The situation will remain tense for a few months, at least until the internal situation in China clarifies
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image courtesy of News18
In response to the visit of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 3, 2022, the Chinese military is conducting military operations from August 4 to 6 around Taiwan. Two Chinese aircraft carriers and warships are near or in the Taiwan Strait, and warplanes regularly breach the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone in batches of 15 or more aircraft. The question is: how does China expect this to happen? What could happen if the PRC decides to militarily unify Taiwan? And does Xi Jinping have the political will to do so?
Technically speaking, this is the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis; the first was in 1955 when China seized the Yijiangshan Islands, forcing Taiwan to abandon the Tachen Islands. The second was in 1958 when China bombed the Kinmen and Matsu Islands, but the United States intervened. The third was in 1995-96 where massive Chinese military exercises were meant to signal China’s displeasure with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States.
So what is different between 1995-96 and today?
On July 18, 1995, Beijing announced that missile tests would be conducted in an area about 90 miles off the coast of northern Taiwan, including DF-15 ballistic missiles. This time, however, the exercises take place much closer. Of the six exercise areas announced by China, some actually exceed the adjacent 24-nautical-mile zone and Taiwan’s territorial waters.
In 1995, after five days’ notice, Chinese navy ships and aircraft conducted ten days of live-fire trials on the mainland coast opposite Taiwan. Other military exercises were conducted in mid-November south of the strait, including joint operations involving air, land and forces. In 2022, however, reports indicate that Chinese landing craft in Fujian (the province facing Taiwan) are loaded with military vehicles and tanks indicating preparations for an amphibious landing. More than 100 military aircraft sorties conducted combat training exercises such as joint reconnaissance, aerial refueling, airspace control and ground target strikes. More than 10 Navy destroyers and frigates are conducting blockade operations in the waters off the island of Taiwan. In short, the three arms – amphibious land forces, air and sea – are mobilized simultaneously.
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The intensity of military exercises this time has broken all previous records, and the situation in the Taiwan Strait is currently extremely tense. Drawing parallels to the Russian-Ukrainian war where drills turned into actual combat, what if the Chinese decide to escalate the situation? A full integrated attack cannot be ruled out, but it does not seem a viable option for China in the immediate future given the possibility of US and Japanese intervention. The big risk here is not Taiwanese resistance, but a war between the great powers.
This is precisely why a more likely scenario will be a long choke. With current forces, China can blockade Taiwan, crippling its economy, which will ultimately lead to real war if Taiwan chooses to end the blockade. The second option is a limited Chinese military offensive to capture the outer islands of Kinmen, Matsu and Taiping which are much closer to China than they are to Taiwan. Again, this would require enormous risk assuming it will be permitted without interference from the US and Japanese Navy. Either option would impose significant economic and psychological costs on Taiwanese citizens. In both scenarios, the Taiwanese government will have to use its military. While the balance of power is overwhelmingly in favor of China, this does not take into account training, morale and technological sophistication as well as Taiwan’s ability to execute asymmetric tactics.
If either of these scenarios materializes, Taiwan will have no choice but to accede to a few Chinese demands to minimize the possibility of even a limited war.
The question remains: does Chinese President Xi have the political will? The internal situation in China is not so favorable to the current Chinese establishment. Due to the removal of term limits for top Party positions, mismanagement of Covid-19, and a declining economy, President Xi Jinping has faced criticism from within the Party; several reputable Chinese citizens such as Professor Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University had been outspoken and forthright in their criticisms of the president and his policies. But President Xi further extended his control and launched a campaign to revive popular nationalism (including the study of Party history) to overcome his past setbacks. More than anything, such measures have made the cracks within the Party more evident and Xi would not want an armed conflict by launching a military attack on Taiwan in such a precarious domestic scenario.
Conversely, if he perceives the internal situation as too precarious and feels that he no longer has options for diversion, he may very well choose military action. One should watch his actions before the 20th Party Congress or immediately after its conclusion in October 2022. An image-building exercise based on publicity by Xi could indicate a reduced need for military action.
For now, the situation will remain tense for a few months, at least until the domestic situation in China clarifies.
The author is a researcher, China Strategy and Analysis Center
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