Richard Javad Heydarian
The historian Barbara Tuchman described Europe, in the run-up to World War I, as “a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.”
Nowadays, Taiwan finds itself at the center of a similarly delicate dynamic, as China and the United States tussle over the fate of the self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province that must be “reunited” with the mainland.
For almost half a century, the three parties carefully maintained a fragile status quo rooted in so-called “strategic ambiguity.” The US backed Taiwan politically, but no longer recognized its formal sovereignty after adopting a “One China” policy.
Beijing claimed the island nation as its own, but lacked the requisite capability to impose its will. As for Taiwan, it often flirted with outright declaration of independence, but even its most radical elected leaders never dared to invite open conflict with China.
But cracks have begun to appear in the frozen conflict in recent years, months and weeks, as Beijing rapidly builds up its offensive military capabilities, the Taiwanese electorate progressively drifts away from mainland China and the US comes under intense pressure to assist the beleaguered democratic island.
Amid rising tensions, top Taiwanese officials have warned of a looming Chinese invasion in the near future, while panicky Chinese citizens have been stocking up on survival gear and food in anticipation of a major showdown.
Faced with Beijing’s growing threat, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has doubled down on its international diplomacy, as sympathetic democratic powers from neighboring Japan to the US and European Union step up their support.
One big area of concern is the rapidly shifting balance of military power in cross-strait relations, which may tempt China to seek a moment of reckoning sooner than later.
In its newly-released annual report on China’s military advancements, the Pentagon has warned of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing capability to “conduct joint, long-range precision strikes across domains; increasingly sophisticated space, counterspace and cyber capabilities; as well as the accelerating expansion of the PLA’s nuclear forces.”
By all indications, China is enhancing both its conventional and asymmetric capabilities to deter and defeat any potential US military intervention in the South China Sea region, particularly over Taiwan.
Experts believe that China’s recent hypersonic missile test demonstrates the Asian powerhouse’s growing ability to potentially paralyze US communications systems should a war over Taiwan erupt.
Reports this week that China plans to quadruple its nuclear stockpile by 2030 also point to an offensive shift in China’s nuclear policy that moves away from its long-held “minimum deterrence” and seeks instead to challenging US nuclear primacy.
The Pentagon’s latest China military power report, released on November 3, said Beijing was “expanding the number of land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.”
A bigger nuclear stockpile, some military planners believe, aims at limiting American options in the case of conflict, while the Pentagon suggests it would “provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.” The Pentagon has spoken of a Chinese “nascent nuclear triad” with air, land and sea launch capabilities.
“The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen its ability to fight and win wars, to use their own phrase, against what the PRC refers to as a ‘strong enemy’ — again, another phrase that appears in their publications. “And a ‘strong enemy,’ of course, is very likely a euphemism for the United States,” a Pentagon official warned, emphasizing China’s growing boldness to take on the US in the near future.
Taiwan is at the center of America’s island chain military strategy for the Asia-Pacific, a strategic maritime containment plan conceived during the Cold War and still relevant today to restrict China’s sea access in a conflict scenario.
Occupation of the island nation would also be critical to China’s domination of the nearby South China Sea, an artery of global trade and home to untold amounts of hydrocarbon and fisheries resources.
As China builds up its offensive capabilities, the Biden administration has thus come under growing pressure to make security guarantees to Taiwan. In a rare bipartisan act, a group of top US legislators, led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) recently expressed support in a letter to the Taiwanese leadership.
“For decades, Congress has been one of Taiwan’s strongest allies in upholding America’s commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances. You can count on our continued support in ensuring Taiwan remains one of our most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” they wrote.
A growing number of Western powers have also been more openly supporting Taiwan, including through the deployment of naval assets through the Taiwan Straits and joint drills near the self-governing island.
Most recently, 17 warships from the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the Netherlands conducted joint naval maneuvers off the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is close to the northeastern shores of Taiwan.
Last month, growing tensions over Taiwan were also at the heart of a phone conversation between US President Biden and Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping and, weeks later, during an in-person meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. But there are still no indications of any diplomatic breakthrough on the issue, as each superpower tries to appeal to hardline and nationalistic constituencies at home. Under growing pressure, on at least two occasions Biden went so far as to erroneously claim that the US has an alliance commitment to defend Taiwan in an event of a Chinese invasion, even if no such guarantees are mentioned in the Taiwan Relations Act.
While the White House had had to repeatedly walk back Biden’s statements, it has nevertheless expressed “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan’s security and raised its concerns over “China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations and undermines regional peace and stability.”
Both de facto allies also recently admitted that US special forces have been training their Taiwanese counterparts in recent years – a potential red line for Beijing despite major US arms sales including fighter jets to the island over the years. While there are hopes that a major conflict can be prevented in the short-term, the medium- and long-term prospects are looking increasingly dire.
During a recent speech before the Taiwanese parliament, National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong claimed that Beijing has been holding intense internal discussions over a potential invasion of Taiwan’s Pratas islands in the near future, a potential prelude to a broader invasion of Taiwan’s main island.
The strategically-located islands in the northeastern reaches of the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Beijing, are particularly vulnerable since they are located more than 250 miles from Taipei.
“Attacking and capturing the Pratas Islands – this scenario where war is being used to force (Taiwan into) talks – our assessment is that this will not happen during President Tsai’s tenure,” Chen told a parliamentary meeting after being questioned on the possibility of an invasion before the end of Tsai administration’s second term in 2024.
“Frankly speaking, they have internally debated this before…We obviously have some understanding,” he added, without providing further detail on his intelligence sources. “In the next one, two, three years, within President Tsai’s tenure, it won’t happen,” he added.
Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng made a similar assessment earlier, while at the same time warning that a “full scale” invasion could be a matter of years rather than decades.
“With regards to staging an attack on Taiwan, they currently have the ability. But [China] has to pay the price,” he added, underscoring that cross-straits tensions have reached “the most serious” level in more than 40 years of his service.
Meanwhile, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi warned of a potential “Crimea-style” invasion, whereby similar to Russian operations during the invasion of Ukraine, Chinese forces could largely rely on asymmetric warfare, cyber-attacks, economic sabotage and embedded special forces along with sympathetic militias to take over the island nation.
In China, the drumbeat of war, increasingly driven by extreme nationalist elements online, has reached a fever pitch, triggering panic-buying across the country by anxious citizens.
“Taking Taiwan might only take half a day to one day, maximum three to five days,” a Chinese resident told VICE World News. “But if foreign hostile forces place a blockade against our country, the goods would not be able to enter China, and prices would go up,” he added, reflecting generalized fears of an extended and internationalized conflict if China takes kinetic action against the island.
A recent viral article has even discussed potential investment opportunities in Taiwan once the island becomes China’s “Taiwan province.”
Recognizing the risk of a nationwide panic, the Chinese government has begun to crackdown on “wolf warrior” websites and extreme nationalist netizens who are baying for a war and forced occupation of the self-governing island.
The magnitude of the crisis was fully on display during a historic visit to Taipei by a European parliamentary delegation this week.
“We came here with a very simple, very clear message: You are not alone. Europe is standing with you,” Raphael Glucksmann, who headed the visiting delegation, told Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
“Our visit should be considered as an important first step,” he added, emphasizing that “we need a very concrete agenda of high-level meetings and high-level concrete steps together to build a much stronger EU-Taiwan partnership.”
The unprecedented visit came on the heels of Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s rare visit to Europe last month, where he called for the creation of a “democratic supply chain” for the post-pandemic era, especially given Taiwan’s centrality in global production of microchips and semiconductors.
During his speech in Slovakia, the US-trained diplomat reminded his European counterparts of the “alarming increase of military exercises, hybrid and cognitive warfare operations” launched by China against Taiwan, which he said “put our democracy under acute threat.”
China has been vocally displeased by growing international support for and high-level official visits by foreign dignitaries to Taiwan. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin immediately condemned the first-ever visit by the EU delegation to Taipei.
“We urge the European side to correct its mistakes and not send any wrong signals to Taiwan separatist forces, otherwise it will harm China-EU relations,” the Chinese diplomat said, underscoring how Beijing and the West are sleepwalking towards a conflict over Taiwan.