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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Heed Napoleon’s words as China fancies its odds of taking Taiwan

It is in India’s interest not to distract Beijing from stumbling into a military confrontation that would bog it down in the east

The ongoing confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops along the Himalayan frontiers is serious, but pales in comparison with the situation across the Taiwan Strait. Over the weekend of 18-19 September, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) flew 37 aircraft—including fighters and bombers—across the centre line that has served as the informal boundary between the mainland and Taiwan. One of the intruding pilots declared to Taiwanese defenders on the radio that “there is no median line in the Taiwan Strait." Beijing’s intrusions coincided with and were certainly a reaction to a US state department official’s visit to Taipei. As an intimidatory tactic, China’s move is highly risky. One miscalculation by a pilot or an air defence operator could spark a conflict that could well draw in the United States and its allies into a bigger war.

The Taiwan Strait, followed by the South China Sea, constitute the two biggest flashpoints in the world today. That Xi Jinping’s regime is prepared to take such risks at this time indicates where Beijing’s political priorities and military preparations lie. Preoccupied as we are with the Himalayan theatre, it is important that India’s strategic community pays greater attention to the Taiwan Strait as we search for a way to deal with China in the coming months and years. It is not in our interest—to paraphrase Napoleon—to distract an adversary heading towards a big mistake.

That Beijing has its eyes on Taiwan after stamping its authority on Hong Kong is not a surprise.

The leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, have been clear in word and deed that their main foreign policy goal is to retake Taiwan. Great nations tend to have enduring objectives. Only the means of pursuing them change over time and according to circumstances. As Xi Jinping put it in January 2019, “The country is growing strong, the nation is rejuvenating and unification between the two sides of the strait is the great trend of history." Even so, Beijing’s desire and determination have to contend not only with those of the people of Taiwan, but also with the balance of power.

Unfortunately for Beijing, just as it is acquiring the military power to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan, the will of the Taiwanese people is shifting decisively towards formal independence. While Beijing might well have acquired the capability to successfully land troops in Taiwan and also keep US forces at bay, its military hardware will be ineffective against a population 67% of which identifies itself as “Taiwanese" and not “Chinese". This number was a mere 17.6% in 1992, when the National Chengchi University first conducted this survey. This explains why an independence-minded Tsai Ing-wen won Taiwan’s presidential election this year, defeating the pro-reunification Koumintang’s candidate by a landslide. As BBC’s John Sudworth writes, “Had the Communist Party not turned up the pressure on Taiwan, had its approach to the crisis in Hong Kong been subtler, the path to victory for a candidate it wanted so much to thwart may have been much less certain."

The military balance might have shifted towards Beijing, but it is by no means certain that the People’s Liberation Army can sufficiently overpower Taiwanese defences. That’s not counting a potential intervention by US forces on the latter’s behalf. And even if the People’s Liberation Army manages to land troops on the island, it will be hard pressed to hold a population of 23 million—over a million of whom have military training—against its wishes. It is one thing for Beijing to strong-arm Hong Kongers, Uyghurs and Tibetans into submission. It is quite another to attempt this in Taiwan, which is politically, culturally, geographically and militarily a very different story. Demographic trends are turning Taiwanese opinion further away from “unification" in any form. For this reason, it is entirely possible that hubris, calculation and domestic political expediency will cause Xi to risk a forced re-unification now rather than later.

Beijing might calculate that its accumulation of missiles, fighter aircraft, submarines and surface combatants will deter Washington from joining the conflict in Taiwan’s favour. Yes, an invasion of Taiwan will be messy and bloody today, but even messier and bloodier tomorrow. China’s leaders could well start a war if they see their grand historic objectives permanently slipping away. This is not a hypothesis. They have said so for decades.

All that is needed for war to break out is a trigger, which Beijing can put in Taiwanese hands by carrying out aggressive sorties across the Strait, forcing the other side onto a state of high alert. Some analysts argue that the US can deter such a war if it were to shed “strategic ambiguity" and declare it will defend Taiwan if China invades. However, such a move on Washington’s part could itself prompt the war it seeks to avoid. In any event, it is quite likely that a military conflict will not end in a way that Beijing would like, but that does not mean China’s leaders will not start one. As I have previously argued in these pages, the strategic acumen of the men in Beijing has been consistently overrated.

Seen from a narrow perspective of self-interest, New Delhi should not distract China from getting into an energy-sapping quagmire over Taiwan. Border negotiations with Beijing are likely to be in a very different mood if conducted at a time when Chinese forces and economic resources are tied down in the East. It may be a good idea to heed Napoleon’s famous dictum.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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