COLUMN-Escalating Taiwan face-off could define the decade: Peter Apps

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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Peter Apps

LONDON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Last week, China’s nationalist Global Times changed its rhetoric on Taiwan. A military offensive by Beijing to retake the island, it suggested, might now be a matter of “when” rather than “if”. The small number of U.S. troops reported to be there, it said, would be immediate targets.

The Wall Street Journal said the Pentagon had begun rotating limited numbers of U.S. special forces and Marines through Taiwan to train local forces, in what appeared to be a deliberate briefing by U.S. officials in response to escalating Chinese rhetoric and military posturing.

Taiwan's defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng now warns that Beijing might be ready to mount a full-scale invasion by 2025, describing current tensions as the worst in 40 years. China has sent ever mounting numbers of warplanes into Taiwan's airspace this year, setting new records with almost every foray, including almost 150 over last week’s four-day Chinese holiday weekend.

The fate of the island – which China views as a rogue province, becoming ever more vocal in its pledges to regain control – is now routinely the focal point of U.S.-China talks, seen as a bellwether for the fate of the wider region. The fall of Taiwan to China, other powers like Japan, Australia and Vietnam worry, might open the door to further Chinese moves and gains across the region.

It is a narrative that Beijing appears to embrace fuelling. In a speech on Saturday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to complete the “historic task of reunification of the motherland”.

This was a slightly softer tone than in July, when he vowed to “smash” any attempts at outright independence. Beijing frequently claims other nations are bound by its “one China” policy, viewing the government in Taipei – originally China’s Nationalist government in exile after the Communist victory in 1947 – as an illegal entity.

Other rhetoric and actions, however, have become much more aggressive. The Global Times, an English-language tabloid amplifying the most aggressive voices in Beijing, ran multiple pieces last week talking up the threat of conflict. The presence of the reported few dozen U.S. special forces and Marines, it suggested, amounted to an “invasion” of Chinese territory, with the paper's editor Hu Xijin suggesting that the United States should send troops to Taiwan in uniform and that Beijing would then “kill them” in an air strike.

REUNIFICATION BY FORCE?

In a separate article, he argued that the presence of U.S. troops gave China a justification to go for “reunification by force”. Washington, however, will be hoping the presence of small numbers of troops acts as a restraining factor for Beijing.

Over the last few decades, Beijing has been remarkably effective at persuading the few remaining countries that recognise Taiwan as China’s legitimate government to switch that recognition to Beijing, also pressuring airlines and multinational companies to list Taiwan as part of China. Until the last two years, however, any military action was viewed relatively distant.

That is now changing. Having extended its reach over much of the South China Sea through the creation of artificial islands, Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army and its associated Navy are conducting ever more high-profile activity that appears to be aimed against Taiwan. That includes training to use civilian ships to land troops, dramatically bolstering Beijing’s amphibious capability and also giving it the option of more covert troop landings.

Commercial satellite imagery also shows considerable construction activity at three Chinese airbases close to Taiwan. Building work began in early 2020 and continued throughout the pandemic, likely a sign of how Beijing prioritises the work.

STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY

Washington has long pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, making it as unclear as possible whether or not the United States would respond militarily in the event of any conflict. What would genuinely happen is disputed by analysts both in and outside the U.S. government and beyond, particularly if U.S. troops were harmed or killed.

While Beijing would likely hope to end a conflict with thunderclap speed, Taiwan wishes to make that difficult, hiking its defence budget and investing in anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The real question, however, is whether the United States would then choose to mount its own military intervention – or whether Beijing would choose to strike at U.S. forces elsewhere in the region as part of a surprise attack.

With the U.S.-China rivalry increasingly dominating thinking in Washington and beyond, America’s Asian and other allies are likely to wish to impose real costs on China for any attack on Taiwan, whether financial sanctions, or overt or covert military activity. But what that could look like is very hard to gauge.

Any conflict could further upset already battered global supply chains, and dramatically disrupt the semiconductor industry where Taiwan is a major manufacturer.

While military thinking in both Washington and Beijing was already turning to a potential war, the increase in tension over Taiwan has bought new immediacy. Within the United States, that is fuelling growing calls for the Pentagon to prioritise Asia over Europe, potentially withdrawing forces currently facing Russia and relying on European allies to fill the gap. Some worry Russia might launch its own conventional or unorthodox attack on Europe at the same time as a Chinese assault on Taiwan, splitting U.S. forces between two fronts.

If Beijing intends to live up to its rhetoric, the Taiwan confrontation could well define the decade. If it escalates beyond that, it could yet define the century. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)

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