It is clear from President Xi’s New Year speech on Taiwan that he believes that PLA is battle ready to unify Taiwan with Mainland China by force.
TAIPEI: During the first five-year term of former Chinese President Hu Jintao, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began its program of “Anti-Access Area Denial” (A2AD) against United States forces operating in the vicinity of Taiwan (otherwise known as the Republic of China). The helplessness of the PLA Navy to deter the two US Navy carrier fleets that sailed across the Taiwan Straits in 1996 resulted in the realisation within the Central Military Commission (CMC), then headed by Jiang Zemin, that the technological capability of the forces under its command was comprehensively inferior to those mobilised by Washington. After a careful study of needs and capabilities, plans were therefore begun to be implemented from 2004 onwards to (a) bolster anti-satellite capability, (b) build up anti-ship ballistic missile capacity, and (c) ramp up cyber and other offensive modes. The aim was to ensure that the PLA air, land, space, cyber and sea forces acting in unison had the capability to sink two carrier fleets, if called upon to do so. Once such a capacity got acquired, the generals in Beijing believed that Washington would not dare to intervene on the side of Taipei, should there be a cross-straits conflict. The growing confidence of PLA’s officer corps has been increased by the victory of the PRC-leaning Kuo Min Tang (KMT) in the just-concluded local body elections in Taiwan. The KMT inflicted major defeats on the US-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the capital city of Taipei, the China-friendly physician, Ko Wen je retained his Mayoralty. This has given traction to the belief that the overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese people, including units of the armed forces, would be bystanders during a PLA attack on the island, rather than actively resist the force.
On New Year, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) outed that confidence when he gave a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in the US Congress. The Act implies, but does not explicitly assure that the US would undertake active military measures to deter, or when necessary, defeat an armed attack by the PLA on Taiwan. In Xi’s speech, the most explicit of any made by a Chinese leader since the days of Mao Zedong, the President of the PRC gave notice that his patience was wearing out in the matter of the unification of the RoC (Taiwan) with the PRC, and that unless the political leadership in Taipei indicated an acceptance of an improved version of the One Country Two Systems model adopted in the case of the 1997 Hong Kong handover from Britain to China, military force would not, as in the past, be a last resort. Armed force would be brought forward as almost the first option to be considered and carried out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Xi made it clear that the longstanding formula of the “92 Consensus” that had served as cover for the status quo across the straits needed to be reformulated. Instead of both sides having different interpretations of what “One China” meant, there was room only for a single interpretation, which is that Taiwan had to be incorporated into the PRC. The change in tone by Beijing met an immediate response from RoC President Tsai Ing-wen, who replied in Taipei that the only “consensus” accepted by her government was that both sides of the Taiwan Straits were separate entities and would remain so. It is clear from President Xi’s New Year speech on Taiwan that he, as Chairman of the CMC, believes that the PLA is battle ready to take on the responsibility of unifying Taiwan with Mainland China by force. It was also evident that he believes that the deterrence capability of the forces under his command was by now sufficient to deter the US from intervening on behalf of Taiwan, irrespective of the Taiwan Relations Act.
TAIWAN AGAIN AMERICA’S ALLY
Since taking office as RoC President three years ago, Tsai Ing-wen has quietly been aligning Taiwan with the US in a military partnership, a coming together that got accelerated once Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the US in 2017. Given the topography of the island, which is mountainous on both sides, there are only eleven potential landing sites for attacking forces to come ashore, of which only Taichung and Taoyuan are convenient enough to meet PLA needs of territory suitable for amphibious and airborne landings and subsequent deployment. Even in these sites, control of the airport is essential, as air superiority is a must to counter the smaller but well trained and equipped Taiwanese defence forces. Given the Indo-Pacific strategy adopted by the US military and embraced by the Trump administration, control over Taiwan is essential to give Chinese forces unimpeded access to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. At present, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan block such access. The first three are military allies of Washington, while a second term for the DPP in the 2020 Presidential contest would almost certainly result in Taipei having almost as close a defence relationship with Washington as Manila, Seoul and Tokyo have enjoyed for long. Even should the KMT win in the next presidential elections, global business and financial currents may lead to a steady strengthening of a US-Taiwan security relationship, although the speed may be less than would be the case under the DPP. Should the “status quo” (i.e. no war situation) continue, this would, of course, also be accompanied by a continuation of the close business relationship between Taiwanese business and the PRC. However, President Xi has given notice that Taiwanese entities and personalities will now need to choose between the US and China.
The problem facing the PLA is that China may be on course to overtake the US as a technological and military power, but that level has not been reached yet. Meanwhile, President Trump is working hard to ensure that such a day does not arrive, at least not in the foreseeable future. As a result, the US still enjoys “escalation dominance” in the Taiwan Straits. The PLA has evidently been planning for a situation where there is “vertical escalation”, i.e., that military countermoves by the US to a Chinese attack remain confined to the area around Taiwan, but given the unpredictability of President Trump, it is possible that the US would launch a “horizontal escalation”, taking the fight to South-East Asia and Africa, besides the Indian Ocean Rim. Although the PLA seems confident of its deterrent capabilities, these may get tested were Trump to order a full carrier group (including destroyers and air defence frigates) or even more than one such flotilla to move into the Taiwan Straits. This would confront Beijing with a dilemma, as any effort to block such a movement is likely to—at the least—result in an expansion of the US-China Trade War, besides measures directed against PRC interests that are not exclusive to the military. Japan’s Self Defence Forces may join such moves. An advantage China enjoys is the Moscow-Beijing alliance that has been the result of pressure from the Atlanticist lobby in Washington to continue to prevent the replacement by policymakers of Moscow with Beijing as Threat Number One to US interests, a stance favoured by the Pentagon, but opposed by numerous business groups and their political hangers-on that are making substantial profits through unimpeded trade and technology transfers with China. There is tension in Beijing that Trump may brush aside opposition from pro-China members of the US Congress and the business community to give Taiwanese forces firepower designed to inflict significant damage on the metropolitan centres along the east coast that are the foundation for the economic prowess of the PRC.
BATTLE LINES DRAWN
In response to the gauntlet flung across the straits by President Xi, the Taiwanese military conducted large-scale drills last week in a show of force designed to deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from launching an invasion across the Taiwan Straits. This follows the New Year statement by PRC President Xi Jinping (who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission) days earlier that made clear that Beijing’s patience was wearing thin, and that the use of the military to speed up the process of unification of both sides of the Taiwan Straits was no longer improbable. Indeed, the indication given by Xi was that preparations for invasion were accelerating. The Chinese President, who is also General Secretary of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) further moved away from the status quo by declaring that the “1992 Consensus” embraced by both sides whenever the Kuomintang Party was in charge in Taipei, no longer represented the original formulation that “there is One China but that the RoC and the PRC have different interpretations of what the term means”. The strategic thinker Su Chi, who invented the term, defined the “1992 Consensus” as describing the status quo between the two sides, where Taipei has de facto independence from Beijing, with its own political and other institutions, including those in charge of the military and foreign policy. As mentioned, President Xi was emphatic that the “1992 Consensus” was based on the unification of the RoC with the PRC. The implication was that the status quo that has been the foundation of KMT policy towards the PRC was no longer acceptable to him. In response, RoC President Tsai Ing-wen countered that the only “consensus” among the people of Taiwan was that they would not merge their territory with that of the PRC. The battle lines have therefore been drawn between the two sides in a manner not seen since the 1950s, when the PRC made a few attempts to capture territory from the RoC (Taiwan).
ATLANTICIST ATTACK ON TRUMP
Since Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen took over as President of the RoC three years ago, she has followed a policy of linking Taiwan with the US on matters of security. Cooperation and consultation between Washington and Taipei on military and intelligence matters is higher than at any stage since the early 1970s, when US President Richard M. Nixon (assisted by National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger) broke off formal ties with Taipei and began a policy of relying on Beijing as one of the most important geopolitical allies of the US. Over the next two decades, the PRC gave invaluable assistance to the US in checkmating and in weakening the Soviet Union. Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan gave massive assistance to China both in terms of economic benefits as well as on security-related matters, making available technology and materiel on a scale not seen since the 1939-45 war, when the US helped Britain and later the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler-controlled Germany. President Bill Clinton ensured that such a flow of benefits remained abundant even after the USSR was dissolved in 1992, although as camouflage, he made occasional statements mildly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, a “support in private but oppose in public” line that was implemented subsequently by both President George W. Bush as well as Barack H. Obama. Each remained faithful to the Atlanticist theorem that China was an opportunity, while Russia remained the primary threat. Although President Donald J. Trump has sought to revise a clearly dated Atlanticist doctrine with a formulation giving precedence to the Indo-Pacific, this is being opposed by the Atlanticist lobby in the US. Aware that an actual change in the direction of US policy (as opposed to mere words during the Obama period calling for “a pivot to Asia”) represented an existential threat to the stifling control that they had over US security, mercantile and foreign policy, the Atlanticists have worked with increasing frenzy to remove Trump from office, or if that is not possible, to ensure that he be a single term President. Efforts by Trump to get close to Moscow so that a Moscow-Beijing alliance does not harden into a geopolitical nightmare for US interests have been diluted and deflected by a flurry of unproven and often fantastical allegations that the 45th President of the United States is an agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They are hopeful that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller (whose links with the Clinton machine go back three decades) will be able to justify their trust by concocting a report sufficiently damaging to force the exit of President Trump or at the least, end any hopes that he may have for a second term. Whether they succeed in their “Oust Trump” mission or not, Atlanticists in Washington have succeeded in forging an alliance between Beijing and Moscow that poses a challenge not only to the US but to the European Union, the borders of some of whose members abut a Russia made much more deadly by the alliance between Putin and Xi.
WAR CLOUDS GATHER
To anger from the numerous US business and other groups that have a direct and indirect fiduciary interest in continuing the longstanding Washington policy of (in practice, if not always in words) supporting China (to the accompaniment of substantial profits) while opposing Russia, in contrast, President Trump has gone against Chinese interests in a manner unprecedented for any occupant of the White House since Harry S. Truman. Aware that recent Chinese strides in advanced technology have the potential to overtake the US within a decade, Trump has brushed aside dovish advice from the Atlanticist establishment in favour of a policy designed to weaken the Chinese economy in a manner so severe that there will be an impact on the hold of the Chinese Communist Party over the world’s other superpower. The US-China Trade War begun by Trump is having a visible impact on the PRC economy, slowing down its expansion. At the same time, because the Atlanticist lobby within the US has prevented the partnership with Russia favoured by Trump, both Moscow as well as Beijing have drawn closer and have formed an alliance that has the capacity to dominate the Eurasian landmass, prising it away from US primacy. China’s new heft within the international community has led to confidence within the Xi-led policymaking matrix in Beijing that Taipei will have no option other than to come closer to Beijing in such a manner that the border between the two sides becomes operationally non-existent. Any drift towards such a situation is anathema to President Tsai and the rest of the DPP, as also to both the Trump as well as the Shinzo Abe dispensations in Washington and Tokyo.
Since President Xi came to power in 2012, the earlier policy of speaking softly and whittling a big stick only in secret has been given up in favour of a more open show of Chinese capabilities and plans. President Xi, who is the strongest leader the PRC has had since Mao Zedong, has drawn a Red Line on Taiwan by declaring that unification within a relatively short time period was his objective, and that if the military were needed to achieve this, so be it. Despite the tensions and dilution of Presidential power created by his Atlanticist foes, a combative President Trump is unlikely to walk away from such a contest, given that the Tsai government in Taipei would be on his side in the developing situation. Dense war clouds have appeared across the Taiwan Straits, while they have yet to disappear from the Korean peninsula.