South Asia and Beyond

‘Armed Conflict Across Taiwan Strait Inevitable; The Only Question Is When’

 ‘Armed Conflict Across Taiwan Strait Inevitable; The Only Question Is When’

Chinese President Xi Jinping (above) considers himself an expert on Taiwan and that makes him not inclined to listen to anybody’s advice, says Capt. Tiehlin Yen, Deputy Director of Taiwan Center for Security Studies.

NEW DELHI: There’s been a qualitative change in China’s attitude towards Taiwan, one where there is a high possibility of force being used to merge the island with the mainland. In written replies to questions sent by StratNews Global, CAPT. TIEHLIN YEN, a former naval officer and deputy director of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei, says that China’s President Xi Jinping may order an invasion in the event Taiwan moves to declare independence. An invasion could even be precipitated by a domestic crisis that threatens the primacy and legitimacy of China’s ruling Communist Party.

He believes comparisons with India’s clashes with China in Ladakh may not apply to the scenario prevailing in the Taiwan Strait. This is because India and China have not gone to war despite clashes, tensions and standoffs. He attributes this to the agreements signed since the 1990s that have served as confidence building measures. In the case of Taiwan, no such measures have been discussed by the two militaries. Although there was an unspoken understanding that neither navy or air force would cross the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait, China has violated that understanding in recent times, he said.

Q: The latest U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific warns that China will take increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan. Do you subscribe to this view?

A: I certainly subscribe to this view. It is commonly believed, if I may say so, by the general public in Taiwan. Beijing’s policy on Taiwan hasn’t changed since the early 1980s, which is “peaceful unification and one country two systems”. Beijing has been doing whatever it can to achieve that goal. Yet, since no one in Taiwan will accept that this country is part of the People’s Republic of China, that creates an obstacle which cannot be overcome.

For us, no matter if the KMT (Kuomintang) or DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is in power, the most important precondition for a political dialogue with Beijing is that it should recognize and respect the Republic of China’s (RoC) existence. Without that, there is no way to engage with Beijing and negotiate the political future of our country. When the KMT was in power, we were willing to engage them on trade, commerce, culture and some law enforcement issues under the consensus reached in 1992, but both sides interpreted the consensus differently.

The DPP government says the ‘92 consensus is about one country two systems, meaning the country is the Republic of China. Beijing has never accepted that, insisting that one China means mainland China where the communist party rules. They have chosen to ignore what Taiwan wants, that the idea is to promote cross-strait dialogue and exchanges as long as no political matters are involved. The KMT had a different approach. They were willing to engage Beijing believing that eventually China would change its ideology and there would be a peaceful evolution in its thinking. But China, while welcoming cross-strait dialogue, believed that time was on its side and that Taiwan would not be able to separate from China since it was so dependent on the mainland market.

But with the DPP in power for over four years now, there is no fantasy that China would become democratic or for that matter, respect and recognize the existence of the RoC. So cross-Strait relations have soured. I also believe that Beijing is gradually giving up its attempts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan and is adopting a harder line, for instance recent “gray area” activities. It means that Beijing is taking a more assertive approach to compel unification with Taiwan.

Q: As a former military officer, do you believe China will use armed force against Taiwan?

A: Yes, that’s for sure and that is what we are preparing for. It is clear to us that Beijing has not foregone the use of force to resolve the cross-Strait dispute. Secondly, in the last two decades, though the Communist Party of China has made its position clear, that priority is to end hostility with Taiwan and promote cross-Strait dialogue. Yet, the precondition is that Taiwan would have to accept the one China principle, and that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, which no one would accept in Taiwan. There is no way out of this. Hence I believe that armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait is indeed inevitable. The only question is when that would happen.

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Q: Do you believe that such an invasion can only be triggered if Taiwan declares independence?

A: There are several possible scenarios. In addition to Taiwan declaring independence or on the verge of declaring independence, a nightmare scenario for Beijing is if the Communist Party is up against a domestic crisis that threatens its legitimacy. In such a situation, the PLA attack in Taiwan would come with little or no warning, it would be hard with the aim of overwhelming us. I have been warning that this is the scenario we should factor in our force planning.

Q: Given how President Xi Jinping has concentrated power in a cabal centered around him, do you believe the danger of invasion is greater since there doesn’t seem to be any other advice he may be inclined to listen to?

A: I don’t think Xi relies too much on his advisers on how to deal with Taiwan. The 2019 New Year address clearly indicated that he has total control and he wants to have total control. But what is interesting is that even though he was working in Fujian province (opposite Taiwan) for more than 15 years and has considerable experience dealing with Taiwanese businessmen, I don’t think he understands Taiwan very well. Otherwise, in his address, he wouldn’t have urged Taiwanese of all political persuasion, to come to the mainland and negotiate on the basis of “one country two systems”.

The 2005 Anti-secession Act provides conditions for Beijing to use non-peaceful means against Taiwan. Apart from intervening if Taiwan were to declare independence, there is a very worrisome article in the Act which says that when the condition of peaceful unification no longer exists, use of force is justified. The provision is so vague that it can be used at any time to initiate hostilities. So, the root of the danger really lies in Xi considering himself an expert on Taiwan and that makes him not inclined to listen to anybody’s advice. Secondly, the Anti-secession Act gives him an easy excuse to launch an attack on Taiwan whenever he sees a need.

Q: Could this trigger a broader war? Will countries like the U.S. come to your aid given that there is a new president in the White House?

A: The operational concept of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the event of a war against Taiwan would be to win their objective so as to ensure no third party involvement, meaning by the U.S. So the key question for Taiwan is how long can it sustain an attack or beat back a Chinese offensive. There has been no clear statement from the U.S. on defending Taiwan, that is until the recently released document from the White House where there was mention of the U.S. defending countries in the First Island Chain, including Taiwan. But I don’t think that would change the Taiwan military’s operational plan to fight aggression independently. The fact is there’s been no discussion on such an eventuality between Taiwan and the U.S. nor have the two militaries held any joint exercises. Secondly, it’s not clear when U.S. aid will come if an armed conflict erupted in the Taiwan Strait. We all know the time it takes for the political process in Washington DC. Nor is it clear if the Biden administration will follow the same policy as laid out by the Trump administration. I certainly hope so but I believe Biden will take a more ambiguous strategic approach than the Trump administration did.

Q: India’s standoff in Ladakh against China, what lessons are there for Taiwan?

A: To be honest, I have not followed the Ladakh situation that closely. But the fight between soldiers of the two sides is way short of armed conflict, which shows that both sides, to some extent, still honoured the confidence building measures (CBMs) signed in the 1990s. Or, it could be that neither is expecting a war with the other. It is a totally different situation here in the Taiwan Strait. Unlike the Line of Actual Control between India and China, we have no formal CBMs on the Taiwan Strait. For decades, a tacit understanding existed between the navies and air forces of both sides to not cross the middle line of the Taiwan Strait. But that was until recently. There is now pressure on us to subjugate ourselves to China, to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic or face war. We have to prepare for the worst.

Surya Gangadharan

Thirty eight years in journalism, widely travelled, history buff with a preference for Old Monk Rum. Current interest/focus spans China, Technology and Trade. Recent reads: Steven Colls Directorate S and Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. Netflix/Prime video junkie. Loves animal videos on Facebook. Reluctant tweeter.