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Taiwan crisis is a critical test of American resolve in Asia

There’s little doubt that the recent PLA Air Force intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone are intended as threats. But they also seem designed not to provoke an actual crisis.

October 10, 2021 / 03:25 PM IST
Some analysts say that for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the reunification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China is something of an existence-defining goal. (Image: AP)

Some analysts say that for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the reunification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China is something of an existence-defining goal. (Image: AP)

From behind the lectern at the Washington Press Club, one winter evening in 1950, secretary of state Dean Acheson drew a long line across Asia. America’s “defensive perimeter runs from Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands”, said the statesman and lawyer who shaped the Cold War. “So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary.”

In the event such an attack came across that line, which excluded Korea, Taiwan and continental Asia, Acheson went on: “the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations”.

For months now, the People’s Liberation Army has been building up a steady crescendo of intimidation directed at Taiwan. From October 1-4, Taiwan claims the PLA Air Force sent 149 aircraft across the so-called Median Line, which the island claims divides it from China; 56 violations were reported on October 4 alone, the largest numbers since numbers began to be publicly released in 2019.

Even though few experts believe a military invasion is imminent, Taiwan’s leadership has responded with mounting concern: its defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has said China is preparing to invade by 2025.

Washington has done little to still Taiwan’s fears. “We agree, we will abide by the Taiwan agreement,” United States President Joe Biden said after a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping—an opaque formulation, since there is no publicly-known formal agreement between the two countries over the future of the island state.

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The real question—and one of critical importance to India, locked as it is in confrontation with the PLA across the length of the Line of Actual Control—is the one Acheson outlined in 1950: where exactly does the United States’ red line run in Asia?

Xi’s real intentions on Taiwan are likely known to no-one but himself—but the case that he is preparing to act militarily isn’t hard to understand. Following the communist revolution, the defeated Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island. The PLA had no capabilities to stage naval operations, allowing Taiwan to assert de-facto independence. All major nation-states, however, acknowledge there is only one China, the People’s Republic; even though many have some form of diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, only fourteen small countries, as well as the Vatican, recognise it as a full-fledged nation state.

For Xi, the reunification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China is believed by some analysts to be something of an existence-defining goal; with an ageing population, slowing economic growth and mounting international opposition, he may think Taiwan must be seized now, or never.

The aim of China’s air intrusions are also somewhat less transparent than it might seem at first glance [see map]. PLA jets have stayed out of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, extending to nautical miles from its coast, and appear to have avoided the Median Line in the Taiwan strait. Instead, the PLA flew south of the median line, into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), the claimed airspace where countries assert the right to demand that foreign aircraft identify themselves.

Data: Ministry of National Defense Taiwan, Flanders Marine Institute MarineRegions database Data: Ministry of National Defense Taiwan, Flanders Marine Institute MarineRegions database

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-claimed airspace has, similarly, been regularly penetrated by Russian military aircraft, which do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, and/or do not communicate with air traffic controllers—signalling the country’s rejection of the western alliance’s territorial claims.

There’s little doubt the PLA Air Force intrusions are intended as threats, therefore, but they also seem designed not to provoke an actual crisis. It is possible Beijing might just be warning Taiwan against becoming enmeshed in the United States-led alliances in the Pacific. Even as the airspace violations were taking place, interestingly, the navies of the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and New Zealand were conducting exercises off Taiwan’s east coast.

China has other excellent reasons to avoid war with Taiwan. For one, a conflict would be costly. Taiwan is a major investor and market in China; even if the shocks of a war with Taiwan could be absorbed, the almost-inevitable sanctions and disruptions of trade with the west and East Asia would be catastrophic.

Fighting a war, moreover, would not be easy. Experts like Tanner Greer have voiced scepticism around how long Taiwan’s army would be able to hold out in the event of a war, but there’s no doubt its air force and precision munitions would extract a terrible toll on attacking forces. The sheer scale of an amphibious operation across the Taiwan straits, moreover, would make it impossible to conceal, giving the international community time to respond.

In 1949, the work of Ian Easton records, Mao hoped to bypass these precise problems by using covert means instead. Led by the PLA’s station-chief in Taiwan, Cai Xiaogan, China sought to buy-off Taiwan commanders, and foment insurrection. Xiaogan’s networks, however, were detected by Taiwan’s counter-intelligence services; the PLA spy himself was persuaded to turn by a deal involving a young woman he was in love with, and generous bribes. The invasion plan collapsed.

Today, in a democratic Taiwan, there’s little support for becoming part of the People’s Republic—and no choice for Beijing except the use of blunt tools.

Experience points to the critical role of United States military power in deterring invasion by China. Following the invasion of Korea in 1950, a United States aircraft carrier, along with a heavy cruiser and eight destroyers, sailed through the Taiwan strait, in sight of the People’s Liberation Army on the mainland. American seaplanes were stationed on the Penghu islands, and submarines sent out to monitor mainland ports.

These early efforts led to the creation of a United States defence command in Taiwan, and the establishment of a Military Assistance Advisory Group—a mission that came to involve tens of thousands of American troops.

In August, 1954, the United States’ commitment was tested by a series of raids on Taiwan’s offshore islands, beginning with the shelling of Kinmen and Matsu, and an assault on the Dachens. That November, the PLA encircled Yijiangshan, a base on the northern flank of the Dachens, and then occupied the islands. The United States responded by sending in seven aircraft carriers at the head of a fleet which evacuated some 15,000 civilians and 11,000 Taiwan troops.

Early in March, then President Dwight Eisenhower’s government signed a formal mutual-defence treaty with Taiwan. Although the Dachen islands were successfully captured by the PLA—and remain in the control of China even today—fear of escalation likely led China to end its raids and bombardments in the Taiwan strait.

In August 1958, the PLA again tested United States' resolve, shelling the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, and initiating an amphibious landing on Tung Ting. This time, the United States sent in a fleet with four aircraft carriers, equipped with low-yield atomic weapons to annihilate numerically-superior PLA landing forces. Forced by pressure from the Soviet Union, which feared the conflict could escalate into a nuclear crisis, China announced a ceasefire.

The Taiwan-United States mutual defence treaty ended in 1979, at the end of Washington’s long effort to secure an entente with Beijing. The treaty was replaced with the Taiwan Relations Act, which only commits the United States to “make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.

In the summer of 1995, though, as Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui announced plans to hold the country’s first free and fair elections, the PLA fired rockets into waters north of the country, and moved troops into invasion staging areas. The United States, this time, again moved two carrier battle groups into waters near Taiwan. The elections went ahead—and China backed down.

At the heart of Taiwan’s fears is not intrusions across the ADIZ, but whether Biden’s America will be willing to deploy military power as it did in the past. The country’s ill-designed pullout from Afghanistan has raised questions about exactly what it considers vital national interests worth fighting for. “As regards the Americans,” North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung was told by the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1950, on the eve of the invasion of the south, “there is no need to be afraid of them. The Americans will not enter a third world war for such a small territory.”

Even though an invasion of Taiwan might not be imminent, America’s resolve its being tested. Its response will shape the geopolitical order in Asia for decades to come.
Praveen Swami

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