Episode 34. Could China Conquer Taiwan?
Xi has thrown down the gauntlet and stated that Taiwan will return to the Peoples Republic of China by 2049, whether Taiwan wants to or not. So now a countdown timer has started, and Taiwan scrambles to prepare for what Beijing may throw at it. Should they build a large navy? Should they try and push the Chinese back into sea fighting on the beaches? Should the Taiwanese retreat to the jungles and fight a bloody insurgency from there? We ask our expert panel what strategy Taiwan is likely to adopt, and whether or not it is likely to be effective against the entire PLA.
Director of Defence Policy Studies at the CATO Institute specialising in East Asia
Author of several fantastic papers on the balance of power in Asia and the future of the region
Sheena Chestnut Greitens
University of Texas
Robert D Kaplan
Part 1: The Two Dragons (3:27)
With Eric Gomez we discuss the history of Taiwan and its geopolitical relationship with mainland China, from the acquisition of the island by Japan in the late 19th Century, through its return to the Republic of China following the Second World War and its fate as the last bastion of the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) after the 1949 Chinese Revolution.
While there have been several efforts by the Communist Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to take the various islands held by the ROC, these had only limited success, and the CCP chose to reorient mainly towards defence, allowing the ROC to endure in Taiwan throughout the Cold War.
Taiwan sits in an incredibly strategic position in the western Pacific, sitting astride critical shipping lanes, and within easy strike distance of the both the American military bases throughout the western Pacific and China's own military installations, making it important ground to control in the event of war.
Gomez explains for us the diplomatic history between the USA and China, elaborating on the logic behind the switch in official recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1972. As part of a strategy to capitalise on the Sino-Soviet split and entrench the newborn division in the Communist World, this switch by the US allowed the PRC to assume the Chinese seat in the UN Security Council.
We look at the complex diplomatic situation in which Taiwan finds itself, having de facto independence but with very limited recognition, even by states it is effectively allied with.
Although the US has sought to contain the embers of the Chinese Civil War and prevent any further outbreaks of hostility in the Taiwan strait, it has historically stopped short of backing any sort of Taiwanese independence, and there is a growing sentiment within the US political establishment that defending Taiwan is critical to American national interest.
In Gomez's view, this sort of open alignment would throw away any last vestiges of goodwill between Beijing and Washington, and shatter the delicate balancing act both parties have been engaging in in order to keep the peace, creating a dramatically greater chance of a dangerous escalation.
Part 2: The Normandy Problem (30:08)
Taiwan has historically relied heavily on their integration into the American system of security agreements in the Pacific, as well as its relative distance from the mainland, as deterrents to Chinese aggression. China's recent military reforms and procurement patterns threaten to alter the fragile balance of power in the region.
With Sheena Greitens we discuss the complex cross-strait relationship, both diplomatic and military. The fragile diplomatic framework which governs relations between China and Taiwan was established in the context of the late Cold War, but the liberalisation of Taiwan and the KMT's slip from power has complicated the cross-strait relationship, and has created a need for the US to re-evaluate its formerly cold and transactional alliance with Taiwan.
We explore how the US government conceives of the situation around Taiwan, and the competing theories which seek to explain the nature of the tension and how their proposed solutions could impact the US's response to a military crisis. The statements made by Xi Jinping elucidating a desire to see the long-standing dispute between China and Taiwan settled within the near future once again complicate things. The Americans have sought to contain the conflict within a more or less peaceful status quo, but this course may be rendered redundant by Chinese political developments.
Militarily, despite the massive disparity of force and resources between them, Taiwan has a number of geographic advantages, namely in the difficulty of its terrain and the limited number of beaches suitable for an armed landing, allowing for a more concentrated defence. Greitens explains for us how this terrain could be used by Taiwan, if it could mobilise enough of its populace, to wage a protracted defensive battle and/or guerrilla campaign in the highlands. Despite the growing tensions however, the Taiwanese government has pursued a downsizing of its land forces, ostensibly to concentrate its more limited resources into a higher-quality, all-volunteer military.
Part 3: The Cavalry (58:38)
According to Robert Kaplan, what is ultimately at stake in the Indo-Pacific is the credibility of the US alliance structure in the region. If the USA was unwilling or unable to come to its defence, regional players would have no incentive to remain aligned with the US, and would begin to slip under Chinese influence.
We discuss the regional dynamics that surround the China/Taiwan conflict, how regional players like Japan and South Korea would interact with any conflict in the region. The so-called "Quad", or any other Asian bloc seeking to balance against a rising China in Kaplan's opinion remains, for the time being, reliant on American military power to underpin its credibility.
We discuss the material capabilities that the PLA would require to enact a possible invasion of Taiwan, comparing it to probably the most famous military landing, D-day. China faces a much longer across-water journey, and modern satellites render surprise in such a situation impossible.
The potential diplomatic and economic fallout remain the greatest question hanging over any hypothetical assault, and the Chinese would have to tread very carefully if they were to seek an armed re-integration. Kaplan cautions us against seeing Xi's supposed 2049 deadline as a ticking clock, and argues that it may not refer to desire for armed conflict.
We examine how Taiwan's de facto sovereignty remains predicated on military and diplomatic deterrence, which is always a subjective quality and carries an inherent risk of indecision. Indecision in the face of crisis risks crippling the hegemonic security position enjoyed by the US within Asia, but is exacerbated by the essentially voluntary nature of the position. This creates a fundamentally different geopolitical calculation for regional powers, all of whom have to consider China as a permanent presence and powerful fixture in regional dynamics, ones whose interests would have to be respected.
And finally, we consider whether China's interest in Incorporating Taiwan stems from either emotive, historical, and political reasoning, or from a rationalist, strategic outlook. Kaplan argues that both aspects are at play; the perceived historical mission of reunifying China as taken on by the CCP, and the critically strategic nature of Taiwan as a military position are all attractive reasons for China to make a move, whatever particular means it chooses.
The Red Line's Taiwan Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Taiwan.
Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence
Sheena Chestnut Greitens
America's Nuclear Crossroads: A Forward‑Looking Anthology
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Steffen M.