China hit back almost immediately after Taiwan elections by announcing on January 15 that Nauru was switching recognition from Taiwan to Beijing….reports Asian Lite News
Following the Taiwanese people’s refusal to buckle to Chinese coercion in the January 13 elections, voting back into power the incumbent Democratic People’s Party (DPP) with its new leader Lai Ching-te, opinion varies as to what Beijing’s next course of action will be.
Will China make a precipitative military move against Taiwan, or will it continue its policy of incessant coercion? China’s reaction has been rather subdued so far, though this does not preclude more vigorous actions before Lai assumes office in May.
Notably, though, China hit back almost immediately by announcing on January 15 that Nauru was switching recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.
Taiwan now has diplomatic ties with just twelve nations as China picks off its allies one by one. Nauru asked for “massive economic assistance,” according to Taiwan, but Taipei cannot compete with China in this regard.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning denied that money exchanged hands: “Those who see ‘dollar diplomacy’ as a go-to tool need to understand that there are things that money cannot buy.”
One wonders what China can offer Nauru other than money. In some respects, then, it is better for Taiwan to shrug off the burden of countries who value money more than morals.
Nonetheless, this marked a setback for the USA, for President Joe Biden has been working hard to rally nations in support of a “rules-based international order”. Nauru is a tiny nation of just 12,500 inhabitants, but China has gained a sharp win there against the wider run of play.
Wendell Minnick, a veteran American defence analyst based in Taiwan, is pessimistic about cross-strait ties. Indeed, he thinks China will act militarily this spring (i.e. March-May), catalysed by the DPP’s election win.
“This could be the beginning of ballistic-missile strikes and cruise missile strikes on command-and-control nodes, radar, air defence batteries and the utter destruction of airbases. Xi is growing old quickly and wants a legacy that brings Taiwan back into the bosom of Mother China. He wants to be the Father of Modern China–to take down Mao’s picture at Tiananmen Square and replace it with his own. He is a man. He is not a win-win negotiator. He wants to be beloved by the nation for the next 100 years.”
Minnick added that the lunar-solar calendar is perfect for military operations around April-May, which leaves “summer for fighter and bomber aircraft to clean up the scraps, then the amphibious invasion in the autumn with the lunar-solar calendar holiday of Ghost Month.”
The latter period is when conditions in the Taiwan Strait calm again and become more conducive to amphibious operations.
However, it will be a massive challenge for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to cross this “moat” that separates Taiwan from the mainland.
China is encountering severe challenges that might cause Chairman Xi Jinping to take irrational actions. As tsar Vladimir Putin demonstrated with his fateful invasion of Ukraine, the twisted calculus of leaders in autocratic countries often does not correspond with logic.
Xi might calculate that his window of opportunity is narrowing, or that he needs a national crisis to bind China around him.
One disconcerting issue is China’s economy, which is deeply unwell.
Last year, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell in dollar value to about USD 17.5 trillion. This was the first drop in almost 30 years, and China’s share of world GDP slipped to slightly less than 7 per cent.
In yuan terms, China’s GDP rose by more than 4.5 per cent, but this ignores a sharp drop in the yuan’s value.
In 2023, America’s GDP rose 6 per cent to about USD 27 trillion. The gap between the respective GDPs of the USA and China grew by USD 2 trillion last year, which is set to widen unless China’s economy turns a corner.
George Magnus, an economist at the China Centre, Oxford University, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, commented: “Given (what) we know about population shrinkage, debt capacity constraints, weak governance and the political awkwardness of market reforms, China’s tech prowess islands are not the saviour. Only a real policy shift can do that, and the government is in stasis.”
He added that this year will therefore be important policy-wise. The bite of reality is a far cry
from Xi’s New Year message that the economy had “sustained the momentum of recovery”.
Another looming issue is demographics. China’s population is shrinking; the birth rate contracted 5.7 per cent last year to reach the lowest in modern China’s history – and the death rate in 2023 was the highest it has been since 1974, during the throes of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
With 280 million citizens aged over 60 (a figure that will increase 30+ per cent over the next decade), China is facing a ticking demographic time bomb.
However, many would disagree with the dire warnings from the likes of Minnick in Taiwan.
For example, Professor Rex Li, Research Affiliate of the Lau China Institute, King’s College London, assessed: “Although China has not recognised the legitimacy of the Lai government, it is unlikely that it will opt for a military solution to the Taiwan issue for the time being.
Most analysts believe that China does not yet possess the full military capability to take over Taiwan by force, especially if it has the backing of the United States. In addition, China is currently facing considerable economic difficulties due mainly to the recent COVID lockdowns. Beijing is also keen to stabilise its relations with Washington following the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco in November 2023.”
Li concluded, “It can be expected that Beijing will continue to exert economic and military pressure on Taiwan and constrain its international activities where possible. But China would try to avoid a major armed conflict with Taiwan, which might trigger an unpredictable reaction and intervention from the US.”
Leading figures in the US armed forces concur with this viewpoint.
For instance, Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), said at a Pacific Forum conference in Hawaii in mid-January that he expected the PLA to put on a show of “force against Taiwan in the near term”.
“The pressure campaign against Taiwan continues, and we’re watching it in the wake of the elections…Their actions over the past number of years have been pretty consistent. When something occurs that they don’t like, they tend to take action.”
An obvious example is the PLA’s reaction to then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan.
Admiral Aquilino predicted that China would also manipulate events so as to put the blame on American shoulders. He suggested Beijing would “attempt to spin it in the information space as the United States as the aggressor. I don’t know how you connect those dots, but they’re pretty effective in the information space. Doesn’t have to be true. They’ve just got to say it enough times.”
The INDOPACOM commander also commented on China’s increasingly aggressive actions farther south. Its “expansive claims in the South China Sea are not just thoughts anymore. What we are seeing as it applies to Second Thomas Shoal and our Philippine partners is that the rhetoric and the actions, whether they be lawfare, information warfare or physical actions, are now enforcing or attempting to enforce that illegal claim.”
Separately, General Charles Flynn, commander of the US Army Pacific, described recently at the Irregular Warfare Forum in Virginia how China is seeking to disrupt American regional influence.
“The Chinese are trying to disassemble, fragment and fracture a network of allies and partners that the United States enjoys globally, but definitely in the Indo-Pacific. And they’re working every day.”
The American commander said China is on a “very, very dangerous path. The PRC’s immediate goal: prepare the operational environment for the seizure of Taiwan, full stop.”
If conflict erupts, it is essential that Taiwan already have in place the military equipment that it needs, for the PLA could effectively blockade the island and prevent American resupplies from reaching Taiwan.
Taiwan needs to strengthen its mobile air defences and drone fleets with much larger quantities; such asymmetric capabilities strengthen its “porcupine strategy” designed to deter China by imposing an unacceptable level of loss and risk on the PLA.
Taiwan is taking actions to deter China militarily, but these are often done under sufferance. This month, Taiwan’s military conscription period extends from four months to twelve for 18-year-old males, after the USA pressured Taipei to raise the duration.
Conscription is deeply unpopular in Taiwan but, faced by recruitment issues, conscription is the only way to fill out the armed forces.
Bloomberg Economics, in an effort to quantify the cost of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – came up with a figure of USD 10 trillion, equating to about 10 per cent of global GDP.
Taiwan is the leading maker of advanced-logic semiconductors, and global supply would be hard hit.
Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict the cost of a conflagration involving Taiwan.
Regardless, Bloomberg predicted a 40 per cent drop in GDP for Taiwan in the first year, -16.7 per cent for China, -6.7 per cent for the USA, and -10.2 per cent for the world.
However, military adventurism is fraught with risk for China, especially an operation as complex as an amphibious invasion. Xi still does not have confidence in the PLA, with serious question marks about the loyalty and capability of the Rocket Force in particular at present.
Of course, the loss of Taiwan to Chinese military conquest would be horrendous. Apart from the tragedy of a democracy being swallowed by an authoritarian regime, a Chinese presence on Taiwan shatters the so-called First Island Chain of containment upon which the USA’s whole defensive strategy depends.
PLA forces garrisoned in Taiwan would have instant access to the Western Pacific, threatening maritime and aerial routes from the USA to Japan, South Korea and all American military bases there.
It was Sir Walter Raleigh who said, “Whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”
China would be able to control all seaborne trade heading to and from economic powerhouses like Japan and South Korea.
Taiwan already has de facto independence, but this means the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is fed up with the status quo. “Reunification” is a stated national goal, and it has become a point of pride for Xi.
China was visibly angered that nations like Japan and the USA should congratulate Taiwan’s Lai on his recent election win, though interestingly, Biden’s first comment was, “We do not support independence.”
Separate from military pressure, China has plenty of other tools at its disposal. For instance, it can economically pressure Taiwan with measures such as fining Taiwanese companies in China, cancelling tariff reductions, banning certain imports from Taiwan, or restricting individual tourism.
Xi advocated stronger United Front efforts to win Taiwanese hearts and said in an article published by the CCP’s Qiushi magazine: “The patriotic, unifying forces in Taiwan should be developed and empowered. Separatist acts for Taiwan independence should be rejected. The full reunification of the motherland should move forward.”
Beijing will continue to exert undue influence, and the fact that the DPP won only 40.5 per cent of the votes (compared to 57.13 per cent in 2020) might encourage the CCP in thinking that the more amenable Kuomintang party might win the next election.
During an official visit to Egypt, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “Taiwan independence seriously threatens the wellbeing of Taiwan compatriots, seriously damages the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation, and will also seriously undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. It is a dead end and a path to ruin. China will eventually achieve complete reunification and Taiwan province will surely return to the embrace of the motherland.”
Such sweeping talk illustrates the absurdity of Taiwan’s international status – it is unrecognised by the United Nations and ostracised at every opportunity by China.
China has no power or sovereignty over Taiwan’s physical territory, yet it continues to force the rest of the world into maintaining a fiction about Taiwan’s actual status. The CCP is imposing its will and a falsehood on the international community, with far too many being afraid to upset China. (ANI)