Authors: Dr. Karamala Areesh Kumar and Lalitha. S*
Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), is an island in East Asia. The status of Taiwan is complex because China (PRC) considers Taiwan a break-away province while Taiwan has a democratically elected government. Taiwan has a complicated political status because while Taiwan views itself as a distinct entity from mainland China, the People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a part of it and reunification is a priority including for the current President Xi Jinping who hasn’t ruled out military action to achieve reunification. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has put the spotlight on a possible invasion of Taiwan by China. But Taiwan isn’t Ukraine and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is much more complicated than the Russian conflict with Ukraine.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been high ever since the election of Tsai Ing-wen and her party Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016. The DPP has explicitly refused to accept the 1992 consensus (a compromise on cross-strait relations between PRC and Kuomintang). The Kuomintang (KMT), the nationalist party of China, doesn’t recognise Taiwanese independence but instead calls for closer ties with Beijing. This stance has created intricate conditions in Taiwan. The latest identity polling conducted by the Election study centre of National Chengchi University shows a record 63.7% of people in Taiwan identify as ‘Taiwanese’ only while only a low 2.4% identify as sole ‘Chinese’. The people hold unfavourable views on the Chinese Communist Party and its crackdown on the rights of the people including the situation in Hong Kong.
Joanne Ou, Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokesperson said in a press meeting, “The People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan and naturally has no right to represent the people of Taiwan in the international community, that neither side of the strait is subordinate to the other is a historical fact recognized by the international community. It is also the longstanding status quo across the Taiwan Strait.”
The tensions across the Taiwan Strait reached a tipping point after the visit of President Tsai to the U.S. and her meeting with the US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is the third highest-ranking official. After the meeting, McCarthy said, “The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world and it is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability”. After the meeting of Nancy Pelosi and Tsai in Taipei, the meeting with Kevin McCarthy has pushed the tensions over the edge with Beijing threatening retaliation expressing firm opposition to the visit. China conducted military drills around the island with warships and aircraft which was very much a retaliation for the meeting. The Chinese foreign ministry in a press conference said that “China will take resolute and effective measures to safeguard national sovereignty”. All these tensions have caused speculations of a war between China and Taiwan and the US involvement in a direct military confrontation against Beijing if China decides to pursue military actions against Taiwan.
While it would be unwise to ignore the provocations by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is sparse. A war with Taiwan is not in the interest of Beijing or any other country for that matter. Taiwan is a major technological power including the crucial industry of semiconductors. Taiwan dominates the global market in the production of microchips are used virtually in all electrical and electronic devices. Taiwan semiconductor manufacturing company (TSMC) has made Taiwan an indomitable technological powerhouse supplying about 92% of the world’s microchips. This chip industry of Taiwan kind of protects Taiwan from any kind of military invasion by China. The idea of a ‘Silicone Shield’ around Taiwan because of the global reliance on its semiconductors offers it additional protection as the global economy has every incentive to maintain the supply of these microchips. A study by the U.S. State Department reported that any disruption to the supply of semiconductors would cause a loss of a massive $2.5 trillion to the global economy. The industry is intrinsically connected to Taiwan’s sovereignty and national security.
Another reason why China won’t invade Taiwan is its geography. An invasion of Taiwan, if it happens, will be an amphibious assault since it is an island. Amphibious invasions are much more complicated than a normal land invasions involving complex coordination of resources and personnel. Military superiority, elements of surprise and rapid reinforcements are crucial for a successful amphibious operation and an absence of even one element will lead to a botched invasion. The coastal shoreline of eastern Taiwan is dominated by 5 mountain ranges and the majority of the land is covered by dense forests providing natural barriers and making it difficult for an invasion. Unfavourable and unpredictable weather conditions like High tidal waves and typhoons considerably reduce the perfect timing to mount an amphibious invasion.
Thirdly, Taiwan is positioned in a geopolitical and strategic location called the ‘First island chain’ in the Pacific extending from Japan to Indonesia. The island chain is an important part of the US military’s force projection in the east. If China were to invade and occupy Taiwan and put PLA troops on the island, it poses an existential threat to Japan, an important ally of the United States. On the other hand, the US has agreed to defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks unprovoked, which may lead to a direct military confrontation between 2 superpowers. There are also international alliances like the QUAD and AUKUS that are acting to counterbalance China. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, “Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are critical not only for Japan’s security but also for the stability of international society”. The position of India when it comes to Taiwan is unclear even when New Delhi has criticised China for militarisation of the Taiwan Strait. In 2014, EAM Sushma Swaraj said “When they raised with us the issue of Tibet and Taiwan, they should understand and appreciate our sensitivities regarding Arunachal Pradesh. Without China accepting India’s claim, India will not accept China’s claim”. After the border skirmish and longstanding tensions including China renaming cities in Arunachal Pradesh, India may have re-evaluated its position regarding Taiwan in the sense it may not militarily defend the island but may create a climate that makes it harder for Beijing to forcibly take Taiwan. Xi Jinping will be aware of the solidarity the West has shown to Ukraine and China will not risk all major powers coming together in defence of Taiwan.
Finally, China is heavily integrated with the global economy. China has multiple investments and trade projects across the world. It has a trade surplus with almost all the countries it trades with. While it can be an advantage to Beijing, it can also be a massive disadvantage. If Beijing is sanctioned it would disrupt the supply chains and negatively impact the global economy. China would be politically isolated and economically damaged.
An invasion of Taiwan is not worth the risk to Beijing. It would be wise for China not to underestimate the will of the Taiwanese people to defend their territory. A recent poll by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy shows that 72.5% of Taiwanese are willing to fight for the island if China tries forceful unification. As long as Taiwan doesn’t openly declare independence, China will not risk military action in Taiwan. The cost of invasion is not just high, it is not in China’s interest or the preferred method of reunification. In a meeting with Biden regarding Taiwan, President Xi said “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts”. A poll by National Chengchi University suggests a majority of Taiwanese citizens want to maintain the status quo with China. Altering the status quo for political motives is not in China’s interest. Thus, maybe Taiwan is that scenario where doing nothing is the best option. The world is keeping a keen eye on Taiwan, watching the events unfold.
*Lalitha. S, Research Scholar, Central University of Kerala-671316, Email: lalithas1802[at]gmail.com.