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Thirty seconds over Taiwan

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Over the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Straits separating what were once called two Chinas last week, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) displayed a show of force, flying nearly 100 fighter aircraft and nuclear-capable bombers into the Air Defense Identification Zone, presumably to intimidate Taiwan. Since September, more than 800 of these missions have been flown, none of which violated or penetrated Taiwanese air space. From Beijing’s perspective, this display of military might was about something as old as Sun Tzu, China’s legendary and admired general and military strategist still widely read and studied today: intimidation.

One fable is that when the Emperor Lo was looking to hire Sun Tzu as his general, he would do so only if the general could teach the royal concubines to march. When the first attempt failed, so the story goes, Sun Tzu picked out the emperor’s favorite concubine and beheaded her to the astonishment of her peers and the anger of his future boss. But the remaining ladies were said to have marched like a Marine drill team.

Given this history, why did the Chinese leadership choose to embark on this show of force now, and what was it meant to achieve? 

First, since American military strategy in Asia is directed in large part to deter and, if necessary, defend Taiwan from an armed invasion or attack by China, Beijing is reminding Washington and Taipei that it possesses a formidable military capable of challenging that commitment. Indeed, Taiwan’s minister of defense declared that China would have the ability to invade Taiwan by 2025.

But this situation is neither black nor white. The U.S. and China are bound by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). But the TRA is not a mutual defense pact like the U.S. has with Japan and South Korea. The U.S. is obligated to assist but not to go to war.

Many in the U.S. believe China is preparing for a military takeover of Taiwan and thus support a “pivot” to Asia in part to counter any aggressive plans Beijing may consider. That in turn raises several contradictions U.S. policymakers are choosing to ignore or downplay. The U.S. appears more worried by the threat of a Chinese invasion than Taiwan does. How then does the U.S. expect Taiwan to take the necessary measures for self-defense if it is less concerned by this threat than Washington?

More importantly, Washington has not accepted that invading and occupying Taiwan far exceeds China’s current and probably future military capability. China could obliterate Taiwan with missile attacks. It can work to destabilize the regime from within. It can use economic sanctions and financial warfare to force Taipei to accept annexation. And it could impose an economic blockade. It cannot, however, invade.

Why? A historical example provides a clue. In mid 1944, at the height of the Allied offensive against Japan, the U.S. was debating whether to invade the Philippines or Taiwan. Dubbed Operation Causeway, the Taiwan option called for 400,000 soldiers and Marines and 4,000 ships arrayed against 30,000 Japanese troops, a force almost double the Normandy landings. China will never have that capability. 

Three other reasons suggest why China employed this show of force. China’s National Day occurred on Oct. 1. China was signaling by this display that Taiwan would eventually return to the fold, even by force. Second, Taiwan had applied for membership to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This was a not so veiled threat to Beijing’s opposition, since it had sought membership.

Third, the number and increase in fly-bys was probably a reaction to the nuclear submarine deal struck by Australia, the UK and U.S. called AUKUS, demonstrating that China has a Taiwan card to play.  

In any event, these operations were entirely symbolic and reminiscent of the famous World War II Doolittle Bombing Raid over Tokyo in April 1942 that, while doing virtually no military damage, shook the Japanese High Command to its core. Yet, we should not be cowed by or overreact to China’s extended “30 seconds” near Taiwan.

If Taiwan is truly shaken by these events, as the Japanese high command was, then it would not be difficult for it to put in place a defense that would make any form of invasion very costly. The best estimate is that Taiwan will not. 

Next, the U.S. must not focus excessively on China’s military threat, as it is doing, or exaggerate it. As the Evergrande real estate debacle demonstrated, a financial explosion in China could prove far more economically threatening to the rest of the world than any ambitions to seize Taiwan.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out in the fall, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags AUKUS China China-Taiwan tension Chinese Communist Party Cross-Strait relations Political status of Taiwan Sun Tzu Taiwan Taiwan–United States relations

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