As Ukrainian crisis deepens, China sends impending war signals across Taiwan Straits
While several parallels to the Ukrainian case are resonated in the Taiwan case, as the costs on Russia are mounting with sanctions and global opinion, Beijing is circumspect as well, despite increasing rhetoric
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, similarities are being drawn towards an impending Chinese military occupation of Taiwan. The 4 February joint statement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned their respective positions on Ukraine and Taiwan. China’s social networking sites equated the two cases of Ukraine and Taiwan.
Much like Putin criticising the NATO factor in Ukraine, China as well began intensifying criticism of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategies, even as it tried to cover-up its aggressive behaviour in East and South China Sea and the India-China border areas.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, President Xi was articulating a Chinese version of Monroe doctrine during a speech at Shanghai in May that year at the summit meeting of Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. Xi implied that Asian countries should not rely on the US for their security.
While China and Taiwan pointed out the differences between the two cases of Ukraine and Taiwan scenarios, recent historical trajectory and military preparations suggest destabilising outcomes in the Taiwan Straits.
Coincidentally, the irredentist discourses of Russia and China are similar. President Putin, laying claim to Ukraine historically, had outlined several red lines on Ukraine’s neutrality, non-admission into NATO and no forward deployment of NATO forces. He also warned others that they would have to pay the maximum price for countering Russian intervention.
A similar weaponisation of nationalism was proposed by China on Taiwan, as with South China Sea islands, Senkaku islands or Galwan recently. China’s original 1970s “three nos” on Taiwan (no deployment of foreign troops on Taiwan; no independence movement and no development of nuclear weapons) was modified in 2004. China’s current red lines are no to Taiwanese independence, no to “foreign interference of any form, and no to arms sales to Taiwan or entrance to military alliance of any form with Taiwan by any country in the world”.
At the 19th communist party congress in 2017, President Xi Jinping proposed a “6 nos” policy, that is “anyone, any organisation, any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”. Since then, China began increasing costs for several nations, airlines, companies and sportspersons on interactions with Taiwan, even as Beijing continued to woo Taiwanese industries and talent for mutual benefit.
This campaign for reunification reached its crescendo at the 100th anniversary of the communist party last July when President Xi said “heads will be broken” if anyone violates China’s policy on Taiwan.
China’s reunification campaign has been ratcheted up recently even as it was scheming against similar aspirations for Korean or Mongolian unification and even raised the issue of Kashmir thrice at the United Nations Security Council discussions in 2019 and 2020.
Significantly, China’s air force conducted an estimated 380 intrusions in Taiwan-controlled waters in 2020, scaling it up last year to nearly three times or about 969 air intrusions. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, China scrambled eight J-16 fighter aircraft and one Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft to intimidate Taiwan.
All the above point to Beijing’s plans to coerce Taiwan or even make preparations for invading the island. However, even though China wrested Wanshan and Dongshan offshore islands in 1950 and 1965 respectively, it finds itself increasingly herculean to launch and occupy Taiwan successfully.
China has six ways of invading Taiwan — overall invasion, saturation missile strikes, submarine blockade, paralysing command control, communications surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance (C4ISR), air strikes or amphibious operations. However, while China has overwhelming military superiority across the Straits, and can inflict considerable damage on Taiwan, all of the above plans of invasion are problematic for China as Taiwan’s military capabilities are by no means insignificant. In fact, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan could inflict considerable costs on Beijing with its stand-off weapons and professionalism of its armed forces.
Unlike in the case of Ukraine, where Russian advances included creation of a land bridge connecting to Crimea in the eastern part of the country, China and Taiwan are divided by a 180 nautical mile water moat that requires medium to high air and sea-lift capabilities for any Chinese invasion. China did enhance its capabilities as reflected in its operations to evacuate Chinese from conflict-ridden Yemen, Egypt and Libya. However, in Taiwan Straits China faces considerable challenges.
Also, unlike in the case of Ukraine where President Joe Biden refused to provide military support, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act of the United States Congress provides for a provision to supply arms to Taiwan. The US also began sending naval ships to pass through the Taiwan Straits in increasing frequency. In recent times, the US also sold arms to Taiwan and increased its interactions at various levels in Taipei.
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Thus, a five-member former high-level defence delegation headed by US Admiral Mike Mullen visited Taipei a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Previously, the US dispatched officials like Alex Azar, Keith Krach, Kelly Craft and others to Taiwan, besides landing a transport aircraft carrying much-needed vaccines. The US also invited Taiwan for the Democracy Summit recently, while Lithuania had upgraded relations with Taiwan.
China thus finds costs increasing as it plans for invading Taiwan. In 1998, when China issued its first white paper on defence, it mentioned: “In deciding which way to deal with the issue of Taiwan, the Chinese government has no obligation to make a commitment to any country or any person attempting to split China.”
Subsequently, in the 2000 white paper, China stated that it could resort to “drastic measures” on Taiwan if the latter were to “refuse, sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-Strait’s reunification through negotiations”.
However, two decades later after entering into the globalisation process and the consequent economic interdependence, and pumping hundreds of billions of dollars in its military modernisation, Beijing is still not confident of a successful military outcome across the Straits. Its 2020 goal of “joint integrated operations” is incomplete as with its “mechanisation and IT applications”. Before 2027, several Chinese reports suggest their inability to fulfil these goals and any pre-emptive strike on Taiwan proving costly for Beijing, despite the rhetoric.
Thus, while several parallels to the Ukrainian case are resonated in the Taiwan case, as the costs on Russia are mounting with sanctions and global opinion, Beijing is circumspect as well, despite increasing rhetoric.
Nevertheless, for India, any Chinese plans for military invasion and occupation of Taiwan or “grey zone” tactics in the region could embolden Beijing to further assert itself in Asian continental and maritime spheres. Triggering further China’s “two ocean strategy” of inroads into the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, Beijing’s aggressive aspirations could only be stalled by strengthening the Quad processes. With the US increasingly sucked into the trans-Atlantic quagmire, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra need to evolve more effective policies.
The author is professor in Chinese Studies at JNU. Views expressed are personal.
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