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article imageOp-Ed: China's Taiwan bluster — Lack of ideas meets lousy options

By Paul Wallis     Jan 24, 2021 in World
Sydney - In the idea-less world of international power politics, China’s incursion into Taiwanese airspace just adds more bile to the global mess. This time, however, there’s more heat and more risk.
The clumsy, overweight and otherwise pointless incursion in to Taiwanese airspace didn’t actually have an orchestra with it. 15 bombers and some fighters arrived, made themselves known and went away.
The lack of ideas becomes obvious soon enough. In the past, new United States administrations were “tested” early with blatant moves to see how they’d react. This was a standard Cold War tactic.
The Biden administration has responded with a standard stonewall move of a carrier group and public statements. Nothing new, you’d think. This has been a continuous process in the Taiwan region since 1949.
However – This move comes at a time when China has also authorized the use of force in its waters against “incursions”. Chinese ships are now allowed to fire on vessels. There’s a significant risk of actual conflict, if also likely to be orchestrated depending on who’s doing what and where in China’s recent South China Sea acquisitions.
In practice, Chinese vessels have fired on and sunk foreign vessels for years. Not Western vessels, but local Asian trawlers and similar small vessels. The more official approach has some significance, though, as stated national policy. It’s an excuse if required.
What’s to be gained? Very little, probably at great expense
The China/Taiwan dispute was largely put to bed years ago by the One China policy, which is based on the idea that China and Taiwan should sort out their differences themselves.
The trouble with that rather rosy view of things is that current Chinese policies are largely confrontationist and highly conspicuous as “national issues”. Setting up a few bases in Typhoon Alley is a matter of cosmetic pride, if militarily remarkably dated and inept.
The likely outcome of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is easy to see:
• A regional war fought at standoff distances. (“Boots on the ground” don’t mean much in this environment when you can say it with long-range strikes.)
• Trade embargos cutting off Chinese exports.
• Massive, hyper-expensive disruption to shipping worldwide.
• Huge financial losses on both sides.
• Quite probably actual military clashes and escalations, retaliations, etc. for weeks or months, perhaps years.
• A shutdown of relations between the West and China.
• UN initial ineffectuality followed by negotiations.
• Vast amounts of rhetoric, “wolf warriors” and similar posturing from China’s propaganda hacks.
• China could win some Brownie points for military successes, and lose them for failures.
The net cost could be billions, perhaps trillions, a lot of lives, severe collateral damage and similar debris. Benefit to anyone, nil.
This is where lack of ideas equates to creating more problems with no solutions. The problem is that Xi, who’s usually commendably reticent on many subjects, has made this situation visible policy, rather than implied policy.
It’s better to have an obscure policy than a clear policy when you want to maneuver. This flat-footed effort is reducing the ability to maneuver by committing China to positions whether they make any practical sense or not.
The net value to China of Taiwan is actually reducing in military terms. As an island in the South China Sea, it’s more a matter of neatness for Taiwan to be part of China than any practical military or economic value.
Taking and holding Taiwan against an American attack would be a very thankless task for the Chinese navy and PLA. As sitting ducks go, Taiwan could be said to be remarkably useless in that scenario.
The other islands are also not much help to China in practical issues. Another scenario is a fight with Japan, much nettled over the years by Chinese claims and renaming islands. These islands are arms’ length from both China and Japan, and a nasty if pointless conflict could resolve nothing much but loss of lives and instant side-taking with Japan by the West. China vs Japan alone would be two guys throwing punches at extreme range.
All this has been pretty obvious to analysts for years. The Chinese navy is certainly far more powerful than ever before, but its limits are obvious. As a regional force, it’s far superior to the local navies.
That said - It’s not in the same league as the US Navy in power projection by any means. The US Navy has the scope to take hits and come back for more. The Chinese navy can’t take significant losses in the same way for any protracted length of time.
Tactically, the Chinese could win a few rounds, score a few points and then simply lose as the counter-strikes erode their forces. “Winning” the Taiwan Strait would be a pyrrhic victory. They’d be holding a liability for a while as everything capable of firing anything zeroed in on it, followed by an excruciating process of losses.
Meltdown at the international level
China is in a far weaker international position than it apparently realizes. China’s micro-allies are nonentities and largely in the wrong places in the world. Russia won’t bother getting involved directly except to sell a few more Sukhois and parts to China. The Russians have nothing at all to gain from such a turgid conflict.
Other countries won’t mind a bit of US money to get out of their obligations to China. Hostile nations will be only too happy to get US support, particularly in the capital-tenuous South East Asian region. Anti-Chinese groups around the world will have a field day.
A major loss could heave China out of economic as well as military superpower status into a truly historical self-inflicted mess. It’d be a humiliating defeat, on a par with the many losses against the Japanese prior to World War 2. Taiwan is a communist party iconic issue; the loss would rebound directly on the Party, a self-inflicted disgrace even by its own standards.
This is where lack of ideas goes. Even a small conflict would be counterproductive. A longer conflict could be disastrous for China, and no use at all for the world.
The world’s getting too small for these petty ancient conflicts. Time to move on and try sanity instead.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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