Is War Between US & China Over Taiwan Imminent?

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is the Co-Founder of the Online Military-Reforms Think-Tank 'Mission Victory India' (MVI), Correspondent at Indian Aerospace & Defence Magazine, and Contributing Editor at Frontier India. He has worked extensively as a Defence Journalist in print and online media with stints at Fauji India and EurAsian Times.

Are 30,000 American troops stationed in Taiwan, and does China’s threat of waging war and annexing Taiwan once and for all hold any water? 

The Global Times published an editorial in response to the United States Senator John Cornyn’s Tweet claiming that over 30,000 US Military personnel are actively stationed in Taiwan. A number that is even more than the concentration of US troops in South Korea. The Global Times responded to this claim by writing, “If that is true, the Chinese government and the Chinese people will never accept it. It is believed that China will immediately put the Anti-Secession Law into use, destroy and expel US troops in Taiwan by military means, and at the same time realize reunification by force.”

“The US stationed troops in the Taiwan island severely violates the agreements signed when China and the US established their diplomatic ties as well as all political documents between the two countries. It also critically runs counter to international law and even US domestic law. It is equivalent to a military invasion and occupation of the Taiwan Province of China. It is an act of declaring war on the People’s Republic of China,” added the editorial. 

The Global Times speculated that the Tweet by the senator, who is also a member of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence may have been “a deliberate act to try to test the Chinese mainland’s reaction to US military presence in Taiwan,” before going on to note that It will be also unacceptable for us if that is the case.”

“We sternly demand an immediate explanation from the US government on Cornyn’s tweet, as well as an immediate explanation from the Taiwan authorities.” 

The editorial went on to call for a withdrawal of American forces, if any and stated that both the US and Taiwanese authorities owe public apologies; failure to do so would incur retaliation. “Otherwise, we believe that an all-out war across the Taiwan Straits will break out quickly, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will wipe out the US forces, liberate the island of Taiwan, and settle the Taiwan question once and for all,” warned the editorial. 

“We would like to stress that the presence of US troops in Taiwan is a red-line that cannot be crossed. We believe that the Chinese government and military forces will firmly work with the whole Chinese people to safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty and resolutely eliminate and expel any foreign forces that violate China’s territory,” it reiterated.

What is the dispute between China & Taiwan All About? Why is the US Invested?

It is important to recount the united origins of China and Taiwan. Both modern-day China and Taiwan were a singular political entity known as the United Republic of China until bilateral relations with the Soviet Union introduced China to Communism in the 1920s. This led to the formation of a new political party going by the banner of the Communist Party of China (CCP). This new political organization based on Communist ideals grew stronger by the day before going on to claim power after toppling the established government in a civil war. The CCP managed to lay claim over the mainland, barring the Island of Formosa, which is now modern-day Taiwan.    

Chiang Kai-Shek, the toppled Chinese head of state, exiled himself to the relative safety of Formosa Island (Read Taiwan), where the original government remains to this day. In the aftermath of the Chinese leader’s retreat, the US had anticipated a CCP takeover of the island; this prompted Washington to declare a policy of non-interference in 1949. However, the following year the Korean war erupted, and this saw American and United Nations forces launching military offensives, which began to inch closer towards the CCP led Chinese border. The CCP decided to intervene, which led the Americans to alter their stance and declared a renewed policy to contain China.

Following this decision, US President Henry S Truman established the Formosa Patrol Force, which comprised elements from the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. The newfound naval element began to patrol the Pacific waters to protect the island nation of Taiwan. However, excluding a few minor skirmishes since then, both China and Taiwan have maintained the status quo and intend to reunite.

This issue here is that each side considers the other to be a legitimate part of their territory presently under the occupation of the other. Interestingly this geopolitical situation can draw parallels to the territorial dispute between North and South Korea. Both of them want to reunite however have differing ideas on how to do so. Similarly, both see the other as a united China, perceived as under CCP control or Nationalist Party control, depending on which side one looks at it from.

US-Taiwan Military Alliance

Despite Taiwan having a fairly powerful military that has extensively war-gamed and trained for an impending amphibious Chinese military assault, the resource filled island nation on its own remains largely at Beijing’s mercy. However, that is not the case; Taipei’s strategic military alliances with Washington and other regional and western powers translate to a more symmetric balance of power. It is pertinent to note that in 2020 alone, Taiwan received over five billion dollars worth of military equipment.

These included everything from land-attack cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, rocket artillery, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to state-of-the-art communications systems. It is also worth noting that a significant proportion of the Taiwanese armed forces are armed with American made military hardware. A report published on 31 July 2021 revealed that Taiwan would soon receive over 100 M1 A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks. The island nation even operates numerous US Patriot air defense batteries, including the PAC-3 Interceptors, specially researched and designed to shoot down ballistic designs. All of this goes to show that Taiwan is not just an island nation but an island fortress. 

QUAD, ‘Exercise Malabar’ & Other Aggressions in China’s Backyard!

The Quadrilateral security dialogue or the QUAD framework, which has loosely been dubbed the “Asian NATO”, is a coalition of nations comprising the US, Australia, India, and Japan. QUAD is believed to have been formed to curb China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US, India and Japan have embarked on Exercise Malabar, which is a multilateral naval exercise. Geostrategic analysts see this as a clear message in response to Chinese maritime aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. The Malabar exercise began in the last week of August and was flagged off from the coast of Guam in the Western Pacific Ocean and is still underway.

The US had long raised its concerns over China’s militarization of the South China Sea, a vast majority of which it claims. The Chinese stake has vehemently been disputed by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Acting on its reservations in the region, the US has reportedly increased activities in the SCS.

This has been coupled with a series of developments challenging China’s maritime assertions. A British aircraft carrier had entered the hotly contested waters of the SCS in the last week of July. This move was following a joint naval drill the Royal Navy carried out with the Indian Navy. Following the conclusion of Exercise Malabar, the Indian Navy is also scheduled to carry out bilateral exercises with Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, countries which have known maritime contentions with China. Some of these countries have begun to keep a closer eye on Chinese naval activities in the region. Australia has invited its fellow QUAD country, India, to the next edition of its biennial war game, ‘Talisman Sabre’, scheduled in 2023, indicating growing military ties. This years’ Talisman Sabre’ saw the participation of 17,000 military personnel, 18 warships, 70 aircraft and 50 helicopters from armed forces from numerous countries.

Why is China Concerned Over a US-Taiwan Alliance?

Beijing perceives Washington’s forays into the Indo-Pacific region along with its deepening military ties with Taiwan as getting military involvement on its doorstep, only 150 kilometres off of their coast. Parallels can be drawn between China’s mounting concerns as expressed in its Global Times editorial and American protests during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the focal point of the Cold War. Interestingly Cuba too was just 150 km off the American coast, and growing soviet influence so close to its shores had unsettled the US. Similarly, China too is wary of American presence in proximity to its shores. These fears have often led China to speak out against America’s mere mention of Taiwanese independence, sale of weapons to them, or even rumours of a military presence there.

China views potential Taiwanese independence could mean that the island could become a staging area for American troops and offensive weapons and the construction of airbases and naval ports. Aside from these concerns, vested interests may influence a potential Chinese control of Taiwan. For starters, Taiwan could serve as a strategic buffer zone between China and any potential adversary. Furthermore, wresting control of Taiwan could give it ease of access to the Pacific Ocean. Access to the ocean is something that is presently being hindered by South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines, which collectively form a wall, which analysts often refer to as the first island chain. Greater access to the Pacific Ocean would cement China’s influence as not just a regional powerhouse but a global superpower.  

China Means Business in Taiwan

Taiwan is a resource-rich nation, which has a vibrant and high-tech economy. The island country is the world’s largest producer of semiconductor wafers, which are used in everything ranging from the production of automobiles to the manufacturing of smartphones. Despite having incredibly complicated geopolitical relations with Taiwan, China relies heavily on the island nation for the supply of these vital resources. In this economic backdrop, a takeover of Taiwan could be seen as a major victory for mainland China.

So, What Stops China from Invading?

While the military capability to invade the island nation on hypothetical grounds can be debated. Numerous deterring factors prevent the feasibility of such an aggressive manoeuvre. Militarily speaking, Amphibious warfare is considered to be one of the most operationally complex to pull off. China’s ability to launch an amphibious assault is still called into question. Add to that is the reality that Taiwan’s entire military machine has been designed to deter exactly such a nightmare scenario.

Taiwan’s military alliances mean that an attack on it will incur the wrath of the US Military and its allies. This serves as another deterrent. A successful Chinese invasion would be short-lived as it risks erupting into a full-blown region war with China having to repel offensives from the US, South Korea, Japan and possibly even the Philippines and Vietnam, who may try to leverage the situation in their national interests. A multi-front war seldom has, if ever, worked out in favour of the aggressor.

Even if China were to succeed in annexing Taiwan without the involvement of other regional powers, the sheer economic consequences for China would be dire. Beijing significantly relies on export profits which accounts for 35% of its entire GDP. Other than Taiwan, China extensively relies on exports from the US, South Korea, Australia, and Japan, all countries which have promised to defend Taiwan in the event of hostilities. Furthermore, China relies on over 100 billion dollars of food imports annually. War could jeopardize this arrangement.

An instance from recent geopolitical history is a case in point. Russia’s annexation of Crimea resulted in debilitating economic sanctions on Moscow. The Russian Ruble, which was as high as three cents in 2014, crashed to just over a cent within a year since its military action. Exports fell by 30%, and invariably inflation rates skyrocketed. A Chinese annexation of Taiwan as threatened in the editorial would likely have economic consequences far harsher than the ones enacted on Russia. Many nations could embargo China, only adding to its problems. While China has had its eye on its island neighbour, geopolitical realities significantly deter any hostile action against Taiwan. A conflict with the US is believed to be entirely out of the question despite what the editorial has spelt out. 

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