Beijing and Taipei

(To Renato Scarfi)
16/04/22

Along with the aspects of the war in Ukraine, interest has returned to the situation in Taiwan, island claimed by China as a territory belonging to the People's Republic (RPC). Not that the two are formally related, but the decades-long dispute has returned to the attention of international observers since it influenced the position formally taken by Beijing in the UN General Assembly, where it abstained from the motion condemning the Russian aggression ( which does not mean approval), arguing (thinking of Taiwan) that the territorial integrity of a state must always be safeguarded.

The origins of the dispute

Taiwan has been a de facto (but not legally) independent and democratic nation since October 1, 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island following Mao Zedong's seizure of power. On this occasion, he took away the gold reserves and what remained of the Chinese Air Force and Navy from the country after the fierce battles fought for power between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party. The Communists of the PRC declared the Taiwanese nationalist government which, however, still today, it sees itself as the only legitimate government in China. In fact, in its constitution it claims sovereignty over mainland China and outer Mongolia. The capital de jure it is Nanjing, on the Chinese coast, while the provisional capital is Taipei.

The Republic of China (DRC), as Taiwan is formally known, consists of a group of islands which, in addition to the main one separated from mainland China by a 65 nm arm of sea at its narrowest point, about 185 nm long and with an average depth of 70 m, it also includes other islands and small archipelagos such as Penghu (Pescadores), Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu, geographically located much closer to the Chinese coasts. Taiwan is recognized by only 14 sovereign states in the worldi.

Until the 90s, Beijing could do nothing but launch empty threats against Taipei, not having the naval capacity to cross the strait with large expeditionary forces, in order to regain control of what is considered a "rebel" province . At the same time, Taiwan was known to be the militarily strongest side of the strait.

But why is Taiwan, beyond matters of principle, considered so important to Beijing?

The strategic importance of Taiwan

As is known, the island is located in an area that has been the scene of a complex for decades puzzle of territorial disputes that see the coastal countries (China, Japan, Vietnam. South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan itself) claiming invisible borders and the right to enjoy the treasures found there (that stretch of sea is very rich of oil, gas and of course fish). In addition, if the flag of the PRC were flying on the island, Beijing could declare its own EEZ of 200 nm, placing a mortgage on the significant marine and underwater resources present over a huge area.. And, as we have seen, EEZs not only have significant economic value, they also play a considerable geopolitical role (see article "Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power")

To this must be added the fact that for Beijing the area is also considered essential for its security and for the control of the very busy maritime communication lines of the South China Sea. The Chinese maritime / territorial claims, in fact, are based on the so-called "line of nine sections" which, in the shape of a "U", starts roughly from Taiwan and passes along the western coast of the Philippines, turning south towards the waters off the coast of Malaysia and then return northwards to the level of the Vietnamese peninsula, reaching the Chinese island of Hainan.

The area within this ideal line is dotted with islets, sandbanks and outcropping cliffs, mostly uninhabited which, as of 2013, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (People's Liberation Army Navy - PLAN) has decided to militarize in order to establish an advanced territory and extend its area of ​​economic and military influence on that very busy stretch of sea.

But Taiwan is also part of the first of the two lines with which the US has tried to contain Chinese expansion since 1950. Such are the "Island chains", the first of which connects the Korean peninsula, the southern waters of Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore. The second, further from the Chinese coasts, starts from Japan, passes through Guam and Palau, up to New Guinea.

Precisely because of its strategic importance, Beijing's attention (and pressure) towards Taipei is increasingly increasing. In this perspective, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine also provides food for thought for the possible Chinese military option. As the exiled Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, who has lived and worked in Europe since 2015, pointed out, "... The Ukrainian invasion is a prelude and an exercise in what China will do in Taiwan ..."ii.

However, given that the issue of China's reunification is a permanent point on China's political agenda, many observers are wondering whether Beijing, despite its imposing naval posture, has the actual capabilities to carry out a naval invasion of the island.

Air and naval operations

Not a simple answer. Although Beijing's military capabilities have grown a lot in recent years, both in quality and quantity, at the level of amphibious forces it does not seem that China has yet reached an operational level that can effectively conduct a landing in force on the isolates, also because it appears that exercises are rarely carried out with large numbers (essential to reach an acceptable degree of coordination).

For some time the PLAN has shown its willingness to acquire the skills necessary for the eventual "leap" from one bank to the other of the substantial military contingent necessary for the operation. The most delicate part of the operation should, in fact, be the crossing of the arm of the sea that separates the continent from the island. It is 65 nm (about 120 kilometers, ed), at its narrowest point, of relatively shallow water and, therefore, unsuitable for submarine navigation but perfect for mine warfare. However, due to the intense maritime traffic that passes through it, in peacetime it is not possible to proceed in advance with the laying of too large defensive minefields.

Before disembarking the large contingent, it seems to be 12 amphibious brigades, with a landing fleet that includes 3 LHD Type-075, 8 LPD Type-071 (photo) and 28 LST Type-072, therefore it is necessary to arrive at the landing points , overcoming the defensive barrier made up of 410 combat aircraft and 4 brigades equipped with surface-to-air missiles.

Not to mention that the Taipei fleet has a good capacity in the mine warfare sector and that, although certainly not the size of the Chinese one, it is sufficiently modern, with "Harpoon" anti-ship missiles, usable both from board and from coastal batteries. , whose reach allows to cover the whole area of ​​the strait.

The joint use of mines and missiles should theoretically make it possible to make the crossing of an aggressive naval force extremely dangerous (see article "The Chinese challenge to US naval power").

But the difficulties would not end with the crossing of the strait. Given the orographic conformation of the island, a possible landing should take place on its west coast, where the Chinese troops could be literally mired in the so-called "tidal flats"iii. The western Taiwanese coastal profile, the one facing the continent, also presents less than fifteen points favorable to amphibious operations and the local military engineers have now well strengthened the defenses in those points, which are also effectively defensible by the Taiwanese land forces, which amount to 13 brigades (including 4 battleships) on active duty and 31 reserve infantry brigades.

In Formosa (another name by which the island is known), in fact, seventy years have been preparing for the eventuality of a Chinese landing and the USA supported its independence also militarily in terms of training, supply of weapons and patrolling the strait, which Beijing regards as the Chinese territorial sea. With this in mind, US military units regularly cross it, in order to affirm the principle of freedom of navigation in those waters.

An article published in 2017 by the Singaporean newspaper "The Straits Times" also revealed that Taiwan would have acquired the ability to hit mainland China with missiles whose range would exceed 1500 km. Added to this is the news, published on 25 March 2021 in the "South China Morning Post" of Hong Kong, that Taiwan is equipping itself with long-range missiles which, in the event of a conflict, would have the ability to hit targets in the heart of the territory. Chineseiv.

With President Tsai Ing-wen, in office since 2016, the Taiwanese military defense apparatus has in fact invested millions of dollars in US military equipment. Kolas Yotaka, a spokesman for the president, recently stated that "... we have never stopped preparing for contingency operations, bearing in mind the principle of self-defense, not aggression ...".

However, given that the assessment of operational capabilities are never limited to military equipment only, but take on meaning in the specific operational framework, it should not be overlooked that a weakness of Taipei is represented by the centralized chain of command, which makes the instrument military vulnerable to any actions that isolate the departments from the general staffs. A vulnerability that could be mitigated through the prompt dispersal of one's forces and commands. This calls into question the information service, which must be able to readily decode the warning signs of a possible attack (eg minehunter activity).

In any case, what is dramatically happening in Ukraine these days offers significant food for thought to the Taiwanese leadership. The resistance of the Ukrainians has, in fact, surprised and inspired and revived the efforts to build a defense that is better suited to the specific territorial context.

As the fierce Ukrainian resistance is demonstrating, when defending oneself, weapons are needed more than tanks and fighters anti-tank e anti-aircraft which, if used well by properly trained personnel, can make a difference. Basically, from a technical-military point of view, the Ukrainians have shown that when playing defense against a more consistent opponent, the mobility and agility of the forces are fundamental. This is leading to a path that privileges these aspects and allows for the acquisition of specific skills for the defense model that is taking shape. An example can be UUV (Underwater Unmanned Vehicle) technology in the naval mine sector. It is a capability which, by allowing the planning, piloting, arming and disarming of self-propelled naval mines, would give Taiwan the possibility of making it enormously more difficult for both the transit of ships and the landing in force on its coasts.

Aware of the numerical difference with the PRC and of what is happening in Ukraine, the Taiwanese leadership has also changed the operational concepts of territorial defense, favoring asymmetrical tactics to counter the possible invasion. All this can be traced back to fighting techniques favored by a mountainous configuration of the territory (the highest peak reaches 3952 m), in which the only flat part, as mentioned, is represented by the west coast.

In essence, the concept that would guide the Taiwanese in their defense can be summarized in "Resolute defense, dispersion and mobility".

The Russian aggression has also brought the aspect of widespread resilience to the attention of the population. Now Taiwanese seem less reluctant to talk about gun defense, and management has doubled the training period for reservists. A recent poll showed that over 70% of respondents expressed a willingness to fight in the event of an attack by the Chinese side. The population is, in fact, convinced that the best deterrent is to demonstrate a credible will to resist, combining good military training with adequate civil protection capacity (health care, disaster intervention, etc…). In this perspective, Ukrainian resilience provides important food for thought for Taipei.

For an effective deterrent, therefore, Taipei will have to demonstrate that it can skillfully exploit the vulnerabilities of the Chinese military apparatus and effectively counterbalance its numerical advantages and overall capacity. In the meantime, to keep the pressure on Taipei high, while the Chinese Navy continues to flex its muscles by crossing more and more often in the waters around the island, the approximately 360.000 soldiers stationed in the Chinese sector of the Taiwan Strait (about 915.000 total available to Xi Jinping) continue to train.

Some geopolitical aspects

Beyond the purely military aspects, the Taiwan question has significant geopolitical implications. Any Chinese military operation against Taiwan, in fact, should be carried out in a particular strategic context that imposes a complex cost / benefit calculation that also includes the Japanese, US and other Indo-Pacific actors' perception of their respective security. An eventual armed aggression, in fact, would originate considerable hostility in the area by Japan, South Korea and all the other countries, pro-American or in any case always on alert towards the bulky neighbor. Not least of these is Indonesia, whose concern for Chinese ambitions and posture is increasing, so much so that the Asian country is undergoing a growing rearmament, precisely in an anti-Chinese key. The negative repercussions at the international and, above all, economic level could therefore be much greater than the possible benefits.

However, when it comes to the People's Republic of China, it must be remembered that among its main declared objectives are the reunification of China (with clear reference to Taiwan) and the reaffirmation of its "historical rights" over much of the South China Sea. The history of recent decades has taught that Beijing will not allow itself to be "distracted" by events, albeit tragic and with global repercussions, such as the one taking place in Ukraine, and will tenaciously continue to pursue its national interests, aware that le leadership Westerners are quite fluctuating and subject to reversals with each new popular consultation.

It is therefore convenient for China today that the attention of the international community is polarized elsewhere. The greater the attention to other geopolitical areas, the less attention the US and its allies will be on the Indo-Pacific theater regarding Chinese ambitions. China also benefits from an economically viable Russia, so as to prolong the war in Ukraine over time while undermining Western credibility and its tools to end the conflict.

From this point of view, the ambiguous Chinese position on the Ukrainian question makes sense, having chosen to let the contenders (the West and Russia) continue to weaken each other. An ambiguity that led Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to reiterate the concept of "unlimited" collaboration with Russia, at the end of the meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, while the Chinese envoy to Washington DC, Qin Gang, distanced himself from Russian actions by stressing that Sino-Russian relations have as a reference the principles and limitations enshrined in the UN Charter, international law and the basic rules governing international relationsv.

On the other hand, diplomacy is the art of skilfully maintaining one's international relations and dealing with sensitive issues even with sensitive people. And China is now sailing in turbulent waters keeping the rudder on its very personal route, without unbalancing and without showing what its true intentions are, wisely dosing assertive statements and manifestations of mature caution, in constant balance between them. A balance that in this period seems to be lacking in many international players, starting with the USA, whose president Biden does nothing but add fuel to the fire that is raging on the international stage.

In this context, on January 2, 2019 Xi Jinping delivered a long speech addressed to the Chinese and Taiwanese people, in which he underlined the desire to achieve national reunification, airing the possibility that the future structure of a reunified China could foresee " … One country, two systems… ". A statement that, given the events in Hong Kong and Macao, aroused much disturbance and no enthusiasm in the Taiwanese. Xi Jinping himself has then repeatedly stated that his goal is a peaceful reunification of the two sides of the Strait but that, albeit with extreme reluctance, China is ready to use all the military force it has and will have to bring Taiwan back to the country. continent.

The island of Taiwan, therefore, is at the center of a tough geopolitical confrontation between two competing powers. In this context, it is likely that relations between China and the United States will remain quite tense and problematic and, after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, a softening of the approach of the two countries does not appear to be conceivable, starting with what Beijing considers undue demonstrations of support for Taiwan's international affirmation as an independent entity and, even more so, for the military supplies it receives from Washington.

A US backing that recently led Beijing to vigorously protest the breezy visit to Taipei by House spokesperson Nancy Pelosi. A visit that was not planned and that was unexpectedly put on the agenda, canceling a meeting in Seoul, precisely because the implications of the war in Ukraine have shifted attention to the situation in the Taiwan Strait. The meeting's agenda included an exchange of views on the situation in Ukraine but, probably, also on US support for the defense of Taiwan and plans to counter Chinese expansionism.

The visit, initially scheduled for April 10, was later canceled due to an unspecified illness of Pelosi. It would have been a significant date since, precisely on April 10, 1979, then President Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act, the document regulating Washington's support for Taipei.

Conclusions

China sees Taiwan as an unsolved problem. The reasons that led Moscow to the military option in Ukraine are projected by Beijing on the dispute with Taipei, against which it claims the use of force as legitimate. An eventual clash that Beijing would not consider an invasion.

With everyone's attention focused on Ukraine, Xi Jinping today has the opportunity to observe how the international community reacts to the invasion of a disputed territory, allowing him to “… Evaluate the military consistency of the two sides, the possibilities in the field, how the international political framework works, how Europe and the US react. All this helps a lot to understand what to expect once a possible war with Taiwan has broken out ... "vi. However, as we have seen, the two theaters are not comparable and the Taiwanese area has some peculiarities that require strong amphibious and joint coordination capabilities.

Launching an amphibious operation against Taiwan in the short term would seem quite reckless at the moment, also because the PLAN does not yet seem to have reached the indispensable level of experience and coordination to jointly and effectively operate the dozens of ships and aircraft needed to saturate the Taiwanese defenses. Added to this is the concrete possibility of a possible confrontation with US naval groups and their allies in the Indo-Pacific, for which China does not seem ready.

Failure of the operation would irreparably compromise the dreams of a Chinese international renaissance e it would destroy Xi Jinping's image and career. An eventuality, the latter, which is certainly not appreciated by the Chinese leader, especially in view of the Party Congress next autumn. It is therefore reasonably foreseeable that in the short term the dispute between Beijing and Taiwan could remain at the level of military skirmishes, designed to test Taiwan's reactivity and keep its level of attention (and attrition) high. Limited objectives that could also play in favor of a growth of power in the hands of the current Chinese leadership.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine increasingly represents a conflict that has numerous repercussions in the international arena. China, an economic powerhouse with global interests, is carefully taking note and redesigning its strategy in domestic and foreign policy, as well as in the military. In doing this, the current management will not be able to overlook the fact that a possible conflict would still have heavy implications on the intense merchant traffic that characterizes the whole area and that this would have a negative impact on Chinese economic growth and, most likely, also on its equilibrium. internal, on social stability and on the very stability of the regime.

Therefore, all that remains is to trust in the political far-sightedness of all the actors, and in their ability to reconcile the different needs and ambitions, in the awareness that only the diplomatic dialectic can allow the achievement of a shared solution.

i Belize, Vatican City, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Swatini, Tuwalu.

ii Marco del Corona, This conflict for China is a dress rehearsal (ahead of Taiwan), Corriere della Sera, April 6, 2022. Ai Weiwei went into exile after spending 81 days (April 2-June 22, 2011) detained in an unknown location, due to his mocking opposition to the Chinese regime.

iii They are portions of coastal territory controlled by the ebb and flow of the great. They develop along low, slightly inclined coasts, with high tidal range, in which sea level variations involve submersion and cyclic exposure of large areas of territory.

iv Hugues Eudeline, Vers une defense active de Taiwan pour contrecarrer une aggression de la Chine populaire?, Diplomatie, March 30, 2022

v Zi Yang, Russia stalled invasion of Ucraine: lessons for china leader's, The Diplomat, April 6, 2022

vi Marco del Corona, This conflict for China is a dress rehearsal (ahead of Taiwan), Corriere della Sera, 6 April 2022.

Photo: Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China / web / Twitter / Xinhua