A change of opinion about China and Taiwan

Sunday, 7 August to Thursday, 11 August 2022

Chinese military exercises and encirclement of Taiwan

Sunday, 7 August 2022 was the day I changed my opinion about Taiwan and China. As recently as last Friday, I had a conversation with a Taiwanese businessman about the possibility that China could invade Taiwan. I mentioned that there are people who can explain in detail why such a military endeavour would fail.

After this week’s visit by the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and China’s live ammunition military exercise around the island, I realised that Taiwan only enjoys her de facto independence because China has not yet decided to formally incorporate Taiwan.

Barring the Chinese Communist Party losing its governing power over China or changing its dogma, Taiwan cannot do much to change her inevitable fate. China will eventually pull Taiwan into its sovereign territory, most likely without firing so much as a single missile.

The reason? The island has woefully inadequate resistance to encirclement and blockade. (That’s not to mention the power outage that left a third of Taiwan without power and Internet for almost an entire day in March because an employee forgot to do something before he turned on a switch. How hard would it be for a saboteur to do something similar in the future?)

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in America, reckons that the current Chinese military exercise, which includes more than sixty aircraft and fourteen warships surrounding the island, is indeed a pre-blockade demonstration. According to him, a full blockade would include threats to shoot down aircraft, the placement of sea mines in ports, and the deployment of air and naval forces in a full circle around Taiwan. He adds that this episode is the first opportunity for the Red Chinese Forces to prove to themselves and to Taiwan that they are indeed capable of enforcing a full blockade.

Then there are some other inconvenient facts: 1) According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Taiwan has oil reserves for about four and a half months, but only 12% of Taiwan’s energy is generated locally. About one-third of Taiwan’s electricity was generated by liquefied natural gas in 2021, which must be imported. If China blocks these imports, it could bring Taiwanese manufacturing to its knees within days. 2) Although Taiwan is almost self-sufficient in aquatic products, fruit, meat, vegetables, and eggs, it can meet only 35% of its population’s food needs. (The government did launch a program in the last few years to address this problem, though. The Borgen Project indicates that in 2018, Taiwan spent $4 billion importing agricultural products, but has since built up stocks of essential items sufficient for about 28 months.) 3) Thousands of other types of products are unloaded from cargo ships daily to stock store shelves – items such as clothing, shoes, cat litter, cooking oil, toothpaste, cheese, shampoo, baking soda, medicine, and a wide range of electronic devices and medical equipment. These products make life liveable and enjoyable for Taiwanese citizens and thousands of foreign residents. Life on the island will become increasingly uncomfortable if these products are no longer imported.

Bernhard Billmon writes in a recent article on Moon of Alabama, “China indeed has the capability to completely blockade Taiwan. As the whole area is also under cover of China’s land-based ballistic missiles and in reach of its airforce a blockade is easy to establish and hard to breach.” (My own emphasis) He further writes: “A total blockade of Taiwan would likely bring it to its knees within a few weeks or months. Time that could be used to defeat its air force, air defenses and missiles and prevent attacks from Taiwan on China’s continental assets. China does not have to invade the island. It just has to wait until it is invited to come in.” (Again, my own emphasis)

The New York Times quotes Bonny Lin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington as follows: “If a military exercise transitions to a blockade, when does it become clear that the exercise is now a blockade? Who should be the first to respond? Taiwan’s forces? The United States? It’s not clear.” According to the same article, Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Pacific Command reckons: “Instead of announcing a military blockade [the Chinese government] may instead announce an extended military exercise around Taiwan that closes or disrupts shipping routes for 30, 60, 90 days. This makes it less a military operation and more a form of legal warfare to justify an indirect blockade for a duration that Beijing can manipulate.”

One of the points that Taiwanese people often make in discussions about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself is that Taiwan might be defeated, but at great cost to China, given that Taiwanese missiles could hit at least one major city, such as Shanghai or Shenzhen, doing great damage to it before the Chinese Red Army silences the weapons.

But will Taiwan start firing her missiles ending thousands of lives on the Chinese mainland because she is surrounded by the Chinese navy? It’s highly unlikely. If it does happen, China will have no problem convincing the world that they had no alternative other than a military response.

Will America or Japan send their warships to force the Chinese navy to end the blockade? Again: A low probability of this happening.

A few weeks or a few months of dwindling gasoline and food supplies will bring hundreds of thousands of people in Taiwan to the streets to force the government to start negotiations. Remember: Between ten and fifteen percent of Taiwan’s population supports unification with China. After a few weeks of empty store shelves, I have no doubt that that number will be a few notches higher.

Despite the fact that encirclement and blockade will cause problems for the population in the short term and will lead to problems in the international supply chain of computer parts, the Taiwanese economy will not be harmed in the long term. I reckon (off the cuff, no data to back it up) that Taiwan will be back to 100% two years after the blockade ends. This undermines another argument that people make about why China will not launch any aggressive actions.

I believe that a large majority of Taiwan’s population is willing to fight for the preservation of the status quo, or for de facto independence. As a long-term resident of Taiwan who is grateful for the home the island and her people have provided me, I also hope that the island and her people will continue to manage their own affairs as they see fit, as they have proven over decades that they are fully capable of doing so, and that they deserve it as much as the people of Japan or South Korea or any other country in the world.

But we live in a world with certain realities. One of these realities is that the Chinese Communist Party believes Taiwan belongs to China, and that they have the right to formally incorporate Taiwan into Chinese territory whenever and however they see fit. Until recently, I thought it meant Chinese soldiers on Taiwanese beaches, and thousands of missiles raining down on Kaohsiung and Taipei and other cities.

The past week has proven that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan need not be nearly as violent. Which makes the likelihood of that happening uncomfortably high.

To summarise:

1. Advocates for Taiwanese independence can make good historical and legal arguments why Taiwan is none of China’s business. More important than their arguments: The Chinese Communist government doesn’t care. It is part of Communist Party dogma that Taiwan is part of China. End of story. Microphones turned off. Debate is over.

2. China can start to take over one small island under Taiwan’s control after another and justify it as part of a new strategy to defend China against “enemies of the Motherland”. After that, they can surround Taiwan for months at a time and call it military and naval exercises. No one to be taken seriously doubts that they have the military capacity, the economic capabilities, and the political will to do so.

3. Taiwan can defend itself against an invasion where Chinese troops storm the beaches, and where the Chinese air force rains bombs on Taiwanese cities. But how does Taiwan defend itself against a salami technique where China takes one small island after another with overwhelming force, and then surrounds the island with perhaps three dozen warships and a thousand missiles on the Chinese coast to protect the ships? How long will Taiwan be able to hold out? How long before raging Taiwanese hunger forces the government to negotiate with Beijing?

Any solutions?

Who am I? A fellow at some international think tank, or a senior academic at a renowned university? No, and no. Nevertheless …

Taiwan has spent a fortune in the last few decades on weaponry in the hope that they can do something when Chinese troops storm the beaches on Taiwan’s west and north coasts. There are the high-accuracy missiles that could wipe Shanghai and maybe one or two other Chinese cities off the map. (Let’s ignore for the moment what Chinese propagandists and an all-too-willing Western media will do with video clips of burning children in the rubble of a crushed apartment building in Shanghai. Not to mention cries of revenge among the Chinese population.) There are also ultra-modern warships, military drones, and brand-new F-16 fighter jets.

What value will this advanced military equipment have if Taiwan is encircled for months in extensive “military exercises”? Are all these fighter jets and warships and drones and missile systems going to convince international airlines not to cancel flights to Taipei? Will it convince shipping companies to take a chance to try and break through the blockade to deliver toilet paper and cat food and baking powder and olive oil?

The problem is that Taiwan, and the US government pushing the Taiwanese government to spend billions of dollars with US arms manufacturers, are preparing for a battle that will probably never be fought. Why would China risk thousands of Chinese troops, billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry, and possibly a few Chinese cities if they can succeed in their decades-long goal with blockades, encirclement, and the sabotage of infrastructure? Then the Chinese Red Army is also guilty of what the deputy head of the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence’s Political Warfare Bureau calls, “cognitive warfare, disinformation campaigns, and rumor spreading”, as well as “‘fake news’ or misinformation, mostly seeking to lower public trust in Taiwan’s government, [to] undermine public morale and build momentum for unification by force”.

Aljazeera reports that Taiwan has a defence budget of more than $20 billion for 2022. What percentage of this budget is allocated to the development of more agricultural land for food production? How much has been budgeted to teach city dwellers to plant vegetable gardens on the roofs of thousands of apartment buildings? How much money is spent on protecting infrastructure from sabotage? (Remember again: in March, a third of the island was without power and large parts without Internet for most of the day because someone made a mistake with a switch.) How much money is spent combatting cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns and other cognitive warfare?

The fact is, Taiwan is a David spending billions of dollars on a highly advanced slingshot with a pile of explosive stones in preparation for a fight against a Goliath who is not stupid, and who probably won’t do what David wants him to do so that he can sling a stone into his forehead. What will David do if Goliath unleashes dozens of wild dogs that surround him and cut him off from his food supply and other resources? What will David do when he has swallowed his last crumbs of bread with the last drops of water in his sachet? And Goliath still refuses to come closer so that David can hit him on the head with a stone as the story is supposed to go?

If Taiwan wants to continue to exist as an independent state in practice, they will have to start spending those billions of dollars much better than just filling the pockets of American arms manufacturers.

Afterthought: Thursday 22 September 2022

Taiwan has three options:

1) Declare independence, wait for China’s response, and hope for the best.

2) Contact Beijing and say: “Enough is enough. Let’s work out the technicalities of reunification.”

And 3) Adhere to strict status quo, meaning Beijing does not interfere, but Taiwan makes no declarations of independence nor does anything beyond practical arrangements, such as maintaining trade offices/embassies, to disturb the status quo – this includes no high-profile visits from American politicians.

As it is now, the Tsai Ing-wen administration is walking on the edge of formal independence, and if China protests, the Taiwan government accuses Beijing of violating the precarious peace.