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Why China Cannot Intervene in Taiwan?

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Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which began following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the country on February 23, 2022, brought global attention to the region. Many analyses and remarks are made on the war in issue, which has caused a new geopolitical turbulence, and future forecasts are stated. On the one hand, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has generated a security crisis in Europe; on the other hand, the spotlights are on Taiwan, thousands of kilometers away. At this point, the question arose as to whether China would launch an operation against Taiwan in a manner similar to the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Some experts claimed that the situation between Ukraine and Russia has similarities with the relationship between Taiwan and China, and suggested that the aforementioned region would also be exposed to war. As a matter of fact, before Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing for the Olympic Games held in China on February 4, 2022, and during this visit, publishing a comprehensive declaration titled “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development” has been interpreted as a development that raises suspicions. Simultaneously with the Russian military activity, the Taiwan Ministry of Defense announced 8 J-16 fighters and 1 Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army violated in the southern ADIZ of Taiwan, which is seen as another suspicious event.[1]

Without a doubt, the Taiwan Problem, which began in 1949 with the communists’ victory in the civil war between the communists and the nationalists on China’s mainland, and resulted in the nationalists’ move to Taiwan Island, has caused the island to be viewed as one of the regions where a hot conflict in international relations could occur. According to Beijing’s “One China” doctrine, which is one of the pillars of its foreign policy, the island has its own territory, and the mainland and the island will one day be united. So, is a military intervention in Taiwan, which is part of China’s historical memory and foreign policy plan, possible?

It is possible to say that Beijing’s intervention plan in Taiwan will be a mistake in the short term and that this possibility is not possible, when viewed from a more realistic and deeper perspective, leaving the hot conflict in Ukraine and China’s violation of ADIZ aside. First of all, the thesis that China’s violation of Taiwan’s ADIZ region is a signal of an operation is an erroneous approach. Because China has been violating on Taiwan’s ADIZ territory on a regular basis in the past.  It may be said that the violation on February 24, 2022 is no different from previous violations and that Beijing is engaged in broad attrition warfare against Taiwan.

One of the arguments supporting the claim that China would make a mistake in invading Taiwan at this period is the timing. China and Russia have been acting jointly against the hegemony of the United States of America (USA) for years. China has always been considered as a stronger country in this alliance, and it has positioned itself as the strongest alternative to US hegemony in the global system. For this reason, China first has been seeking to emphasize the superiority of its ideology in order to become the dominant actor in the current system and then establish its own Sinocentric order. However, China’s intervention in Taiwan in the current conjuncture will be seen as an “opportunist country” under Russia. Undoubtedly, it would not be an image that China, which wants to transform the global system, desires to attract the people of the world to its side and defends the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” ideology in this direction, to be seen under Russia or to be labeled as opportunist country, would want to carry. Furthermore, a possible intervention in Taiwan will strengthen the global leadership image of the USA, as seen in the example of Ukraine. Considering that the countries of the region also have sovereignty problems with China, it can be predicted that strong anti-Chinese rhetoric will rise in the Indo-Pacific.

Another reason to keep China from invading Taiwan is its military operational capacity. Making a military operation in a region and conquering that region permanently is getting harder day by day. Factors such as breakthroughs in communication technologies, war experience, increasing war costs, the use of social media as a disinformation instrument, metropolitan areas entering the battlefield, asymmetrical elements becoming more effective, the development of unmanned combat aerial vehicle technologies, and logistics costs are preventing today’s decision to go to war. As a matter of fact, the effectiveness of these elements in Russia’s intervention can be seen as tangibly. The most recent example of this situation is Russia’s military weakness that has been displayed during the war, which has a border with Ukraine and is regarded as the world’s second strongest force.

Taiwan presents a greater challenge to China in addition to the difficulties Ukraine poses for Russia. Taiwan is an island. When compared in the light of historical examples (England, Portugal, USA, Spain, etc.), actors who dominate the seas are more successful in defense. The main reason for this situation is the necessity of the attacking force to conduct amphibious operations. This kind of operation has to require advanced technology, coordination, combat experience and favorable geographical conditions.

Since Xi Jinping became President of China, Beijing’s increasing economic power has also been boosted its military capacity. The modernization process of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army led to the development of both ground, sea and air power. In particular, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has shown a great increase in terms of high-tech arsenal and numerical. However, Beijing’s growing military power has yet to be tested and its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear. China has no combat experience except it engaged in a minor naval skirmish with Vietnam over the Johnson South Reef in 1988 and a war with the Vietnamese Army in 1979. For these reasons, despite the fact that China’s air and naval arsenals are becoming increasingly stocked with the sophisticated weapon, it is unclear how effective a terrestrial area control capability will be. Moreover, mountains rising from the coasts of Taiwan on the Chinese side make any amphibious operations less likely to succeed. Those who compare Ukraine and Taiwan are missing a point regarding military aspects. While the possibility of Ukraine’s intervention has been a controversial issue until the last moment, Taiwan has been acting with an expectation in this direction for years and has been designing and training all its elements (civil-military) that will affect the war according to the threat in question. When other factors such as the presence of US troops in Taiwan,[2] and the US and its allies’ growing military capabilities in the Pacific are considered, it is possible to conclude that Beijing’s chances of success in such an intervention are weak and that it will suffer a negative consequence that will damage its own image.

Economic concerns are the last, but likely most crucial factor that will affect the decision of China’s intervention in Taiwan. Because economic growth has been Beijing’s greatest achievement from the past to the present. China’s economic and cultural reforms, which began in 1978, allowed it to integrate with global markets and generate an export-based growth opportunity. Beijing’s economic growth has helped 748.5 million people out of extreme poverty and reduced this rate from 66.3% to 0.3%. With the Belt-Road Project launched in 2013, China has invested in all parts of the world, created new markets and gained diplomatic and cultural power accordingly. Under these circumstances, the most destructive situation for China will be a wave of economic sanctions that will exclude China from foreign markets. Despite the fact that Russia was less integrated into the global system, it began to experience economic difficulties during the Ukraine Crisis. Moreover, the USA and European Union (EU) countries, which have the power to impose sanctions, constitute China’s largest markets.  U.S. goods and services trade with China totaled an estimated $615.2 billion in 2020. Exports were $164.9 billion; imports were $450.4 billion.[3] European Union goods and services trade with China totaled an estimated €,646,5 billion in 2019.[4] Furthermore, China has a trade surplus between U.S-China as well as EU-China trade.

Under the current circumstances, China cannot afford to risk being isolated from such an advantage. It should not be forgotten that China has to feed 1.5 billion people every day. The starvation and famine experienced in the past are full of pain that China’s decision makers cannot get out of their memories. For this reason, a wrong calculation to be made against Taiwan will open the doors of an irreversible challenge against Beijing.

Another economic component is the semiconductor crisis that China may cause as a result of likely Taiwan intervention. Semiconductors and its supply chain have become increasingly significant as it has been integrated into almost every industry across the world. During the Covid-19 outbreak, the shutdown of semiconductor-producing companies, in particular, caused a shortage of semiconductors and a domino effect in nearly all sectors of the world, disrupting global trade. According to the data of 2020, Taiwan alone accounts for 63% of the world’s chip production. It has earned an income of $85.13 billion from this production.[5] Considering the possible operation of China, the world will face a worse supply shortage than in the Covid period, and this will cause the West to respond to China with a harsher version of the sanctions imposed on Russia. This is the worst-case scenario that China would want to see.

In terms of its effects, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine will result in a variety of consequences. In the case of China, Moscow’s intervention made it more difficult for China to plan attacks on Taiwan rather than making it easier. Stating that “No war plan survives contact with the enemy. War has the ability to produce results on all rules and processes” by Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke former Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff, was once again confirmed by the Russia-Ukraine War. Undoubtedly, China’s plans to intervene in Taiwan are in the archives of the People’s Liberation Army. The main concern here is the timing and the will to implement this plan. However, in the light of recent events, China’s implementation of an operation plan will give the impression that rationality has been lost. The interesting question here is whether the US provoked Beijing to intervene in Taiwan. In truth, the answer to this question may be found in the events that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

[1] “Air Activities in the Southwestern ADIZ of R.O.C.”, Ministry of National Defense, https://www.mnd.gov.tw/English/Publish.aspx?title=News%20Channel&SelectStyle=Military%20News%20Update%20&p=79597, (Date of Accession: 04.03.2022).

[2] “Taiwan President Confirms U.S. Troops Training Soldiers on Island”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taiwan-president-confirms-us-troops-training-soldiers-island-cnn-2021-10-28/, (Date of Accession: 05.03.2022).

[3] “The People’s Republic of China”, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/china-mongolia-taiwan/peoples-republic-china#:~:text=U.S.%20goods%20and%20services%20trade,was%20%24285.5%20billion%20in%202020. (Date of Accession: 05.03.2022).

[4] “China”, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/china/, (Date of Accession: 05.03.2022).

[5] Yen Nee Lee, “2 Charts Show How Much the World Depends on Taiwan for Semiconductors”, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/16/2-charts-show-how-much-the-world-depends-on-taiwan-for-semiconductors.html, (Date of Accession: 05.03.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.