Taiwan has been preparing for possible conflict with China for a long time. The recently published Quadrennial Defence Review revealed that its deterrence has shifted to one of emphasising the human and political costs to China of making war.
London: It’s nearly two years since Xi Jinping got the crystal-clear message from Taiwan. This self-ruled island has never been under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China, but Beijing regards it as a renegade province which must return to the fold. It was the landslide presidential and legislative elections back in January last year when the people sent Xi their unambiguous view on reunification: “no thanks”.
In many ways, Xi himself was to blame for the disastrous outcome because of his cack-handed approach. His favoured candidate for President of Taiwan, Han Kuo-yu, a socially conservative populist figure who called for closer ties with Beijing, would have done far better if Xi had not given a speech just before the election telling Taiwan that unification was inevitable, and that Beijing reserved the right to use military force to achieve it. This unsettled and angered many in Taiwan, where a generation had grown up taking democracy as a given, and where many watch the trajectory of Xi’s China with fear. The protest movements in Hong Kong at the time had also sharpened their anxieties and solidified support for the clear winner, President Tsai Ing-wen. The final straw was that in the run-up to the elections, China twice sailed its new aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, an incredibly foolish move which was hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. “This election is about whether or not we choose freedom and democracy”, said Tsai in her victory speech, having won more votes than any other presidential candidate since Taiwan began holding direct elections for the position in 1996.
China’s later crushing of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and the tearing up of the international treaty, formally signed by Beijing when Britain transferred sovereignty in 1997, solidified the anti-China views of Taiwan’s younger generation. Beijing’s promise to them of “one country two systems” in a unified Taiwan now rings hollow. China, and Xi Jinping in particular, simply cannot be trusted.
And it’s the younger generation most of all who feel strongly about their democracy and national identity. In 2020 a poll by the respected Pew Research Centre found that nearly all of these, and about two-thirds of the entire population now identified as Taiwanese. About three in ten called themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese, while just 4% called themselves simply Chinese. The Chinese propaganda machine, lying as usual, tells its own population a different story, saying that most citizens of Taiwan consider themselves Chinese and that the historical necessity of national unification is being thwarted by secessionist troublemakers egged on by America.
Against this backdrop, Xi has perpetuated his war of words, insisting that the island will be “reunited” with the mainland, while Tsai vows not to “bow” to threats from Beijing. Amidst these rising tensions, Taiwan held its annual National Day celebrations last Sunday featuring a military parade, which included a fly-past of Taiwanese jets along with columns of armoured vehicles and a display of missiles. All the while, across the Taiwan Strait pressures have been running high. In the first four days of October, China’s People’s Liberation Army sent nearly 150 planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. China’s state run media has labelled such actions as a demonstration of strength, but many western governments condemn the latest shows of force as acts of intimidation and aggression.
But would China take the risk of attacking Taiwan, knowing all the consequences of doing so? Would America enter the fray? Washington has a long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, refusing to say what it would do if the island comes under attack from China. A long-time ally of Taiwan, the US has formed fresh alliances in the Pacific to push back against Beijing, including the recently announced AUKUS pact with Britain and Australia. But these are medium to long-term, and China could take military action “in the next six years”, according to Admiral Philip Davidson, when giving expert opinion to Congress earlier this year. Many in Washington believe that China is currently flirting with the idea of seizing control of Taiwan as Xi Jinping becomes more willing to take risks to boost his legacy. Taiwanese national security officials are concerned that the Chinese Communist party’s next congress in 2022, key to confirming Xi’s extended position as the Chinese leader for the third term, and the centenary in 2027 of the founding of the PLA, could be points at which Xi feels compelled to make a move on Taiwan.
Supporting this view, as reported in an editorial in last week’s The Sunday Guardian, is that Xi’s position may not be as secure in Beijing as he would wish, which may be why he hasn’t left the country in 638 days. On the surface he appears fearlessly valiant. But in reality, underneath it all lies an insecure tyrant, desperately clinging to power by rewriting history and trying to control the global narrative about the country’s actions. Today there is growing global awareness and acknowledgement of the Communist Party’s crimes, a trend which continues to deepen the party’s insecurities. An international survey by Pew Research Centre in June this year concluded that “unfavourable views of China are at or near historic highs”. The results cite the Chinese government’s failure to respect freedoms, and the growing lack of confidence. Faced with these difficulties, Xi might be tempted to take a page from Vladimir Putin’s play-book. Whenever Putin was in trouble at home, with diminishing approval ratings, he frequently took to popular overseas ventures, such as seizing Crimea from Ukraine, an invasion which saw his popularity ratings soar.
Taiwan has been preparing for possible conflict with China for a long time. The recently published Quadrennial Defence Review revealed that its deterrence has shifted to one of emphasising the human and political costs to China of making war. Taipei’s defence plan is based on a strategy of asymmetric warfare, known as the “porcupine doctrine”. This involves tactics for evading enemy’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses, and a set of escalating options that acknowledge China’s proximity to the Taiwanese coast. The doctrine has three defensive layers, from intelligence and reconnaissance, to a guerrilla campaign at sea using agile missile-armed small ships supported by helicopters and missile launchers, and finally the setting up of a deadly shooting gallery along Taiwan’s short 400km-long west coast, which has only a handful of beaches suitable for the landing of Chinese troops. Taiwan’s armed forces are easily mobilised, and although it has a small professional army of only about 165,000 personnel, some of whom have been secretly trained by a US special-operations unit, they are supported by another 3.5 million reservists.
By itself, Taiwan could of course never win against a determined China. Its simple strategy is to make the cost of an invasion so high, that China will think twice before doing so. Beijing will have noticed the lessons from the US experience in Afghanistan, where the political and financial costs of taking on a small but determined and mobile enemy have recently become all-too clear.
But there are other, perhaps stronger arguments against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan’s cyber-warfare capability is very strong, as The Sunday Guardian pointed out last week, quite capable of causing major problems for the Chinese power and banking facilities. However, it’s Taiwan’s massive semiconductor industry that presents the strongest reason why China should be extremely cautious about a hostile takeover of the island.
Over the past few decades, Taiwan has become a dominant player in the global semiconductor industry, with something like 75% of the world’s integrated circuit (IC) manufacturing capacity being based there, even outshining the US in the nanometre technology. Would this present Beijing with a prize for starting a war with Taipei? The logical argument concludes precisely the opposite.
The fabrication of ICs is incredibly complicated, involving hundreds of steps completed over several months. Even Intel, the US Company regarded as the inventor of the first microprocessor ICs has fallen behind Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. In this area, mainland China is miles behind Taiwan and has been frantically trying to recruit Taiwan’s highly-skilled workforce to narrow the gap. Even if China managed to take over Taiwan’s industries undamaged after a war, it is highly unlikely that the mostly-young workforce would happily work for their new masters. Most would have fled the island in the process.
There is also the issue of the semiconductor supply chain. According to a White House report in 2018, memory chips alone required more than 400 chemical products weighing over 45,000 tons per year, with as many as 49 gases. Many of these chemicals have their own extensive supply chain that may depend on limited or single sources of supply, a chain that would be severely interrupted by conflict.
To a very large extent, China’s industrial production relies heavily on the regular supply of Taiwan’s unique asset of highly advanced ICs, which could be irreparably damaged by an irresponsible invasion of the island. Without them, China’s GDP would collapse in the short term, creating a severe setback in its rapid advance over recent years and putting Xi Jinping’s position on life support. More than anything else, this risk should make him think very carefully about any pre-emptive move against Taiwan, almost certainly pushing thoughts of an invasion to the back-burner in the short to medium term. There is, of course, always the possibility that some misunderstanding or accident will spark a war, in which case the chips will certainly be down.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.