Will China invade Taiwan? I very much doubt it, and below are the various reasons this longtime China-Watcher comes to this hopeful conclusion.
Taiwan has the Korean War to thank for not having been invaded by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army in the early 1950s when Mao was chasing Chiang Kai-shek out of Mainland China. Mao had invasion plans in place when the “Korean Police Action” interrupted, and the US came to Taiwan’s aid as Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.
Ever since there have been many who are convinced the mainland government will go to war to bring Taiwan to heel and fold what they call a Province of China back into the control of the Chinese Communist Party. I’m not one of them.
When I arrived in Shantou, China (Northern Guangdong Province) to teach journalism at Shantou University in 2003, three quarters of my new academic colleagues and most of my students were convinced that war with Taiwan was imminent. It was a time when tensions were high between the Communist Party and the independence movement in Taiwan. News reports around the world had ramped up war talk and tension in China and the US. Yet it had been 50 years since the Chinese had lobbed artillery shells at the Quemoy and the Matsu islands that both sides claimed.
Whatever happened to Quemoy and Matsu, those remote but important little islands in the Kennedy-Nixon debates?
Matsu is a small island collection. Quemoy, now known as Kinmen, is an archipelago of 36 islands that were in dispute between China and Taiwan in the late ‘40s to the 1960s. The dispute got hot. Chiang Kai-shek sent 50,000 troops to defend the islands. The Chinese lobbed shells from the mainland regularly on the sparsely populated islands. It turned out to be mostly useful artillery practice rather than the precursor to an invasion. The Communist Chinese didn’t have the infrastructure for an invasion from the sea.
The islands made headlines in the USA during the Kennedy-Nixon debate. JFK took a nuanced diplomatic tack while Nixon was breathing fire, threatening action and issuing dire warnings that would have shaken his mentor Dwight Eisenhower, who had converted to war avoidance.
The history of Taiwan goes back to indigenous people who settled the island 6,000 years ago. In the 17th century, large-scale Han Chinese immigration to western Taiwan began under a Dutch colony and continued under the Kingdom of Tungning. The tiny offshore islands were annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty of China and ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895. Chinese history is never a straight line and is usually clouded by temporary overlords and conquerors.
Why didn’t the modern Chinese Communists invade and take the islands that were theirs by geographic and historical logic? After all, Quemoy and Matsu are 100 miles west of Taiwan and just off the Chinese shore. One reason for restraint was the exhaustion of the People’s Liberation Army after Mao chased Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland. The PRC’s navy barely existed, being mostly a collection of small coastal craft.
What about the strategic value of some of the rocks in the South China Sea that China now treasures as her strategic territory? That strategy simply was not in play in 1949, the founding year of the modern Chinese Communist Party. China correctly calculated that while Chiang Kai-shek could defend his new island home of Taiwan, he and his small army had just escaped the mainland and were in no position to return and fight an all-out islands-war over real estate with little value.
The moral of the story is true of so much Chinese foreign policy today: play the long game. Five thousand-plus years of history are a testament to Chinese patience at waiting out adversaries and in some cases friends as well.
My Shantou home for my journalism-teaching assignment is 440 km (275 miles) off the Southern Coast of Taiwan. If there were a shooting war, Shantou’s contribution would be a squadron of j-10 Chinese-built fighter planes (probably upgraded by now) that could be over Taiwan in 5 minutes.
One irony of China’s military buildup at home and on the tiny islands and rock outcroppings far from her shores, is that the Kinmen archipelago remains the smallest Province of Taiwan, a hop, skip, and jump off the Chinese mainland. The province is a tourist destination for the citizens of both China and Taiwan.
The case for current tensions leading to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is based on what to date has been aggressive talk. Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, insists that Taiwan is historically one of China’s 23 Provinces. Depending on who is counting and what you consider a Province, China has as many as 29 Provinces, and even that figure can be disputed. Beijing and Shanghai are both mega cities, but they are also considered provinces. Taiwan remains an independent something or other — a nation to some, an independent entity to others, a province of China, but at best hard to define.
Ten years on mainland China taught me that “Size Matters.” The scale of China begins with its 1.4 billion population. The seven largest cities alone have a total population of 250 million. Shanghai is number one at 25 million. Taiwan’s population is 23 million, smaller than Shanghai, slightly larger than Beijing. Taipei is Taiwan’s only “China-size” city at 7 million; the next two Taiwanese cities are around 1 million each and drop down to what are by mainland standards towns (100,000) and villages (20-30,000)
Military comparison emphasizes this unequal match, relating to size. China has 2.2 million men and women in uniform (down from a high of 8 million during the Korean Police Action) and 8 million reserves. Taiwan has 290,000 men and women in uniform and 2.8 million reserves. The likelihood of a traditional ground war is remote. And such a war would not be like the human waves of Chinese foot soldiers who swarmed US troops forcing a retreat from the North Korean border.
On the ground China outguns, outtanks, outartilleries and outrockets Taiwan by 32,500 to 5,200. The Chinese air force has 4,630 aircraft vs 814 planes in the Taiwanese Air Force. The fighter aircraft imbalance is 10 to 1.
A war would likely be over quickly, but there are many questions about how the Chinese Communist Party would fare as an occupying army on an island with a different level of social and political freedom. Then there is the question of the American response to an invasion. The US does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and adheres to its Post WW II “one-China policy” that recognizes the Chinese Communist Party’s sovereignty over mainland China. The US does not have a mutual security military treaty with Taiwan, as it does with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
U.S. policy has been to emphasize that it would not “accept” a military attack on Taiwan from the mainland. There is no definition of “accept.” Taiwan itself has never shown signs that it counts on the US as anything more than its supplier of military hardware and moral support.
The US Navy finds war talk useful as a lobbying tool for more ships against China’s 500-ship Navy. Important to note: the Chinese Navy has had no dedicated landing craft that qualify for an invasion force.
In addition, the economic argument against aggression from the mainland is strong. The two countries are economically integrated, and 10 percent of Taiwan’s population lives or works on the mainland. Two-plus million Taiwanese do business in and with China, and the mainland takes 30-plus percent of Taiwan’s exports, making China Taiwan’s largest export market.
Foxconn is a giant Taiwanese company that makes BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Kindle, Nintendo 3DS, Nokia devices, Xiaomi devices, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and the TR4 CPU socket on some motherboards. Keep in mind that Foxconn has most of its manufacturing facilities in China and employs more than 1 million mainlanders in its factories. Another 3,000 Taiwanese companies manufacture and do business in China.
And consider another economic factor: tourism. The decline in tourism has hit Taiwan hard, as it has hurt elsewhere because of the pandemic. Also, China has weaponized tourism from the mainland to Taiwan to discourage those who promote independence for the island. Despite all that, mainlanders who holiday in Taiwan and visit relatives increased by 0.5% this last pandemic year. Most countries have seen double-digit percentage drops in tourism. Fully 25 percent of the 11 million tourists who visit Taiwan come from the mainland.
Now let’s look at geography, which is another reason to doubt a Chinese attack on Taiwan. What do Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan have in common? They are all self-governing states and they all border on China.
Remember the mantra that “Size Matters”? China’s land border is 13,743 miles, the longest land border in the world, by far. (Second place is Canada’s, 5,500 miles.) Over the centuries, China has border disputes with most of her neighbors; notably India where there is what seems to be a permanent border dispute. The India/China border disputes occasionally flare into cross-border shooting, but hardly qualify as warfare.
Yet Chinese battles with her neighbors are rare. China enmeshed itself in a confusing Indo-Chinese War in the late ‘70s in a failed effort to bolster its Communist Khmer Rouge allies in Cambodia. The Vietnamese and the Chinese both declared victory, and the Chinese retreated from a small section of Vietnam.
China has had thousands of years of management by warlords, emperors, and kings, and that history is still taught Chinese style (favorably, no matter the real outcome). Modern Chinese schooling emphasizes the economic benefits China brings to her neighbors and countries around the world. The only demons are those who interfere or threaten China’s real and perceived sovereignty or meddle in what China deems domestic affairs. True, the years of colonial rule and subservience still rankle to the Chinese Communist Party. The Party regularly reaches into the history books to remind former colonial powers of their mistreatment of China.
Unlike the Soviet Union whose Marxist/Leninist faith was an ideology made for export and conversion of the world beyond its borders, the Chinese Communist Party does not seek land or converts, though it considers its brand of governance superior to all others. The Party is convinced its amalgam of Communism/Socialism/China is the most successful politico/economic/social system in the world.
To buttress these points, the Party points to recent history. Modern China was founded in 1949 at a time when China was a country on its knees. It had experienced 20-40 million deaths by starvation, an occupation by Japan before and during WW II, and a civil war. Today China is the second largest economy in the world and has the largest middle class (larger than the U.S. population) consisting of 300-400 million people who have been taken out of poverty. None of this has required a war or outward expansion.
Taking all these factors together, it is hard to see how a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan could be an advantage for China’s leaders. Taiwan’s economic presence in China is hardly a strong case for the equivalent of going to war with your banker.
One Chinese proverb underlines my prognosis of strategic restraint by China: “Patience is power; with time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”