The coming battle for Taiwan

Taiwan Navy ships are seen at the port in Keelung, Taiwan August 6, 2022 (Photo: Reuters)
Taiwan Navy ships are seen at the port in Keelung, Taiwan August 6, 2022 (Photo: Reuters)


Taiwan’s commitment and capability to resist a takeover by China matters for New Delhi’s interests

A very good way to get a handle on the geopolitical developments in the Indo Pacific—and the current Taiwan crisis—is to pay attention to what the Communist Party of China’s leaders have been declaring for decades. They want to reunify the country both to recover from two centuries of humiliation by Western powers and to finish the civil war that started nearly a hundred years ago. China will then retake its rightful place as a global power. Presumably, this will be within an international order where it is the peerless Middle Kingdom surrounded by tributaries whose fortunes depend on Beijing’s goodwill.

After the turmoil of the Mao era, the first act of this script was played out when the West allowed itself to be duped into believing that once China becomes richer, it will be more democratic, and even if it does not, it will cooperate with the West in preserving the liberal international order. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide and bide’ strategy and Hu Jintao’s ‘peaceful rise’ cleverly played to Western and East Asian fantasies, but by 2010 Beijing assessed that it was powerful enough to move to the next stage.

The second act involved forcefully taking control of disputed territories, both land and sea, on its own terms. This explains why China has simultaneously antagonized every one of its neighbours over the past decade. Beijing has used coercion and force to change the status quo along the Ryukyus, Spratlys, Paracels, the nine dashed line in the South China Sea and, of course, the Himalayan frontiers with Bhutan, Nepal and India. It has been largely successful, and the only forceful resistance it has encountered is from India. Xinjiang and Tibet have been ruthlessly subdued.

By 2020, Beijing launched the third act. Hong Kong was ‘reunited’ by destroying the limited autonomy that it enjoyed and the “one country, two systems" formula was junked. Since Macao had already been taken, the only remaining target is Taiwan. Nancy Pelosi’s visit might have triggered events prematurely, but Xi Jinping’s regime has been shouting off the rooftops that it seeks to bring Taiwan back into the embrace of the motherland. Xi wasn’t outlining an aspiration. He was stating his government’s policy goal. Even before the current crisis, the People’s Liberation Army’s actions against Taiwan have been increasingly belligerent.

What’s the final act? When a reunified China challenges and upstages the US as the world’s dominant power. This will take decades, but this is the course Beijing has set. And why not? It is entirely legitimate for China to seek to be a superpower and shape the world according to its tastes.

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Legitimacy is one thing. Desirability is entirely another. Those of us who believe in individual liberty, fundamental rights, democracy and free markets will be opposed to the rise of an authoritarian power. But it’s not values alone. Those of us who have national aspirations of our own will not desire such an outcome. That is why the late K. Subrahmanyam pithily stated that India is better off on the side of the West in its contest with China.

Two things can spoil the show. Internal folly and external resistance. Great nations suffer more from self-inflicted wounds than anything their enemies can throw at them. One century of civil war and revolutionary excesses have humiliated China more than what the European colonists managed in two. Xi’s attacks on the private sector, the tech economy and the current zero-covid policy, not to mention the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative boondoggle, have damaged China’s economy.

What about external resistance? India’s resistance has added friction to the juggernaut, as in the case of BRI, if not physically halted it in the Himalayas. A countervailing coalition has emerged in the form of the Quad, with AUKUS being a sharp edge. Nancy Pelosi’s visit is a manifestation of a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Beijing must be challenged.

From a narrow perspective, Taiwan is not a major strategic concern for India. However, because it is the single most important factor that can consume Beijing’s energies and delay its play for global power, it is in our interests for Taiwan to keep China occupied. To that extent, our interests converge with those of the US, Japan, Australia and the Taiwanese people.

While our Quad partners can extend material support, India’s moral support for Taiwan can be very important. For if it comes to war, it is the will of the Taiwanese people more than the military balance that will frustrate Beijing’s designs. The Ukrainians have shown us that.

Will it come to war? If we go by what China’s leaders have been saying, the answer is yes. It is a matter of time. Good diplomacy involves buying time. And good strategy involves using that time to be in the best possible position for when it happens. The current drills are limited to Taiwan with a small but intentional penumbra over Japan.

A real invasion might begin with pre-emptive attacks against US military assets. This prospect is sobering for everyone, certainly for Beijing and Washington. It is in our interests for that sobriety to endure for as long as it can.

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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