Observations of an expat: Taiwan

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Hong Kong has taught the Chinese leadership that they can’t win the hearts and minds debate. One country, two systems, has not worked.  Neither will Beijing be able to buy support with their economic performance.

All of this raises questions about the future of Taiwan, and recent moves by Beijing are causing an increasing number of misgivings about the possibility of a peaceful solution to a problem as old as the People’s Republic.

Fears that the Chinese Communist Party is moving ever closer to a military solution have been fuelled by recent events. Last month 40 fighter jets from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a series of sorties over the sacrosanct median line that runs down the middle of the Taiwan Straits.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded with a call for tension-reduction talks with Beijing. China’s President Xi Jinping wasted no time in replying. The following day he rejected negotiations, issued a threat to invade Taiwan and released a video of training exercises simulating an invasion of the island.

So what would such an invasion look like and what are its chances of success? Well for a start, the Chinese forces are about five times the size of the Taiwanese military, and they are backed up with nuclear weapons.

But that is not the complete story. Two-thirds of Taiwan is mountains which are much easier to defend than open plains. On top of that, there are only a handful of beaches suitable for Chinese landing craft. If the PLA does successfully land it will face a determined military of 174,000 professional soldiers and a million reservists.  They—and the political hierarchy—will be ensconced in a bewildering labyrinth of mountain tunnels.

The PLA would win. But the price would be high. Which is why most military analysts believe that Beijing will go for the short, sharp knock-out blow. This would involve blanket bombing by the PLA air force and navy frigates as well as rocket artillery based 80 miles away on the Chinese mainland. Once the island has been reduced to a pile of rubble, PLA paratroopers will descend for the cleaning-up operation and occupation.

The position of the United States is another reason for a quick knock-out attack. The US does not have a formal alliance with Taiwan as it does with Japan and South Korea, but it does supply the island country with its military hardware and the close ties between Taipei and Washington date back to 1949. The Trump Administration has quietly provided Taiwan with more military equipment than previous US administrations.  After Beijing released its latest threats and bellicose video the White House despatched $1.8 billion worth of defence hardware.

A President Joe Biden would almost certainly do the same. American protection for Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support. Trump’s latest military injection required congressional approval. He secured it with minimum effort.

Whether or not bipartisan support would stand firm in the face of a Chinese invasion is unknown and untested. The Chinese certainly hope that they can establish a fait accompli before the United States has a chance to react.

America has the military might to shift the balance if the Taiwanese can hold out long enough. There are 54,000 US troops in nearby Okinawa; another 50,000 on mainland Japan; 24,000 in South Korea and 700 in the Philippines. The US Seventh Fleet has 50 ships with 200 aircraft and 20,000 naval and marine personnel. Long distance heavy bombers are based at Anderson Air Force Base a Guam.

But is Taiwan worth it? Is it worth the almost certain danger of all-out war with a nuclear-armed China? On the other hand, could American prestige survive a failure to act?



* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • During the time of the Vietnam war, the Americans would destroy the village in order to save it. Will mainland China destroy the island in order to save it? If Taiwan declares independence maybe. However, ROC Taiwan isn’t going to do that. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) is already a state even if it lacks international recognition.
    Could an armed conflict breakout by accident? Yes the danger remains.
    ROC Taiwan did make an attempt to build a nuclear bomb but the Americans heard about it and stopped it.

  • The easy answer would be no more trade with China but then you have to factor in how reliant we are on that trade. The second question is to what extent does China hold USA debt and could it bust a theoretically bankrupt USA, ruining the value of the much bloated dollar in the process. I doubt very much if Biden would do much though Trump would be happy donning a military uniform and playing with missiles. The really bad angle is that absolute power corrupts absolutely – long history of leaders with too much power going off their heads, China may head that way and logic will not work…

  • Yeovil Yokel 24th Oct '20 - 8:44am

    I doubt that China is planning to invade Taiwan in the foreseeable future – what would it have to gain at such considerable cost?

  • Steve Trevethan 24th Oct '20 - 9:18am

    Might it be better for us all if all nations restrained themselves from showing off with their military equipment?

  • John Marriott 24th Oct '20 - 9:57am

    I don’t know much about Taiwan, other than the fact that this was where Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces retreated after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists In 1949. That the island has prospered, despite the lack of international recognition is largely thanks to the USA and the mighty dollar.

    In some ways, it reminds me of Cuba, in the latter’s case, an island bolstered for years by soviet communist support and deemed a threat to its mighty neighbour in the north for many years, eventually abandoned and now having to come to terms with capitalism. In Taiwan’s case, all was well, while the Red Book ruled on the Chinese mainland; but now that China has developed its own version of capitalism, things don’t look so rosy.

    Just as the USA objected to Soviet influence on its doorstep (remember the 1961 Cuban missile crisis), why should it object to China getting worked up about surrogate US ‘influence’ on a nearby island which, as far as I can work out, always had an historic link to the mainland? As for going to war over a possible act of Chinese aggression, we have enough problems in the world without adding another one.

  • It is just as well that the Irish Republic is not as powerful as China or the Conservatives might be spending billions on defending Northern Ireland. I understand they are devoting a lot of time at the moment to plans for celebrating the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1922. Just like in Northern Ireland many Taiwanese would favour reunification with their big neighbour. Many native Taiwanese were killed by Chinese Nationalist troops under Chiang Kai shek in 1949. Things are not quite so straightforward as they seem. We should keep out of other people’s disputes.
    Think of the mess we created in Libya and other places such as the Middle East by constant ill informed meddling.

  • Paul Barker 24th Oct '20 - 1:20pm

    China is not a Nation State, its an Empire, looking to expand under its current Regime.
    The last Decade has seen The Chinese dictatorship build a network of Concentration Camps in the Uighur homelands, there have been Campaign of Forced Sterilisation & Torture. We may be seeing Genocide, we dont know.
    Its not just The UIghurs, Slave Labour is being used in Tibet.
    Under the current Dictatorship China has invaded India & Vietnam, come close to War with Russia & threatened most of its other Neighbours.

    Obviously The International Community has to try & contain China without open War but War has to be a last resort, the Chinese Dictatorship have to believe that “We” mean it.

  • nvelope21003
    Taiwan and Northern Ireland are very different places. Taiwan did have its Presbyterian missionaries and today has a very famous hospital founded by one of them- the Mackay Memorial Hospital.
    Note that various Communist Parties in Taiwan, set up since the democratic era started, received few votes.

  • The Han people are 91% of China’s population. The rest make up only a small proportion of the overall Chinese population, the 55 minority ethnic groups are distributed extensively throughout different regions of China.

  • nvelope2003 24th Oct '20 - 2:28pm

    Manfarang: I was not referring to the religious sentiments of the Taiwanese. We cannot get involved with every border dispute sad as that may be. Maybe if we had supported the Tibetans or the Uighers the position might be different. We did not do so because it did not suit our Governments at the time.
    Paul Barker:
    Our country is having a bad enough time with the virus. Imagine what would happen if we went to war. My grand parents and parents put up with 2 world wars taking up 10 years of their lives but maybe a few nuclear bombs would make it a lot quicker for the few who survived. We did not go to war with Stalin or any of the other monsters who spent their careers wrecking the lives of their people, presumably because it did not affect our vital interests, unlike Hitler who was threatening our position as a Great Power which we lost in the struggle. Now we have to rely on the support of Chancellor Merkel to get a deal with the EU now we are leaving it. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  • nvelope2003
    I would suggest you see ROC Taiwan for yourself when travel permits but take your chopsticks. Maybe your umbrella as it rains a lot there. As for Tibet, it was recognised by Britain as part of China in 1904 (the Treaty of Lhasa) India recognises Tibet as part of China.

  • David Evans 24th Oct '20 - 2:56pm

    Of course John Marriott, we could have said that in 1950 when Communist North Korea, supported by China and Russia invaded South Korea.

    All I can say is than god we didn’t, and I think you know why.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Oct '20 - 4:43pm

    Invading Taiwan would be to China for internal politics and so could happen during internal tensions especially economic ones. Other countries would probably hope it would be over before they were forced to decide what action to take. Would China be able to apply sanctions and embargoes as a softening up process? I suspect as China grows the risk increases.

  • John Marriott 24th Oct '20 - 5:34pm

    @David Evans
    Back in 1950 the world was a bit more of a straightforward place. We thought we knew who the enemy was. On these islands still had a marginal claim to be a world power, if not a superpower.

    That we got involved in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula was largely under the auspices of the United Nations. We then had a USA still firmly committed to being democracy’s policeman and defender. Until we know the result after 3 November, can that really be said any more?

  • Steve Trevethan 24th Oct '20 - 6:36pm

    According to Wiki, China has been involved in 20 armed conflicts since 1945 and the U. S. A. has been involved in 47.

  • David Evans 25th Oct '20 - 1:44am

    John, with its treatment of the Uighurs, its building of military bases in the South China Sea, its crackdown in Hong Kong, its use of its economic power to develop a new form of colonialism and even Tiananmen Square, it’s easy to know where the real enemy of worldwide liberal democracy is.

    And even though you preach circumspection, I’m sure you know that too.

  • David Evans 25th Oct '20 - 1:09am

    Steve Trevethan – Does your look at Wiki include the Uighurs, the invasion of French Indo China, the subjugation of Nepal, Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong in China’s score?

  • David Evans
    On August 20 1945, Chiang Kai-shek gave orders for the Chinese First Front Army, under the command of General Lu Han of Yunnan, to cross into Vietnam to accept the surrender of the Japanese 38th Army. The Chinese, unlike the British in the south, refused to prepare the way for an immediate French return; to maintain order in Hanoi and keep the city functioning, they allowed the Vietnamese Provisional Government to remain in control.

  • roger billins 25th Oct '20 - 7:53am

    Just as a matter of interest, the present governing party of Taiwan is a member of Liberal International.

  • Andrew Tampion 25th Oct '20 - 8:01am

    I find this article and some of the comments very puzzling.
    The first principle of liberal thought on international relations id self-determination. If the Taiwanese people want to reunify with Communist China then they should be allowed to do so by peaceful and democratic means. If they don’t then we should use diplomatic, economic and support, but not necessarily take part in, military action to defend their right to self-determination.
    As for a possible Chinese invasion it is not clear to me that China would win as Mr Arms asserts. An opposed landing is very risky. Consider the D-Day landings and the amount of resources devoted by the Western Allies to designing and building specialist landing craft and other equipment. Perhaps the Chinese have been doing the same in secret but if not then any attempt would almost certainly be a failure. Remember that before D-Day the allies had a practice run with invasion of Sicily and even then D-Day could have failed.
    The idea of a paratroop only invasion is ludicrous. First bombardments as proposed rarely succeed. The Germans could blitz us into submission in 1940 and the Allies could bomb Germany into submission in 1945. Also if the Taiwanese have tunnels and bunkers in the mountains then their army would hide in those then come out and shoot the paratroops as descended. Second, landing zones. One of the reasons the Arnham attack failed was because the British paratroops had to land several kilometres from the bridge they were attacking, giving the defenders time to prepare. Holland is flat: if Taiwan is mountainous then the problems would be even worse. Third paratroops are lightly armed. At Arnham the plan was for XXX Corp to relieve them with 48 hours. Chinese forces supporting their paratroops would have to cross the sea and possibly make an opposed landing.
    Then consider the consequences of failure. The CCP can’t be voted out but the loss of international prestige would be significant. Also internal rivals might seek to remove the leadership that had failed. Then a failed seaborne invasion would result in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of PLA corpses washing up all over southern China for months. A paratroop failure would result if hundreds of casualties and thousands of prisoners being captured. Difficult to hide.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Oct '20 - 8:16am

    Dear Mr. Evans,
    Thank you for your question.
    May I suggest that you do your research, as I have done, so that between us, we may get nearer to accuracy.
    “The person who proves me wrong is my friend.” (Socrates?)

  • The ancient text, ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu still influences Chinese military thinking.

  • David Evans 26th Oct '20 - 5:54pm

    Steve Trevethan,

    Thanks for the response. My research into this area has been focussed on the behaviour of Chinese governments (bellicose, foreign policy, internal repression, intimidatory and economic imperialism), not the exact number of historic armed conflicts the Chinese have been involved in, which you have done. I though it would be useful to add this into my understanding, but need to understand where any why you have confidence in the data you provide (although I am not sure what relevance figures on the US have).

    So I am afraid I can’t offer you any research other than my general awareness of the situation which is what I have put in my question. Hopefully you will be able to assess whether it improves the accuracy of your research and let me know.

  • David Evans 26th Oct '20 - 6:46pm

    Steve T – Whoops. Last sentence of first paragraph should read

    I thought it would be useful to add this into my understanding, but need to understand where and why you have confidence in the data you provide (although I am not sure what relevance figures on the US have).

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