In national security circles, Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) is considered one of many flashpoints that could erupt into a shooting war and not only engulf the Pacific region, but might also threaten to drag in the United States, Australia, Japan, China, India and even possibly North and South Korea.
As recently as last month, the Chinese military escalated its threatening flights around Taiwan by fighter jets and other aircraft, actions believed to be testing Taiwan’s military defense capability.
In addition, on July 10, the U.S. State Department approved Taiwan’s $620 million purchase of upgrades to Patriot III missiles, a move that infuriated the Communist Chinese Party on the mainland.
But why are tensions so high now? And why is mainland China so threatened by this tiny island nation of only 24 million people?
A Civil War That Never Ended
The Chinese Civil War, which lasted from 1927 to 1949 — with a break during World War II to fight the Japanese — involved Chang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China supported by the U.S. while the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong was supported by the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, the communists took control of mainland China, forcing the leadership of the Republic of China to retreat to the island of Taiwan. No armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed and an academic debate continues as to whether the civil war has legally ended.
Recognizing that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party was intent on erasing China’s rich culture, Republic of China leader Chiang Kai-shek removed more than 600,000 of the finest and most fragile artworks from China’s rich history from Beijing to Taiwan.
This treasure hoard represents over 4,000 years of Chinese history, making Taiwan the true caretaker of China’s ancient civilization. Among the valuables is the accumulated art collection of China’s emperors, including examples of their fine taste in calligraphy, painting and porcelain.
Anything that remained on the mainland at the time of the communist takeover in 1949 was vandalized or destroyed.
After Mao’s successful communist conquest of the mainland, he initiated the Great Leap Forward (the Second Five-Year Plan), a campaign from 1958 to 1962 to reconstruct the country from an agrarian economy into a communist society through the formation of people’s communes.
Unfortunately, many of Mao’s policies led to widespread economic disaster and famine. The Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of deaths, with estimates ranging between 18 million and 45 million. This makes the Great Chinese Famine, as it came to be known, the largest in human history.
Today, the Communist Party of China views Taiwan not as a legitimate independent nation but as a government in exile. Any foreign assistance to Taiwan, for instance, its ongoing trade agreement with the U.S., is met with hostility in Beijing.
In fact, China’s ultimate goal is to one day repatriate the 24 million Taiwanese, by military force if necessary. According to a Pew research study, by a nearly two-to-one margin, the Taiwanese rate the U.S. more favorably than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There is widespread support for increased economic and political ties with Washington.
Taiwan and the US – A ‘Robust Unofficial Relationship’
According to the U.S. Department of State, “The United States does not support Taiwan independence.” The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the United States and Taiwan and enshrines the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.
As a result, the Taiwanese military possesses some of the most advanced warfighting technology that the U.S. is willing to provide. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s leadership has built its military to focus on a very specific kind of threat: repelling a PRC amphibious assault.
Taiwan’s air force currently has 146 F-16 A/B Block 20 multirole fighters, armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. It also operates 55 Mirage 2000 multirole fighters, armed with Magic air-to-air missiles.
The Taiwanese navy consists of 26 large surface combatants, all of which have a potent anti-ship capability. The largest ships in the fleet are the four Kee Lung-class guided-missile destroyers, formerly U.S. Kidd class destroyers, as well as eight Cheung Kung guided-missile frigates (a modified version of the long-hull U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry class) and four aging submarines.
The primary challenge for the PRC, and a bloody lesson learned by U.S. Marines during World War II, is that amphibious landings are precarious.
The overwhelming superiority of the PRC’s conventional forces moved Taiwan toward asymmetrical systems and an anti-access, area-denial capabilities. After all, there is no need to match the mainland’s firepower if Taiwan can simply imperil China’s ability to operate in the Taiwan Strait.
Because Taiwan — with U.S. help — has tailored its military to address specific threats, it is entirely plausible that Taiwan could successfully repel an attempted PRC invasion, at least for a while.
What About Nuclear Weapons?
In the past, Taiwan has made several attempts to start a nuclear weapons program as a deterrent against communist aggression.
According to the book “Taiwan: A Political History” by Denny Roy, in 1967, Taiwan was able to acquire nuclear technology from abroad (including a research reactor from Canada and low-grade plutonium from the United States) allegedly for a civilian energy system. In actuality, it was to develop fuel for nuclear weapons.
With the unbalanced military equation across the Taiwan Strait, the small island nation may still adopt nuclear weapons in the face of increasing aggression from the PRC.
Tensions Are Growing
As Beijing grows more assertive, and as tensions rise between the PRC and the U.S., two U.S. warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait on April 28, 2019. That prompted China to send warplanes to circumnavigate Taiwan. Also, for the first time since 1999, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which separates China and Taiwan.
Denny Roy, writing for This Week in Asia, says: “The only sure way to compel Taiwan’s surrender would be for PLA [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers to occupy Taiwan’s major cities. But even as China’s military capabilities improve, the chances of success in an all-out invasion of Taiwan are low – even if the United States did not intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. China would need to ferry its troops, most of them packed into slow-moving and highly visible ships, across the 160km wide [100 mi] Taiwan Strait, where they would be highly vulnerable to attack, and then unload them and huge amounts of ammunition and other supplies while trudging through sand or mud and under heavy fire. China has the capacity to transport only a few tens of thousands of troops at a time. Much of this force would not make it across the strait. Awaiting the survivors would be 180,000 active duty Taiwanese soldiers plus 1.5 million reservists.”
The primary question, then, is would the United States join a war against China in the event of a PRC invasion of Taiwan?
Polls in the U.S. show only a minority of Americans would favor U.S. military personnel fighting to defend Taiwan. In addition, President Trump seems averse to putting troops into harm’s way.
Despite this, America’s world leadership would be fatally compromised if we stood by while an authoritarian state invaded a small democracy with significant historical ties to America.
The United States must defend Taiwan from communist Chinese aggression. However, there are repercussions to American military involvement in defense of Taiwan. The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) would likely come into force, pulling Australia into the melee.
Also, India might use the opportunity and distraction to settle its ongoing border dispute with China.
Because of the complicated nature of China’s Taiwan problem, it stands to reason that Chinese military planners have calculated that a military invasion is simply too risky. But there are other ways for China to flex its muscles.
Chinese special operations missions, cyberattacks of Taiwan’s infrastructure, and blockades of Taiwan’s ports are likely options that the PRC has considered.
As a result, the U.S. will have to decide how it wants to project power in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decade, as well as how much it wants to commit to defending its “unofficial” ally. If the goal is to stunt Chinese hegemony and secure its interests in the region, American military planners must prepare for the very real contingency of a new war in the Pacific region.
In all but name, Taiwan is the real China; the beneficiary – and the rightful heir — of thousands of years of cultural history.