“From a US perspective, the concept of a major power rivalry with China has put this back on the agenda,” said Henry Boyd, a British-based defense analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The need to stand up to China is a strong enough motivator that failure to engage in this struggle would also be seen as a betrayal of US national interests.”
China claims Taiwan as its own, and controlling the island is an important part of Beijing’s political and military thinking. Leader Xi Jinping reiterated over the weekend that “the reunification of the nation must be achieved, and certainly will be achieved” — a goal made more realistic with massive improvements to China’s armed forces over the past two decades.
In response, the US has increased support for Taiwan and shifted its focus more broadly to the Indo-Pacific region. US State Department spokesman Ned Price stressed on Tuesday that US support for Taiwan is “rock solid” and said “we have also been very clear that we are committed to deepening our ties with Taiwan.”
Washington’s long-standing policy has been to provide Taiwan political and military support, without explicitly promising to defend it against a Chinese attack.
The two sides came perhaps closest to blows in 1996, when China, annoyed by what it saw as increasing U.S. support for Taiwan, decided to flex its muscles with exercises, including firing missiles into the waters. 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Taiwan. coast for Taiwan’s first popular presidential election.
The US responded with its own show of force, sending two aircraft carrier groups to the region. At the time, China had no aircraft carriers and few resources to threaten the American ships, and it withdrew.
Thrilled by the episode, China embarked on a massive overhaul of its military, and 25 years later, it has greatly improved its missile defenses that could easily recoil, and equipped or built its own aircraft carriers.
The US Department of Defense’s recent report to Congress noted that in 2000 it rated China’s armed forces as “a sizeable but mostly archaic army”, but today it rivals the US military in some areas, including shipbuilding to the point. where it now has the largest navy in the world.
Ship counting isn’t the best way to compare capabilities — the US Navy, for example, has 11 aircraft carriers with China’s — but in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, China could deploy nearly all of its naval forces, and also has land-based anti-shippers. ship missiles to add to the fray, said Boyd, a co-author of IISS’s annual assessment of the military balance sheet of the global armed forces.
“China’s concept of operations related to Taiwan is that if they can slow the US presence in combat, or limit the numbers they can stop in combat because we can keep their future assets at a certain level of risk, they can defeat the Taiwanese before the Americans show up with enough force to do something about it,” he said.
Taiwan’s own strategy is the mirror image: delaying China long enough for the US and its allies to show up forcefully. It has significant forces of its own and the advantage of fighting on its own turf. A recent policy paper also points to the need for asymmetric measures, such as rocket attacks on ammunition in mainland China or fuel depots.
According to the Taiwan Defense Department’s assessment of China’s capabilities, presented to parliament in August and obtained by The Associated Press, China is already able to close down Taiwan’s ports and airports, but currently does not have on transport and logistical support for large-scale joint landing operations. gets better by the day.
In a new strategic guidance policy last week, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro identified China as the “main” long-term challenge.
“For the first time in at least a generation, we have a strategic competitor who has naval capabilities to rival our own, and who wants to aggressively deploy its armed forces to challenge American principles, partnerships and prosperity,” the paper said.
Over National Day weekend early in the month, China sent a record 149 military planes southwest of Taiwan in assault group formations — in international airspace but in the island’s buffer zone, shaking Taiwan’s defenses.
On Monday, China announced that it had conducted beach landing and assault exercises in the mainland province, directly opposite Taiwan.
Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Taiwanese affairs office of the mainland government, justified the actions where necessary, saying on Wednesday they were instigated by “Taiwan independence forces” colluding with “external forces”.
“At every step, the Chinese are trying to change the status quo and normalize the situation by cutting salami,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, China Program Coordinator at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They know Taiwan can’t do something about it, and the danger is that there is the possibility of miscalculations or accidents.”
Taiwan and China split in 1949 during a civil war, with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fleeing to the island while Mao Zedong’s communists came to power.
In a 2019 defense white paper, Beijing said it advocates for “peaceful reunification of the country” — a phrase Xi repeated this weekend — but is also unequivocal in its goals.
“China must and will be reunited,” the newspaper said. “We promise not to refrain from using force and reserve the right to take all necessary measures.”
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, is calling for greater global support, writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that “if Taiwan fell, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the system of democratic alliances. .”
“Failing to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese,” she wrote. “It would topple a security architecture that has enabled peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.”
US law requires it to assist Taiwan in maintaining a defensive capability and to treat threats to the island as a matter of “serious concern.”
Washington recently acknowledged that US special forces are on the island for training, and it has stepped up multinational maneuvers in the region as part of a declared commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. They include an exercise involving 17 ships from six navies – the US, UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand – earlier this month off the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The so-called Quad group of nations — the US, Australia, India and Japan — concluded joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday, which Japan’s defense ministry said was committed to “supporting fundamental values such as democracy and rule of law.” of law.”
Washington also signed a deal last month in consultation with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which China says would “seriously harm regional peace and stability”.
“The Americans are trying to bring in the Allies on a united front,” Hoo said. “There is a growing internationalization of the Taiwanese issue.”
At this point, neither side’s armed forces feel fully prepared for a conflict over Taiwan, but ultimately it may not be their decision, Boyd said.
“It won’t be up to the military,” he said. “It will be up to the politicians.”