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Op-Ed: Taiwan invasion a real possibility? If so, it’s a very bad move

Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan split from China at the end of a civil war in 1949 and exists under the constant threat of invasion by the mainland - AFP
Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan split from China at the end of a civil war in 1949 and exists under the constant threat of invasion by the mainland - AFP

Admiral Acquilino didn’t mince words. He didn’t need to. The long-running dispute over Taiwan’s status has been a sore point with the People’s Republic of China since 1949. The international solution was the “One China policy”, which basically states that Taiwan’s status is a matter for Taiwan and the PRC.
The trouble is that this is no longer 1949, and China seems determined to make Taiwan an issue. China is now a superpower, at loggerheads with many other nations over a maze of territorial and trade issues.
China has spent a long time recently militarizing the South China Sea and conducting regular invasions of Taiwanese air space. Live fire exercises are regularly held by the Chinese military in the area. Subtlety doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for the PRC.
The basic situation
If all this saber-rattling seems odd, that’s because it is. It’s bizarre. Taiwan is economically largely irrelevant to modern China. Taiwan is pretty well-armed, but hardly a serious threat to Chinese territory. China’s recent moves, however, have sparked an upgrade of the Taiwanese military. Taiwan has also been getting more sympathy recently from nations disgruntled by China’s increasingly flat-footed diplomacy.
Militarily, invading Taiwan makes no sense at all. Why commit massive forces to the thankless task of occupying a hostile island; particularly when those forces become instant targets for a retaliatory strike?
Does China really think it can invade Taiwan without consequences? It’s an odd idea, but no stranger than some of the stuff that’s been coming out of the various orifices of the propaganda machines latterly.
China also seems to assume that an invasion of Taiwan would be a walkover. On paper, the massive forces of the Chinese military far outweigh Taiwan. The problem is that invading Taiwan involves a complex operation and invading a densely populated island with 24 million people.
Those people may not like getting invaded.
They may decide to do something about it.
They have a few military issues in their favor:
• Amphibious operations and air landing operations are astonishingly complicated. In combat, they don’t get less complicated. Chinese forces can’t just casually drop in whenever they feel like it.
• The island is no simple target, either. The China side of the island is basically urban and farmland. It’s an odd mix of terrain and different spaces. The rest of the island is two very large national parks which could contain anything military in a big, healthy, electronic clutter environment.
• In short, Taiwan is not a soft target, based on physical combat environments alone. An invasion would involve a lot of street fighting and fighting in tough terrain. The number of Chinese troops which can be delivered on Taiwan isn’t unlimited either; it’s a matter of carrying capacity by sea and air.
• Seaborne attacks can go wrong, easily. Ask the US Marine Corps, which has more experience than anyone. Just about every landing they have ever done has had some problems. A worst case in point is the landing on Tarawa. The Marines had a hell of a time in the face of point-blank opposition from five thousand Japanese troops. (I would suggest that 130,000 people fighting for their own homes might be even less hospitable to unwanted visitors.)
• Air landing attacks are no easier. If Vietnam and other wars proved anything at all, they proved that air landings are tricky, unpredictable, and subject to sudden changes of circumstances. Against an urban area full of various anti-air assets, nothing can be taken for granted.
Points being:
• Any form of attack on Taiwan would be strenuously opposed, and probably effectively, for some time. The Taiwanese military is perfectly capable of fighting just about anything China can throw at it.
• China can only deliver X forces on any given time frame to the island to take it over. The time frame is short and the situation is to put it mildly unclear in terms of what happens next when there’s a major US response.
• The attack on Taiwan would be superseded by the inevitable American response. Resources would have to be diverted to deal with that little issue at the expense of resources for the invasion. It’s more than likely the entire PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) theatre of operations would have to be reshuffled in the process.
• Global retaliation against China would also be massive. China has now antagonized so many nations in the region and elsewhere that trade would collapse instantly. The ongoing cost would be horrendous.
• A Chinese defeat in an attack on Taiwan wouldn’t go down at all well in China. This isn’t “loss of face”; it’s loss of critical credibility. Taiwan is one of the longest-standing of all issues for the CCP. Losing would be unthinkably bad.
Huge risks, few rewards
To successfully invade and take over Taiwan, China would have to actually defeat the United States Navy, and probably other nations’ forces as well. China would have to accept loss of global trade on an enormous scale, probably for years.
The prize would be a hostile island, probably devastated by fighting. The Chinese economy would have to bear the cost of rebuilding and turning Taiwan into a functional part of the PRC. That could take decades.
A Chinese analogy – A defeat would be like the battle of Red Cliff, with the PRC in the role of Cao Cao. That was the battle of battles in a long war that quite specifically and spectacularly failed to unite China. I doubt the analogy will be lost on anyone who’s read Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The trouble with war is that in wars people do dumb things for dumb reasons. If Admiral Acquilino is right, and this war happens, that, sadly, will be the whole story.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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