NEO regularly follows developments in relation to the Taiwanese question – a highly complex issue, and perhaps the most dangerous territorial dispute in international politics today. Its complexity lies in the way it combines political, economic and military dimensions.
Naturally, Beijing is particularly concerned about the latter, which itself involves a number of different elements. The USA, China’s main geopolitical rival, is not only showing off its naval might in the waters around the island of Taiwan, it is also negotiating new contracts to supply Taipei with US-built defense systems. As President Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien put it last autumn, the goal is for Taiwan to turn itself “into a porcupine… Lions generally don’t like to eat porcupines”. The lion, of course, is mainland China.
Naturally, Washington is not trying to make anyone believe that Taiwan could defend itself for long against mainland China if the latter were to embark on a military solution to the Taiwanese question. But it is certainly possible to provide Taiwan with the military capacity to hold out for a while – maybe ten to twenty days – until the US sends help (assuming that it decided to intervene in a hypothetical armed conflict between the PRC and Taiwan). Especially since the island is separated from the mainland by the Taiwan strait, which is, on average, 200 km wide and protects it from being approached unobserved – paratroopers brought in by air or ship, for example, would certainly be exposed to defensive firepower.
And it is hard to imagine the Chinese People’s Liberation Army carpet bombing the island. For a number of self-evident reasons. For example, China would want to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and avoid unnecessary damage to housing and transport infrastructure. The latter, it should be noted, is among the most advanced in the world, and preserving it would be a top priority.
And then there is Taiwan’s position as the world’s leading producer of the silicon chips required by modern manufacturing industries. Even at present – not because of any military conflict, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic – Taiwan’s chip manufacturers are experiencing serious problems. The fall in production volumes has had a serious consequences for automobile manufacturers and IT companies around the world. Including Chinese companies.
That is why, to reiterate, it is inconceivable that the PRC would decide on a military solution to the Taiwanese question involving the full force of the Chinese army – as such an attack would inevitably lead to widespread destruction on the island.
That is clearly one of the arguments that led to the policy, described above, of turning Taiwan into a “porcupine”. The USA will focus on providing Taiwan with a defense system able to repel attacks by sea or air, as well as land-based attacks (if Chinese paratroopers were to somehow land on the island). NEO has frequently published articles commenting on the general terms of the bilateral agreements concluded between different US administrations and Taiwan.
The election of Joe Biden as president was initially greeted with cautious optimism by those wishing to see an improvement in relations between China and the US: the new president, it was hoped, would change course and reject “Trump’s legacy”. Although the serious deterioration in relations between the two main global powers probably owed more to the “erratic” approach adopted by Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State.
However, within two or three months of Biden’s inauguration, “leaks” to the media made it clear that there was little room for optimism and that the new administration would continue with the policy of beefing up Taiwan’s military capacities with the latest hardware.
On March 31, citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported that the talks on supplying Taiwan with a Patriot Air Defense Missile system, which had been under way for several years, were drawing to a conclusion. The value of the deal was reported to be $1.8 billion. In fact, Taiwan already has a Patriot system, but it is an older model, which will now be upgraded by its US manufacturers. The first missiles in the new Patriot system will be delivered in 2025.
On April 20 another leak appeared in the Taiwanese press – this time the source was the American Institute in Taiwan (which, in all but name, operates as the US embassy) – to the effect that the deal would involve the delivery of some 40 of the latest version (A6) of the M109 155 mm self-propelled howitzer.
And, as if to confirm that these two reports were not just the fevered imaginings of journalists, the PRC Ministry of Defense criticized the deal in no uncertain terms.
It is worth noting the comment made in a US Congress hearing by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the likelihood of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launching a paratrooper attack on Taiwan. As he saw it, such an attack was unlikely in the immediate or medium-term future. Without saying so directly, General Milley also implied that he doubted China had the necessary military capacity. It appears that comments of this kind have convinced the US legislators that the US military authorities are justified in their use of their budget, both in general, and in relation to the specific policy discussed above – that is, arming Taiwan to turn it into a “porcupine”.
However, the following week the PRC’s foreign ministry issued another angry statement insisting that “the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is committed to carrying out its duty to protect China’s national sovereignty and of territorial integrity”. It should be noted that that phrase is commonly used by China in relation to the Taiwanese question.
As for the political aspect of relations between the US and Taiwan, over the last few weeks it has been dominated by Covid-19 – and, in particular, vaccines. Not only has the issue of supplying vaccines to Taiwan triggered yet another political race between Beijing and Washington, it has also resulted in (again – yet another) dispute between Taiwan’s Progressive Party, currently in Government, and the KMT – the country’s oldest party.
The bone of contention lies in which vaccine to order. As for the urgent need for vaccine doses, there is no doubt – the coronavirus situation in Taiwan has started to get rapidly worse. That is despite the fact that between January 2020 when the virus first appeared and this spring, Taiwan was one of the world’s few coronavirus success stories.
The People’s Republic of China responded promptly, with an offer to supply the required number of vaccine doses to the island. But Taipei rejected the offer on the grounds that the vaccine had, it claimed, not been properly tested. But Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, expressed her gratitude to the USA when Washington offered Taiwan 2.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which provoked an angry article in the Chinese newspaper Global Times.
As for the economic aspects of the relationship between the USA and Taiwan, there has been a lot of media discussion about the prospects of a major project – the proposed construction by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufactering Co. Ltd of a facility in the US state of Arizona, which, upon completion (some time in the mid 2020s), would produce 5-nanometer semiconductor wafers.
The signing of an agreement with TSMC worth some $12 billion, in May 2020, was seen by Donald Trump’s administration as a major step towards “economical and technical independence” from China. That concept has split the expert community in the US, but most tend to be rather skeptical, and feel it may be counterproductive.
If one were to review the current state of the Taiwan question in terms of the standoff between the two major global powers, the conclusion would be, once again, that the general outlook is stormy, with no break in the clouds.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.