accept any military action against its small neighbour by the United States.
China too has more recently begun to deploy its own weapons systems and issue its own warnings that it would intervene to prevent an American attack on its neighbour. The Chinese newspaper Global Times declared in August that should the United States intervene militarily against North Korea China would militarily support the latter against the American attack – a warning that the defense pact between the two countries still held and that an attack on North Korea would entail war with China itself.
China’s PLA will participate in the strategic command and staff exercise Vostok-2022 in Russia on August 30 – September 5, the Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement in mid-August. The Vostok-2022 will be held under the command of the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, at 13 training grounds of the Eastern Military District. The Russian Defense Ministry stated earlier, during the drills the participating forces would practice measures to maintain military security in the eastern region.
What really will happen?
Some Taiwan base researchers have formulated certain scenarios of possible outcomes of this incidence.
Scenario 1: The minimalist approach. The PLA occupies minor near-located islands, as well as Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea. They also declare part or all of the Taiwan Strait a “no go” zone to foreign military shipping.
Scenario 2: Hybrid warfare. Some sort of partial naval and aerial blockade of Taiwan intended to interfere with the economy, combined with stepped-up harassment, such as direct flyovers of Taiwan’s territory by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jets or incursions into Taiwan’s maritime space by China’s naval militia, protected by PLAN warships. This might also be accompanied by cyberattacks designed to shut down the internet and other infrastructure for days at a time.
Scenario 3: A serious attack but no invasion. This would involve air and sea warfare only, no boots on the ground. A full aerial and naval blockade, a protracted set of naval and aerial battles designed to degrade Taiwan’s military, combined with ballistic missile attacks on military targets. Aggressive cyberattacks turning off the internet and shutting down critical infrastructure for days or weeks.
Scenario 4: The proper invasion. Total air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattacks to paralyze virtually all military, governmental, and civilian communication and shut down critical infrastructure. Aggressive naval and aerial engagements to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlespace superiority, followed by sustained aerial assaults by fighters and bombers on military targets. A decapitation strike at Taipei by special forces units to try to seize key leadership personnel. An amphibious assault with close air support from fighters, helicopters, and battle drones at one or more locations in Taiwan, and very possibly a move to seize a major port, such as Keelung, Taipei Port, Taichung, or Kaohsiung.
Scenario 5: Worst Case (short of nuclear) scenario. Full air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattack, aggressive naval and aerial attacks to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlefield superiority, followed by aerial assaults by fighters and bomber on military targets and area bombing of civilian targets. There are massive casualties, and Taiwan is crushed by brute force, surrenders, and then the occupiers enter the country and take it over.
Graham Allison’s assessment
As Graham Allison states in his recent article “The fastest track to bloody war between China and the United States runs through Taiwan. If the current crisis provoked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s untimely trip and China’s robust military response leads to a collision between Chinese and American naval vessels or aircraft, even an “accident” could provide the spark that ignites a great fire.”
Fortunately, the American and Chinese governments know that a hot war would be a disaster for both. No serious person in either government wants war. Unfortunately, history offers many examples in which rivals whose leaders did not want war nonetheless found themselves forced to make fateful choices.
In the historical context, when a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to displace a major ruling power, the rivalry most often ends in war. The past 500 years have seen sixteen cases of such event, which Allison calls “Thucydides Trap”. Twelve resulted in war. In each case, the proximate causes of war included accidents, unforced errors and unintended consequences of unavoidable choices in which one of the protagonists accepted increased risks hoping that another would back down.
So, when assessing is the war over Taiwan inevitable between China and the US, the historical record suggests war is more likely than not. Allison noticed three hard facts in this case:
- First, not just Xi Jinping but the entire Chinese leadership and nation are unambiguously committed to preventing Taiwan from becoming an independent state. If forced to choose between accepting an independent Taiwan and a war that destroys Taiwan and much of China, Xi and his team will choose war.
- Second, a fundamental axiom of American politics forbids letting a serious competitor get to one’s right on an issue of national security. Republican and Democratic politicians are thus rushing to show who can be tougher on China than the other. Meanwhile, as Xi is arranging the political pieces for a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary and virtual emperor for life, the pressure for him to stand up to the United States and stand strong on Taiwan is more powerful than ever.
- Third, while most American politicians have yet to recognize it, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has been transformed in the quarter century since the last Taiwan crisis. The local balance of power has shifted decisively in China’s favor.
China’s new whitepaper
China’s newly published white paper titled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era” has drawn attention not only from two sides of the Taiwan Straits but also the international community, as it has outlined China’s plan for post-reunification governance over the island and shown China’s confidence in promoting and implementing “one country, two systems” in the island after reunification.
China’s white paper notes that after reunification, China has the patience and capability to convince the people in the island, as well as the international community, that reunification will bring prosperity, sustainable peace and stability. But before reunification, the secessionist authorities of Taiwan and the external forces, mainly the US, will continue to add obstacles to interrupt China’s reunification process and Washington will very likely make more provocations and even further escalate the tensions to a more serious crisis, such as passing the “Taiwan Policy Act of 2022” that could designate the island a “major non-NATO ally.”
According to China, the US and DPP’s (Taiwan’s leading party) provocations will actually create more opportunities for China to speed up the reunification process.
Chinese authorities have expressed confidence that with the passage of time, “one country, two systems” will eventually be understood and recognized by the island.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against three dangerous trends as the Taiwan Straits situation develops.
- Firstly, it is necessary to be prepared for the US gathering some accomplices to pour fuel on the fire, enhancing regional military deployments, further escalating the situation and attempting to create a new and bigger crisis.
- Secondly, we must be wary of “Taiwan independence” forces misjudging the situation, continuing to collude with external forces, and heading further along the path of splitting the country
- Thirdly, we must be wary of politicians in some countries ignoring right and wrong, getting caught up in the hype and following the suit of Pelosi for political gain
CSIS scenario planning
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has recently conducted scenario planning looking toward war in the Taiwan Strait. CSIS assumed a war will break out in the Taiwan Strait in 2026. It assumed that the attack would consist of six to eight rounds, each of them lasting three to four days. In total, it would last for three to four weeks. The scenario planning indicated that in most (but not all) scenarios, the Taiwan military would not fall completely but Taiwan’s economy and infrastructure would be basically destroyed.
It said the US military in the Western Pacific would pay a heavy price while the PLA would control one-third to half of Taiwan Island. Then the PLA would not be able to maintain its supply but the US military’s supply would continue. The scenario planning will run until September, with a final report scheduled for December. So far, 18 of the 22 rounds of possible attacks have been carried out.
Assessment of the Author
My assessment, based on all the above-mentioned material and other material, estimates the following outlook to China-Taiwan-US triangle game.
None of those Taiwan based think tank scenarios above seems to be plausible taking into account also Chinese long-term thinking and performance. Their “normal” response is not sudden or hot-headed but surprisingly widely is based on thoughts and wisdom of Sun Tzu.
Therefore, it seems likely that re-unification process is now accelerated by Pelosi’s visit and Russia’s experiences from Ukraine crisis. In this context, Russia’s role or the significance of Ukraine crisis cannot be underestimated. China is exercising the forced re-unification by blockade. It will take place, when time is favourable, from the viewpoint of China’s leadership. The process will be intensifying in next 2-4 years period so, that every time China is exercising the maneuver, stakes are higher and stronger, until the exercise maneuver turns out to a real military invasion. Militarily China’s PLA is fully prepared and materially equipped for this operation.
Once again, very turbulent times are ahead of us.