Sabre rattling or inevitable conclusion?

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen wave during a meeting Wednesday in Taipei. Taiwan Presidential Office via AP -
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen wave during a meeting Wednesday in Taipei. Taiwan Presidential Office via AP -

KEVAL MARIMUTHU

THE DECISION by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to visit the Republic of China (Taiwan) has evoked a rapid response from the People’s Republic of China (China), mere moments after the US Air Force jet carrying her landed in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

The People’s Liberation Army immediately launched a series of military training exercises around the maritime borders of Taiwan. Beijing has closed the airspace over Fujian, their province closest to Taiwan. Video evidence has emerged of columns of military vehicles moving on beaches in Fujian and the transportation of naval military equipment by trains.

The question to be asked is whether the landing of jet SPAR19 (the most tracked flight in history) will be the spark that lights the powder keg? Thrusting the world once more into the grips of global conflict, or whether these are just the toothless growls of a paper tiger, angered that the global hegemon has come knocking on its door?

The genesis of this conflict finds itself in the 1927 Chinese Civil War. The Republic of China's (ROC) leader was Chiang Kai-shek, whose party, the Kuomintang, had in 1928 controlled the majority of mainland China. The ROC eventually began losing ground to the Chinese Communist Party, a revolutionary group led by Mao Zedong.

In 1948, it became apparent that the ROC's defeat on mainland China was inescapable. President Kai-shek began planning the relocation of government, resources, cultural artefacts and military equipment to Taiwan. In October 1949, the Communist Party established control over mainland China and proclaimed the People's Republic of China (PRC).

In Taiwan, the Kuomintang continued its ROC government, declaring Taipei (the largest city in Taiwan) the temporary capital, with the intention of one day launching an invasion to retake the mainland.

The disparity between the economic and military capabilities of the PRC and ROC is staggering. Chinese GDP is estimated to be over US$14.7 trillion. Taiwanese GDP, while not paltry, is estimated at just over US$850 billion, only 1/17 of Chinese.

Militarily, Taiwanese standing armed forces are estimated to be in the region of 165,000. China boasts active military personnel of over two million. These statistics beg the question: why has China not taken its rogue province of Taiwan? It has the resources and manpower. What seems to be the issue?

The simple answer is that the PRC has tried and is still trying to reunify all of China. The main stumbling block to its ambitions is the US. The United States supported the ROC as part of its policy of communist containment in the post-WW2 era, and these ties still exist to this day.

In 1978, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act mandating the supply of defensive weapons to Taiwan. The US and ROC regularly conduct joint training exercises. The US is providing and has provided technical and military support to Taiwan, helping repel PRC attempts to take Taiwan and the surrounding islands in the 1950s and years subsequent.

What, now, is the difference between the China of yesteryear (unable to cross the straits of Taiwan) and China today? China has historically looked inward. Chinese dynasties looked down on the outside world, viewing it as inferior. The opium wars, beginning in 1839, were fought between China and Western powers and were the turning point. The loss and ceding of land in this conflict inflicted a devastating blow to the concept of Sinocentrism.

Now China is a world power, second only to the US, outward looking as it seeks to replace US influence and shake off the shackles of the century of humiliation. Its Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development plan meant to increase soft power with strategic nations, is the best showcase of this outward-looking foreign policy.

Soft power is nothing if you do not have the metal to back it up. The PRC has not lagged on this front. Three aircraft carriers (when at the start of the millennium none existed) are now available to support a Chinese crossing of the straits, but do these provide enough firepower?

Do the Chinese have the requisite logistics systems in place? The air forces to maintain superiority? The ability to quell armed Taiwanese resistance by a militarised local population? Are they willing to risk starting a hot war between two nuclear powers as President Biden has stated that the US will protect Taiwanese territorial integrity?

As the Tiger's rise continues, China is rightfully becoming more emboldened on the world stage. Its foreign minister warned against Speaker Pelosi's visit. Beijing has explicitly stated that it does not view this lightly and vowed military action in response. Are these statements similar to protestations made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against Western influence in the build-up to Moscow’s special military operation?

Beijing making another attempt at Chinese unification right now seems unlikely. If, however, the moment is right, or US support is in question, it may choose to strike. The PRC has not hesitated to use military force in the past.

Chinese-Indian skirmishes along their disputed border have claimed dozens of lives and shown Beijing’s increasing willingness to use hard power. Western powers must be increasingly on guard in the coming years. As Chinese regional dominance and global influence continue to grow, the propensity to use claws will increase.

The Tiger is biding its time and may soon roar. Is the West properly prepared to respond? That is unknown, but one thing is clear: China is gauging the Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with an intense gaze.

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"Sabre rattling or inevitable conclusion?"

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