What’s in the menu
US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 saw a record number of Chinese aircraft incursions near to Taiwan, however, this ‘new normal’ aggression didn’t stop at that. For the umpteenth time, December’22 again surprised the observers of the difficult China-Taiwan relations, but this time with the highest ever number of aircraft incursions by China, including warplanes, some of which crossed over the Taiwan strait center line. China’s flimsy justification often quotes the reasons of such a response as a reaction to interference by external agents (read “US”), and the provocation by Taiwan independence forces. The month of August saw heavy incursions that were a response to US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which China took negatively, for known reasons (one china policy- Taiwan is only another system under overall ‘People’s Republic of China’). The December incursions are by all means a reply to recent US commitments to increase defense and arms assistance to Taiwan. The relations between China-Taiwan are once again in a limbo.
The Taiwan strait in recent couple of years has emerged has one of the most restive regions of our times when seen via lens of great games. It has become a pawn in the US-China rivalry that won’t abate anytime soon. The pro-democracy forces are in power in Taiwan, and China being an authoritarian regime, doesn’t seem to take well how Taiwan aligns with the democracies of the world. China hasn’t however ruled out the possibility of a ‘bloody reunification’ with Taiwan. Taiwan’s forced unification with china, one that will lead it to share a fate similar to Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang is a nightmare that the world fidgets about. While some strategic analysts foresee a reunification happening soon, with or without any alarms, others say that neither China, nor the US can be lame-ducks enough to fight off each other in an era of economic interdependence and ever weaker supply chain resilience. However, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war bears testimony to the fact that idiosyncratic factors and waves of populism, in the guise of nationalism can precipitate into worst nightmares of the global community.
It’s not unknown that China’s zero covid strategy and its crumbling economy may lead to making of a restive Chinese populace that may stand against the Xi regime. Where can it then take recourse in such a situation? Answer is simple and predictable in the realm of international relations- trigger issues, create enemy states, and invoke nationalism by rabble rousing. A similar move is in play even in The United states. The bait is Taiwan this time.
It’s a tough spot for Taiwan that its largest trade partner is also its greatest enemy. But enemy’s enemy is a friend (in line with Kautilyan wisdom), and that drags in US to the scene. Kurt Campbell, US based indo pacific strategist advised that US intensify its trade relations with Taiwan to deepen the strategic relationship. US hence also wants Taiwan to initiate decoupling its economy with China. Such a directive however can trigger a direct clash in the strait with the two important powers in a direct face off. The whole logic of deterrence may take a backseat, however to say if it for sure will, will be an over statement.
United states is the most important global power that has the back of Taiwan in case of aggression by china. Its ‘Taiwan policy act’of 2022 is a direct commitment by US in providing weaponry and technical assistance to Taiwan to build a credible defense capability. US has pursued the policy of strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis Taiwan wherein it affirms to one china policy, while refuting any attempts by china to coercively incorporate Taiwan into itself. However, The US has shown more certitude and less ambiguity on the Taiwan issue ever since Biden has assumed power. This means an even hotter pacific (not even counting in climate change here).
The US finds itself embroiled in Taiwan for a couple of reasons-
- A china free Indo-pacific.
- Critical components like electronic chips’ manufacturing being concentrated in Taiwan.
- To prevent choking of critical supply lines in an era global interdependence.
SALT TO TASTE PLEASE
Retired General Lee of Taiwan believes that china is only short of sufficient firepower before it can wage a war for Sinicizing Taiwan. What then are the current developments in Taiwan to handle an improbable yet possible militarily forced unification?
Taiwan has changed its conscription policy to make its military voluntary. This has been a positive step as it’ll aid in infusing expertise and competence to its military which otherwise engaged in a “half-hearted, good for nothing and short periods of training. However yet again the Tsai government has decided to extend compulsory military service to one year from four months from 2024 citing insufficient preparedness.
Moreover, it has increased its defense budget, while drawing further from technical expertise and arms sale of its most trusted ally- US. However, many scholars point to the possible heavy reliance on US that can make Taiwan to bandwagon after US thus creating a hierarchy of power.
There are 3 options that small states usually have -Bandwagoning, balancing and hedging. Taiwan can’t afford to bandwagon entirely after China, or balance against it out rightly, considering its reliance on China economically and a possible blockade that it may be subjected to. Strategic hedging thus seems a better option. Through this Taiwan can pursue the dual poles of balancing and bandwagoning, with inclination towards any one as the context demands. Currently, the inclination is in favor of balancing against China, by forging its ties with the democratic regimes.
Whatsoever, the wargames by China in and around the strait have become sharper in its character, with such incursions having become a normal daily news for the Taiwanese. China’s greyzone activities pose conundrum to the analysts who find it difficult to judge if China is crossing or will cross the fine line between its war of attrition on one hand and a full-fledged war to capture Taiwan on the other.
HODGE PODGE IN THE MAKING
China tactfully pursues strike drills and other exercises near Taiwan while not actually entering its sovereign spaces. The PLA fires missiles and rockets into exercise zones close to Taiwan, while circumventing anything that may go lethal. Such greyzone activities exhaust the limited military capacity of Taiwan as it costs them resources like fuel and weaponry, and also takes a psychological toll on the morale of the military as a result of protracted fatigue. It is tiring to always be on the qui vive. Moreover, each time a PLA aircraft enters Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, Taiwan puts in efforts to scramble it. This has been termed as unnecessarily taxing the Taiwanese military. While China has more than 2000 bombers, fighters and other warplanes, the stock with Taiwan is too few to carry on for long. Beijing bullies Taiwan by many other means too that includes cyber warfare and information surveillance. Gauging Chinese intentions with so much going on hence becomes a perilous task. The US sees all this as an attempt by China to penetrate into the first island chain, a strategic concept highlighting Chinese efforts to expand eastward into the pacific. Taiwan tries to use what is called the porcupine strategy. With this Taiwan will try to capitalize on China’s weaknesses while protecting itself wherever threats are involved. Taiwan, it is believed, that by following this could be ‘attacked and damaged but not defeated’.
The crux of the matter is that- peaceful reunification may just be a hoax. All power equations and multiple consequences in different setups must be analyzed and then its credos judged. The world doesn’t need another Gordian knot that takes a toll on commoners’ lives. The aims of the revisionist china that wants the game to be played by its rule needs to be checked well. While it’s a lame move to expect a third country to come forth losing its soldiers for another country, the strategic and moral support of US is in interest of all countries having a stake in the Indo-pacific.