China’s brazen and unprecedented despatch of dozens of fighter aircraft and bombers beyond the median line in the Taiwan Straits for two consecutive days this week has escalated tensions in the region. This is in addition to nearly 3,000 sorties the Chinese air force has flown since last year as signals to Taiwan and the US. Not only the lives of Taiwan’s 27 million residents but also regional trade, investments, the computer hardware industry, shipping and insurance sectors are threatened by such moves, with global consequences.
China has adopted military and coercive diplomatic, political, economic and other measures to subjugate Taiwan over the last seven decades in vain. “Liberating Taiwan” is its avowed goal, though Taiwan dropped its “march on the Mainland” strategy in 1986 and began democratising in the 1990s.
China launched missiles into Taiwan to silence the island’s quest for democracy and independence in 1995, but the move boomeranged. China then tried selling the idea of “one country, two systems,” but with Beijing’s betrayal of Hong Kong over this promise, the Taiwanese are unlikely to be convinced.
At the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017, China began to firm up the so-called “six nos” on Taiwan – to not allow “anyone, any organisation, any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.” Beijing also vowed to “maintain sufficient ability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence.”
As China raises nationalist rhetoric at home in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in July, calls for military subjugation of Taiwan have grown. In the event of a military conflict, China has several options – an overall invasion of the island, amphibious operations across the 180 nautical-miles divide, a submarine blockade, aerial bombings, and saturation missile strikes on airfields and key command and control centres in Taiwan.
China’s analysts draw parallels to the Russian annexation of the Crimea to advance the idea of capturing Taiwan-controlled offshore islands like Pratas or Jinmen (or, against India, the occupation of Pangong Tso or Depsang Plains). However, they do so ignoring the huge human, financial, diplomatic and military costs that Taiwan can impose on China in such an eventuality, with severe consequences for China’s rise. For today, though Taiwan is no match for China in conventional and nuclear strength, Taipei nonetheless has highly modernised and professional armed forces.
While China consolidated its nationalist flock together on the Taiwan question, the islanders intensified their democratic experiment and built up opposition to China’s military forays. Last month, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu admitted that the island is bracing for a conflict across the straits.
Gauging that the cross-straits strategic balance had shifted in favour of China, the Trump administration initiated a $5.1 billion arms sale to Taiwan, US naval forces sailed through the straits and conducted coast guard working group meetings with Taiwan, and despatched two top officials to Taipei – the first official contacts between the US and Taiwan since the 1970s when the US acquiesced to Beijing’s demand that it follow a ‘One China’ policy. The US also despatched vaccines to Taiwan by its air force C-17 transports, in addition to sending a congressional delegation earlier this month. Taiwan has also taunted Beijing by welcoming Japan’s timely and critical assistance in supplying Covid-19 vaccines to Taipei after China had managed to bar Taiwan from the global health supply chain and the WHO. Each of these US and Taiwanese actions have been met by increasingly forceful reactions from Beijing.
Given the grave situation across the Taiwan Straits, the G-7 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have also voiced concerns, albeit mildly, about maintaining peace across the straits. The global chorus is expected to rise in the coming months and years, given the negative consequences of any conflict on the global markets.
While India has not made any comment or move on the emerging conflict in the Taiwan Straits, New Delhi is aghast at China’s encroachments across the disputed territories in the Ladakh sector of the India-China Line of Actual Control and Beijing’s recent penchant for interfering on the Kashmir issue. Beijing has invested in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and had also sought to raise the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council. Thus, if China does not care to follow a ‘One India’ policy, should New Delhi continue to follow the ‘One China’ policy?