OP-ED: Will China ever invade Taiwan?

Chinese and Taiwanese national flags are displayed next to a military aircraft in this illustration taken on April 9, 2021. Reuters

Xi Jinping is unlikely to take the risk

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday promised that “the historic task of the complete reunification of the motherland (…) will be definitively accomplished”. It was a threat to Taiwan, but a threat without end. However, Chinese state media, in the form of the always enraged Global Times, warned that war “could be started at any time.”

On Sunday, President Tsai Ing-wen replied that “no one can force Taiwan to follow the path that China has laid out for us.” She added that the island country of 23 million people faced a “more complex and fluid situation than at any time in the past 72 years.” That is, since the Chinese nationalist government lost the civil war and retreated to Taiwan in 1949.

And the United States, although it does not directly promise to defend the island at the expense of a war with China, does indicate that there are US special forces and Marines in Taiwan on a training mission. . Beijing already knew this, of course (Trump sent them there two years ago), but Washington’s open confirmation was a clear warning to China.

So there is a kind of crisis, albeit slow. As Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-Chen said, Beijing is capable of invading the island now, but will be quite ready to do so in three years.

“By 2025, China will reduce cost and attrition to a minimum. He has the ability now, but he won’t start a war easily, as there are a lot of other things that he will have to take into account. What did he mean exactly, and is it true?

Partly it’s recognition that China is rapidly accumulating weapons that will make possible a sea invasion across the Taiwan Strait, despite being 180 km wide at its narrowest point.

The key Chinese weapon is the long-range rocket artillery which can reach any point in Taiwan with high precision (guidance by BeiDou satellite navigation system), and can be launched in such numbers as anti-defenses. Taiwanese missiles would be outdated.

Such a weapon exists. It’s called the PCL-191, and it’s a magnified version of “Stalin’s organ” and other WWII-era multiple rocket launchers, but with a range of 350 km. There are eight or 12 rockets on each mobile launcher, depending on the range and explosive power required, and they can be reloaded fairly quickly.

There are already two brigades of these rocket launchers stationed on the Chinese coast facing Taiwan, and their number continues to increase. Soon, if not already, they will give Beijing the power to simultaneously launch saturation strikes on all airfields, radar stations, air defenses and ports in Taiwan.

If all of Taiwan’s runways and ports are destroyed, then its planes and warships cannot prevent Chinese assault troops from crossing the strait in ships (10 hours), and no one else can will be close enough to help them, even if they want to. Taiwan is at extreme range for Japan-based fighter jets, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet is highly unlikely to be within range if the attack is a surprise.

So what “other things” can still deter China from launching such an attack even after having enough rocket launchers on the coast? One is enough: the certainty that even if the United States could not intervene militarily in time to save Taiwan, it would certainly institute a full naval blockade of China immediately thereafter.

This may be of little consolation for the Taiwanese, but the Chinese economy is totally dependent on foreign trade, and China’s geography makes it extremely vulnerable to the blockade.

Ships from China crossing the Pacific must pass between the “first chain” of islands (Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines); shipments to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Europe must pass through the Strait of Malacca (Malaysia and Indonesia). In practice, there is no way out: the Chinese economy would be strangled in a few months.

Further escalation on both sides would be deterred by fear of nuclear war, and some sort of deal would have to be struck. It could be very humiliating for China, perhaps so humiliating that it would even undermine the control of the Communist Party. So Xi Jinping will never really take the risk.

This is how people steeped in classical strategic thinking see it, and they are probably right. Although you don’t get your money back if they get it wrong.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work). This article previously appeared in The Bankok Post and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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