If China strikes Taiwan, can it bear the punishment from the US and its allies?

Cross-strait relations look set to remain tense, with mainland China increasing its military might and the US continuing to provide support to Taiwan, says Cambodian commentator Sokvy Rim. But despite the rhetoric, the mainland will be cautious. Even if Beijing can launch a first strike, the US and its allies will give a formidable response, not forgetting that they are in a position to choke off China’s energy supply route through the Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over 70 years ago and the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces to Taiwan, a threat of invasion and disagreement on Taiwan’s status has characterised cross-strait relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has frequently stressed the reunification of China and reiterated his commitment to thwart any attempt by Taiwan to gain full independence. While Beijing wants to bring Taiwan to heel, the Taiwanese want to stay separate from mainland China and have started to see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

A survey carried out by Pew Research Center in 2019 found that two-thirds of Taiwanese adults see themselves as Taiwanese while only three among ten people think of themselves as Chinese-Taiwanese. The poll also found that among DPP supporters, 75% of those who see themselves as solely Taiwanese favour close relations with the US versus 23% who favour close relations with China.

The US continues to support Taiwan

China is reluctant to take Taiwan by force, not only because the majority of Taiwanese people want to retain “one country two systems” and the war is costly for China. The main reason is that the US continues to provide its support to Taiwan.

After the US acknowledged the PRC as the only Chinese government, it still retains unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The US continues to provide economic, military and security support to ensure that Taiwan remains a self-governing democratic island.

The upgraded US-made F-16V fighters are displayed during a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Base in Taiwan on 18 November 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

 

When China conducted missile tests in 1996 near Taiwan’s coast to threaten Taiwan when the latter held its first presidential elections, the US swiftly deployed USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and other warships to the Taiwan Strait. The incident serves as a reminder to China that the US will not stand by and do nothing when there is a security threat against Taiwan.

Currently, the US is a major supplier of military technology and arms to Taiwan. As of 2020, Taiwan has imported from the US military equipment such as F16 fighter jets, sensors, missiles, aerial drones and field information communication systems amounting to approximately US$5 billion. The strong ties between the US and Taiwan, which China considers as its far-flung province, has really frustrated China.

Beijing’s growing military might

The recent rise of China economically and militarily has turned the tide against Taiwan in favour of China. China has been able to develop and modernise its military technology, including acquiring ballistic missile and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, which will enable it to hit Taiwan and the US military based in South Korea and Taiwan.

As of 2020, China has the world’s largest navy with approximately 360 battle force ships, relatively larger compared to the US, as the latter’s naval force is made up of roughly 297 battle force ships.

China is the world’s number two in terms of military spending as well. Its military spending increased sharply from US$114 billion in 2010 to US$261 billion in 2019, while US military spending has been decreasing. The gap is growing bigger each day and China will become Asia’s largest military power in the not-too-distant future.

China’s growing influence and military strength in Asia has undoubtedly shifted the balance of power and led to an asymmetry of military strength between mainland China and Taiwan. Thus it is reasonable for the US to be more concerned about Taiwan’s security.

A CH-4 long-endurance drone is displayed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China, 29 September 2021. (Aly Song/File Photo/Reuters)

 

China has imposed sanctions on major arms industries of the US in a move seen as a light countermeasure in retaliation against US arms sales to Taiwan. China also frequently waves the threat of invasion in case Taiwan crosses the red line of declaring independence or it runs out of patience itself. The Chinese foreign ministry warned that “engaging in Taiwan independence is a dead end. China will take all steps needed and firmly smash any Taiwan independence plots.”

To back up its threat, China has stockpiled ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles, and deployed these weapons along the mainland’s coast facing Taiwan. On top of that, China frequently conducts “grey zone” warfare to test and weaken Taiwan’s defence system through its forces frequently flying over Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). Its actions communicate a clear message to Taiwan and the US that Taiwan independence would bring about an undesirable outcome.

Blockade and strategic control

With its military superiority and geographical proximity, China would have the advantage in a full-scale military offensive against Taiwan and be in a position to take full control before the arrival of military reinforcements from the US, backed up by Japan and South Korea. But China also fears retaliation from the US and its allies as the US military presence in the Asia Pacific has not diminished amid China’s rise.

The US military presence in South Korea and Japan, which constitute half of the US troops abroad, also add weight to US deterrence against China. Though the US troops and its allies might not be able to aid Taiwan on time in case of invasion from China, they would still be effective in acting as a blockade to disrupt China’s shipments of oil and other supplies from Africa and the Middle East that pass through the Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca.

US allies in the Asia Pacific which include Japan, India, Australia (all of them who also have maritime, border or trade conflicts with China) can provide an immediate response and help to put pressure on China.

Oil and gas tanks are seen at an oil warehouse at a port in Zhuhai, China, 22 October 2018. (Aly Song/File Photo/Reuters)

 

In fact, the increasing demand for energy due to high economic growth has made oil shipments through the Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca very crucial for China. This weakness of China is apparent to its rivals, particularly the US.

Currently, China relies heavily on energy and oil supply from other regions, particularly from the Middle East, which constitutes 44% of its crude oil imports. And even though China has been working on other alternative importing routes such as building pipelines in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, most of them have failed.

This high energy reliance on the Middle East and Africa means it is uncertain if China can sustain its giant economy and military without a steady supply of oil imports. Thus, China may be able to strike Taiwan, but not have the capability to bear the punishment from the US and its allies.

The interaction between the US and China constitutes an “ambiguous situation” in which Taiwan is neither an independent state nor China’s province. This status quo makes peace possible, at least to the extent of there being no bullets exchanged. However, this situation can be escalated to war at any time as both sides wish to alter the status quo.

China wishes for reunification in which the use of force will be the last resort. On the other hand, Taiwan wishes for independence, though not necessarily full independence but at least it wants to retain self-governance and not be part of mainland China. This status quo is what keeps peace in Taiwan, but it is also what makes it dangerous as well.

Author: Sokvy Rim, Think China

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