Op-Ed: China vs Taiwan heating up with a song and firepower

Posted Feb 6, 2019 by Paul Wallis
The Year of the Pig has started with an exchange of pleasantries between China and Taiwan. China sent Taiwan a “reunification” message, and a song written by a fighter pilot. Taiwan replied with a message, “We Are Ready”, and a show of firepower.
Chinese naval soldiers stand guard on China s first aircraft carrier Liaoning.
Chinese naval soldiers stand guard on China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning.
With permission by Reuters
These video messages were both straight to the point. China may have decided that it’s in a position to take Taiwan. Taiwan doesn’t want to be taken, and has United States military support.
These videos might go down in history as the preludes to a war. This issue has been on the boil since 1949, and it’s not going to go away, whatever happens next. China has never changed its position on Taiwan, which it considers a province of China to be returned regardless of any other views.
Taiwan, to which Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang fled after losing the civil war in 1949, was originally just an offshore island, populated by an aboriginal people. Taiwanese history, in fact, is one long series of conflicts. At one stage in the 1500s it was a pirate kingdom, until the Qing took control of the island. Then it became a Spanish and Dutch trading port, a Japanese dominion in 1895, after the First Sino-Japanese war. After World War 2, the Kuomintang effectively replaced the Japanese, brutally crushing any local resistance.
China, meanwhile, continues to consider Taiwan a past and future province of China. In China, Taiwan is referred to as “Chinese Taipei”, not Taiwan. This is no trivial matter for China, which has retained strong military forces across the Strait of Taiwan since 1949. China, and most of the world, support the One China Policy, which recognizes that Taiwan is a natural part of China, and that any differences and unification are matters to be decided by China and Taiwan.
Is it really going to happen, after all these years?
The military focus of the Chinese regarding Taiwan has never changed. There are many instances of China conducting very high volume live fire exercises in the Strait of Taiwan, and even a case of a Chinese fighter ramming a US surveillance plane in the area.
The military balance, however, has changed, drastically, in recent years. Until the early 2000s, the Chinese military was saddled with an inventory of virtual museum pieces in planes, tanks and naval vessels. That’s no longer the case. The modern Chinese military is at least on a par with most advanced military organizations around the world, including the US and its allies.
There are, however, a few major problems with the idea of a Chinese attack on Taiwan:
1. Failure of an attack on Taiwan would be an inexcusable national disgrace.
2. US support may well be quite adequate to beat off any assault, unless the attack was extremely fast, and completed before the US had time to respond.
3. Escalation of the conflict, in to a war with the United States and possibly Japan, doesn’t add any incentives. China is more likely to want a quick resolution of the matter, with no subsequent issues.
4. Taiwan is well armed, if not on the same scale or technological level as China. Severe prolonged resistance could be highly problematic.
5. Massive collateral damage caused by an all-out attack would add a gigantic cost to taking over Taiwan. This is a multi-billion dollar economy, and it would be no use at all to China as a smouldering wasteland.
6. The large amounts of capital which seem to orbit around Taiwan would disappear overnight in the event of an attack. That outcome would be totally counterproductive for China.
7. Trade responses to an attack on Taiwan would be global, severely affecting Chinese exports and other interests around the world.
If that sounds encouraging, there are some other, much less reassuring, considerations:
• The chaotic nature of the Trump administration, and its isolationist America First rhetoric haven’t impressed the Chinese. They went right ahead with the South China Sea islands project, and the “tariffs war” has achieved no major turnaround in trade policies. To put it bluntly, China obviously isn’t scared of Trump, whether he decides to fight or not. Quite the opposite; his lack of depth and amateurishness in foreign policy may be encouraging them.
• China has recently upgraded its surface fleet to modern standards, with a lot of new warships which are in theory able to fight even the US Navy on an at least credible basis. The Chinese navy doesn’t have anything like the overall strike capacity of the US Navy, but it does have a very strong focus on anti-ship weapons, and a lot of submarines. It must be considered to be able to do significant damage.
• The People’s Liberation Army is perfectly capable of conducting a full scale air and sea assault, backed up by massive land air and sea firepower. Travel time between the mainland and Taiwan is less than an hour. Join any dots you like, the assault is perfectly viable.
• There is no doubt whatsoever that China is prepared to use force. No Chinese government from Mao Tse Tung onwards has EVER compromised on the reunification of China and Taiwan. It’s a virtual Holy Grail for China, never to be disputed.
• The current Chinese government has shown a definite tendency to “fait accompli” scenarios. They do something, and there’s not much anyone can do about it when it’s done. The South China Sea islands are the most obvious case of this approach. Were the world to wake up to find China had taken Taiwan overnight, what would be the reaction? Would a military response achieve anything? Could (or would) the US retake Taiwan?
This is the first time China has made a direct reference to reunification in some time, and the message is far less ambiguous than it may appear to foreigners. Future Chinese fighter pilots over Taiwan may not be doing quite so much singing, but if they come to fight, they won’t be there as tourists.
For those wondering, this is what Chinese propaganda looks like. This is what's singing to Taiwan: