Taiwan has signed a NT$9.63 billion (US$343 million) deal with the United States to buy six reconnaissance pods and related equipment to allow its air force to greatly increase surveillance over the Chinese navy’s coastal activities as the island shores up its defences against the threat from Beijing.
The deal, revealed by the island’s defence ministry on Wednesday through a government bidding website, was signed by the ministry’s mission stationed in the US and the American Institute in Taiwan, which represents US interests in the absence of formal relations.
According to the contract made public by the ministry, the deal was struck on July 7. The MS-110 reconnaissance pods would be delivered to Hualien in eastern Taiwan where the air force bases its F-16 fighter jet squadron, the contract said.
The MS-110 is a multispectral pod fitted to an aircraft to capture images and intelligence at long range.
In its report to the legislature in September, the air force said it sought to buy the pods from the US to fit its F-16 jets at a proposed cost of NT$9.81 billion for delivery between 2022 and 2029.
Taiwanese media said the poor quality photos of the Chinese battle group Liaoning’s passage in the Taiwan Strait – taken by the island’s military in April last year – prompted the defence ministry to buy the pods.
The deal – which includes six MS-110 pods, three transportable ground stations, one fixed ground station, spare and repair parts, system and logistics support, personnel training and training equipment – was approved by the US State Department in October.
According to US supplier Collins Aerospace, a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp, MS-110 allows day and nighttime, wide-area and long-range imagery coverage.
The pod is compatible with advanced fighters – including F-16, F-15 and F/A-19 jets – and can capture high-resolution imagery at long range or stand-off range during both peacetime cross-border surveillance and wartime scenarios, Collins said on its website, adding that it could detect targets with a high degree of confidence and through poor weather.
In October, the State Department said the sale would help improve Taiwan’s capacity to “meet current and future threats by providing timely intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for its security and defence”.
It also said the enhanced capability was a deterrent to regional threats and would help strengthen the island’s self-defence.
Beijing has warned the US – which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979 – against selling arms to Taiwan or rallying its allies, including Japan and Australia, to support the island.
To tone down the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said during his visit to Singapore on Tuesday that the US did not seek confrontation.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”
But he also said the US would stay focused on helping Taiwan.
“No one wants to see a unilateral change to the status quo with respect to Taiwan, and again, we are committed to supporting Taiwan and its capability to defend itself,” Austin said.
The Chinese military has been warned that changes to the currents and temperatures off Taiwan’s east coast mean it will have to adapt its submarine warfare plans in the event of an invasion.
A recent report posted on the South China Sea Wave, an anonymous social media account dedicated to military analysis, said the changes to the conditions in the Kuroshio Current – also known as the black stream – could hamper any attempted invasion by mainland China, but also offered new attacking opportunities.
The eastern side of the island is harder to attack from the mainland and is the site of many major Taiwanese military bases – making it key to the PLA’s invasion plans.
China regards the island as a breakaway province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. In recent years the PLA has stepped up its activity in the skies and waters around Taiwan, including more exercises along its east coast, as part of its efforts to step up the pressure.
The Kuroshio Current is a warm ocean current that originates off the Philippine island of Luzon and flows toward mainland Japan in a similar fashion to the Atlantic Gulf Stream.
The South China Sea Wave report said increasing volcanic activity on the ocean floor near Okinawa had led to changes in the water temperature off the east coast of Taiwan, which in turn has had an effect on the currents.
The report said these changes could help submarines to conduct offensive operations, but if they came under attack and tried to escape back to the Chinese mainland, it would be harder to escape because they would be running against the current.
The report also said that eddies and reverse flows would affect the course of torpedoes fired under water and could see them missing their targets without adjustments being made.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the PLA Navy Submarines Academy had spent more than a decade studying the impact of the Kuroshio Current on submarine operations.
“The PLA Navy will expect submarines to put into effect [the mainland’s] counter-intervention strategy against American and allied forces in a Taiwan contingency,” he said.
“The subs, of course, will also play a vital role in the blockade against Taiwan in a bid to cut off external aid, trade and commerce with the aim of slowly strangulating Taipei into submission.”
Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said: “The east coast of Taiwan will become the key battlefield if a Taiwan contingency [an attack from the mainland] happens.”
He added that the Taiwanese navy has a base on the northeast coast of the island at Suao which houses its 168th Fleet, including its anti-submarine Knox-class frigates, and the area hosts an annual Taiwanese training exercise.
“The PLA has conducted submarine drills in waters near the east coast of Taiwan, where the mean depth is over 1,000 metres,” Lu continued.
In the 1970s, the then Kuomintang administration realised its defences on the west coast of Taiwan Strait that face the Chinese mainland were vulnerable to attack due to the shallow waters in the area and shifted key bases to the east – which are easier to defend.
Along with naval bases, they include the air force command centre at Chi Hang Air Base, which has extensive hangars built into a mountain side.
In April, PLA navy announced the Liaoning carrier strike group had conducted “combat drills” in the east coast of Taiwan, and claimed that this kind of training would become a regular event in the future.
Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Tong said the presence of three types of advanced warship – a Type 094A nuclear submarine, Type 075 amphibious assault ship and Type 055 destroyer – at an event in April to celebrate the PLA Navy’s anniversary offered a hint at the formation an amphibious strike group attacking eastern Taiwan would take.
“Both the Type 075 and Type 055 are US warship copycats, while the addition of the Type 094A sub will make the amphibious strike group more powerful,” Wong said.
“The calculation that the US would intervene in a cross strait war is the key reason behind the formation of the powerful amphibious strike group … Well, the only place the PLA marines could land and the huge ships could operate is the east coast because of its water depth.”
To prepare for a possible war, Lu said the mainland Chinese, US and Taiwanese had all sent ships to carry out a hydrological survey off the east coast of Taiwan.
Water pressure, depth, temperature, currents, salinity and other hypnological phenomena will all affect ships’ sonar systems.
Koh said Taiwanese military had spent decades practising anti-submarine warfare, with the help of US technology, but the rapid development of the PLA’s naval strength in recent decades poses fresh challenges.
“The [Taiwanese] navy’s tiny submarine force is ageing … and the PLA Navy definitely enjoys a yawning quantitative advantage in the subs it can deploy,” he said. “These developments definitely pose a clear challenge to [Taiwan’s] undersea warfare capability.”
China has deployed its most advanced stealth fighter jet to air force units monitoring the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea, state media said, in a move Chinese observers saw as a warning to South Korea and Japan, the US’s allies in the region.
The deployment indicated China had delivered at least four aviation brigades with a total of 150 J-20 fighter jets, including two training bases in Inner Mongolia and Hebei and two aviation brigades in the eastern and northern theatre commands, a military insider said.
“China will accelerate the deployment of the upgraded version J-20C, with probably at least one or two brigades in every theatre command to defend the country’s five strategic directions in the next five years,” the insider, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity, told the South China Morning Post.
The five directions referred to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) five theatre commands, in the north, south, west, east and central.
“As one brigade needs at least 36 aircraft, it means the PLA Air Force will need more than 300 J-20s in the future,” they said. “But the progress will rely on the delivery of the home-built WS-10C engine and the latest development of the tailor-made WS-15 engine for the J-20s.”
The new aviation brigade, Military Development Vanguard Air Group, based in Anshan, Liaoning province, has been equipped with the upgraded J-20C jets in a ceremony, state broadcaster China Central Television reported last Friday.
That air group, under the Northern Theatre Command, became the second J-20 aviation brigade, after the Wuhu-based Wang Hai Flight Group under the Eastern Theatre Command in Anhui province, CCTV said.
The two brigades originated from the air force units of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) during the Korean war (1950-53).
“The J-20’s new deployment, announced ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary on July 1, is aimed at telling South Korea and Japan that China is strengthening its air defence along the coastal areas, warning them not to join Washington and intervene in the Taiwan issue,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, said.
A ceremony for the deployment of J-20s was held on Friday at the former site of the air force’s cradle, the original Northeast China Democratic United Army Aviation School in Jilin province in the northeast, as part of the events marking the party centenary, CCTV said.
The PVA’s early pilots and engineers were trained at the school by Japanese pilots who surrendered to China after World War II. The Chinese pilots were trained for only dozens of hours before being sent to the Korean war to fight American counterparts, CCTV said.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the deployment of J-20s to Wuhu and Anshan, respectively 800km (500 miles) and 1,700km from Taiwan, was aimed at preventing the bases there becoming targets for Taipei’s new home-built Hsiung Feng-2E (Brave Wing) cruise missile.
“The Hsiung Feng missile has a firing range of 600km, and its extended version could hit targets more than 1,000km away,” Ni said.
“The J-20 is the PLA’s most powerful and sophisticated weapon, and may become the first bombing target for Taipei if a war between mainland China and Taiwan were to happen.”
Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, to be brought under its control by force if necessary, and is opposed to other countries intervening in its “reunification mission,” planned for decades.
Li said the J-20s would not be the spearhead in a possible cross-strait war, with the mainland’s short and medium-range DF-11, DF-15 and DF-17 missiles expected to be deployed on the front line.
“None of the J-20s will be deployed near the coasts, because of their 2,000km-plus combat range, which is more than enough to cover the mainland coastal provinces and Taiwan,” Li said.
The upgraded version of the J-20C entered mass production last June, although Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science institute in Beijing, said J-20s were currently believed to be in short supply.
“Once a war happens, the PLA needs to deal with all US allies in the region, meaning it needs at least 200 J-20s, given that Beijing expects Washington to deploy between 200 and 300 F-35s to Japan and South Korea by 2025,” Zhou said.
Beijing rushed the J-20, its first stealth fighter jet, into service ahead of schedule in 2017, when the US started deploying the F-35, its fifth-generation all-weather stealth multi-role fighter, to the Asia-Pacific region.
That side is the furthest from mainland China and hosts two major airbases that could play a key role in any invasion and are sheltered by the mountain ranges in the centre of the island.
Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, said the latest operation “helps the PLA air force improve operational capabilities in line with the leadership directive to train under realistic conditions.”
He continued: “If [mainland] China decides to invade and conquer Taiwan while countering US military intervention, then the Chinese air force would probably have to be comfortable operating in this region.”
“The bottom line is this latest operation, to me, represents the next logical step toward readying the PLA for actual combat.”
Tuesday’s sortie – involving 14 J-16 fighters, six J-11 fighters, four H-6 bombers and four other planes – took off from an airbase in Fujian province and was the largest aerial incursion recorded by Taiwan.
The 28 warplanes flew into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, crossed the Taiwan Strait and then headed to the eastern side of the island via the Bashi Channel, according to Taiwan’s air force.
The island, viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province, responded by issuing radio warnings and deploying missile defence systems.
Shu Hsiao-huang, from the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taiwan, told Taiwan’s Liberty Times that a possible target was two air force bases in Taitung and Chiashan.
The location of these two key military assets means Taiwan’s central mountain range offers more shelter from mainland attacks and the Chiashan base has an extensive network of underground hangers that offer further protection.
Beijing denounced the move as a violation of its sovereignty.
The deployment also followed a couple of US naval missions in recent days, including the USS Ronald Reagan’s transit through the disputed South China Sea and a training exercise with the Japanese navy designed to improve the US military’s ability to operate in tandem with its ally.
Grossman said Beijing is showing its rising frustration at the US-Taiwan relationship, particularly their deepening security ties.
“Beijing is also likely signalling displeasure with Washington’s perceived instigation of the G7 to issue harsh criticisms of Chinese behaviour not only against Taiwan, but in other areas as well,” said Grossman.
The US sent 2.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Taiwan this weekend, more than triple the country promised to deliver earlier this month as it deals with an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
As the Associated Press reported Sunday, Taiwan had been relatively successful in staving off COVID-19 until May. Prior to May, just about a dozen people had died from the virus in Taiwan, but the death toll now sits at 538, according to data analyzed by Johns Hopkins University.
The current outbreak has begun to subside as the outbreak forced an increase in mitigation measures, like testing and vaccinations, according to the AP report.
The vaccines was sent from Memphis on Saturday and arrived in Taiwan via a China Airlines cargo plane on Sunday, according to the report. Japan previously shipped the country 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the AP reported.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Chris Coons, and Dan Sullivan visited Taiwan earlier in June and pledged US support. The US said it would send 750,000 vaccines to Taiwan.
“This is about standing up with friends when they are in need,” Duckworth said, according to Nikkei Asia.
The vaccine shipment also signals US support for Taiwan amid its continued tensions with China, which views Taiwan as its territory, the AP noted.
“When I saw these vaccines coming down the plane, I was really touched,” said Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung.
China’s military flights around Taiwan have intensified in recent weeks in what is seen as an effort to test Taiwan and to send a message to its partners, especially the US.
Amid those operations, China appears to be continuing an ongoing effort to improve its military’s ability to fight below the waters off its coast.
In 2020, Chinese aircraft made a record number of flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. China has stepped up those flights this year, adding combat aircraft and setting new records: 20 aircraft in one incursion on March 26, followed by 25 warplanes on April 12.
According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, many of those flights take place off of southwest Taiwan and include variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft equipped for reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare.
The latter capability is particularly important in those waters, where the shallow Taiwan Strait meets the deeper South China Sea. To the east, the Bashi Channel connects them to the Pacific through the Philippine Sea.
The South China Sea’s deep waters are “favorable” for Chinese submarine activity, and the proximity to Taiwan is the reason for “the frequent presence” of anti-submarine aircraft, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the defense strategy and resource division at the Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, a Taiwanese state-backed think-tank.
The Bashi Channel “can be considered as an underwater corridor from which Chinese submarines can enter the Philippine Sea and launch strikes against the US West Coast,” Su told Insider.
Operating and detecting submarines in that area depends on knowledge of water conditions there, which China is working to learn.
“If you want to fight a successful naval war, you had better get your hydrographic information right,” said Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on Chinese undersea warfare at the US Naval War College.
That information affects algorithms used in undersea warfare, and China has been “pulling out all the stops” to understand the currents, temperature, and salinity of those waters, Goldstein told Insider.
“The performance of all those systems is affected by those algorithms, and the Chinese know that,” Goldstein said, “They are working absolutely overtime.”
The geography around the first island chain – the islands immediately off East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – creates challenges and opportunities for submarine warfare.
“China has this kind of perennial strategic problem of geography,” Goldstein said. “To egress their submarines is quite difficult because they have to maneuver through the island chains.”
“You can bet they’re working very hard on making it as hard as they can for the US to know when Chinese submarines are going out and how they do it,” Goldstein added.
The shallowness of the Taiwan Strait inhibits submarine operations, but the currents, temperatures, and salinity create “a really tough acoustic environment,” according to Bryan Clark, an expert on naval warfare at the Hudson Institute and a former submarine officer.
The latter conditions make it harder to detect submarines – an acute problem for US forces tasked with finding Chinese subs in a conflict. The Chinese, however, will likely “just wait for the US [submarines] to start doing something that they can detect,” such as firing torpedoes or missiles, Clark said.
China has rolled out an array of assets that improve its ability to do that, including anti-submarine-warfare ships, undersea monitoring sensors, and advanced helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
“China just in the last five years has started fielding units of serious anti-submarine aircraft,” Goldstein said, citing the Gaoxin-6, an improved anti-submarine variant of the Y-8/9 aircraft.
“They had helicopters that could do anti-submarine warfare, but this is quite new, to have these large fixed-wing planes that drop on sonobuoys and look for submarines,” Goldstein added.
China still has anti-submarine-warfare shortcomings. Its sonar and sonobuoys “aren’t very sophisticated,” Clark said. “They’re easily two generations behind where the US and NATO are and … at least one generation behind Japan.”
The combination of assets and capabilities likely means China will focus on thwarting offensive operations by US subs rather than proactively hunting them, Clark said. Despite US submarines’ familiarity with the area, the confined waters there would limit their ability to evade attacks, meaning they’d likely back off in the face of Chinese pressure.
“The idea would be if a potential submarine is detected, they would send these aircraft, like the Y-8, out there to drop weapons on them,” Clark said. “They’re going to make sure that their own submarines are not in the area and use that to suppress US submarine operations.”
“The fact that the Chinese are developing this, essentially, [anti-submarine warfare] response capability means that US submarines are going to have a more limited impact on any confrontation with the Chinese over something like Taiwan,” Clark added.
‘China is extremely worried’
China’s efforts to improve its maritime awareness aren’t limited to waters around Taiwan.
Last year, Australian officials said a Chinese ship off that country’s western coast was likely mapping routes Australian subs use to access the South China Sea. In December, Indonesian fisherman found a suspected Chinese underwater drone, which was seen as a sign of China trying gather information needed for submarine operations near Australia.
China is not alone in these efforts.
India, which recently clashed with China on their disputed land border, has stepped up efforts to monitor the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects that ocean to the Pacific.
Last year, the US reportedly asked Indonesia to allow P-8 maritime patrol planes land and refuel there, giving them another operating location around the South China Sea; Indonesia denied the request. The recovery of underwater drones near China’s coast also suggests the US is gathering data on the waters there.
“China is extremely worried about our submarine force … because they know that it would be hard for them to hunt our submarines, and our submarines have quite a devastating punch,” Goldstein said. “They’re really trying to do everything they can to understand where our submarines are and how could Beijing possibly counter them.”
Facebook allowed authoritarian governments to use its platform to generate fake support for their regimes for months despite warnings from employees about the disinformation campaigns, an investigation from the Guardian revealed this week.
A loophole in Facebook’s policies allowed government officials around the world to create unlimited amounts of fake “pages” which, unlike user profiles, don’t have to correspond to an actual person – but could still like, comment on, react to, and share content, the Guardian reported.
That loophole let governments spin up armies of what looked like real users who could then artificially generate support for and amplify pro-government content, what the Guardian called “the digital equivalent of bussing in a fake crowd for a speech.”
Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist on the company’s integrity team, blew the whistle dozens of times about the loophole, warning Facebook executives including vice president of integrity Guy Rosen, airing many of her concerns, according to the Guardian.
BuzzFeed News previously reported on Zhang’s “badge post” – a tradition where departing employees post an internal farewell message to coworkers.
But one of Zhang’s biggest concerns was that Facebook wasn’t paying enough attention to coordinated disinformation networks in authoritarian countries, such as Honduras and Azerbaijan, where elections are less free and more susceptible to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, the Guardian’s investigation revealed.
Facebook waited 344 days after employees sounded the alarm to take action in the Honduras case, and 426 days in Azerbaijan, and in some cases took no action, the investigation found.
But when she raised her concerns about Facebook’s inaction in Honduras to Rosen, he dismissed her concerns.
“We have literally hundreds or thousands of types of abuse (job security on integrity eh!),” Rosen told Zhang in April 2019, according the Guardian, adding: “That’s why we should start from the end (top countries, top priority areas, things driving prevalence, etc) and try to somewhat work our way down.”
Rosen told Zhang he agreed with Facebook’s priority areas, which included the US, Western Europe, and “foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc,” according to the Guardian.
“We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Insider in a statement.
“As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them,” she said.
However, Facebook didn’t dispute any of Zhang’s factual claims in the Guardian investigation.
Facebook pledged to tackle election-related misinformation and disinformation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s use of its platform to sow division among American voters ahead of the 2016 US presidential elections.
“Since then, we’ve focused on improving our defenses and making it much harder for anyone to interfere in elections,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post.
“Key to our efforts has been finding and removing fake accounts – the source of much of the abuse, including misinformation. Bad actors can use computers to generate these in bulk. But with advances in artificial intelligence, we now block millions of fake accounts every day as they are being created so they can’t be used to spread spam, false news or inauthentic ads,” Zuckerberg added.
But the Guardian’s investigation showed Facebook is still delaying or refusing to take action against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns in dozens of countries, with thousands of fake accounts, creating hundreds of thousands of fake likes.
And even in supposedly high-priority areas, like the US, researchers have found Facebook has allowed key disinformation sources to expand their reach over the years.
A March report from Avaaz found “Facebook could have prevented 10.1 billion estimated views for top-performing pages that repeatedly shared misinformation” ahead of the 2020 US elections had it acted earlier to limit their reach.
“Failure to downgrade the reach of these pages and to limit their ability to advertise in the year before the election meant Facebook allowed them to almost triple their monthly interactions, from 97 million interactions in October 2019 to 277.9 million interactions in October 2020,” Avaaz found.
Facebook admits that around 5% of its accounts are fake, a number that hasn’t gone down since 2019, according to The New York Times. And MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao reported in March that Facebook still doesn’t have a centralized team dedicated to ensuring its AI systems and algorithms reduce the spread of misinformation.
At first glance, such concerns might seem justified. The Chinese Communist Party has always viewed the annexation of Taiwan as a key strategic goal, but its posture toward the democratic, self-ruling island has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years. Chinese leaders have publicly reiterated their willingness to use force to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, while ramping up the pace of military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has presided over the rapid growth and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army-particularly its navy, air force and missile arsenal. Where Taipei once enjoyed certain advantages in the event of a military conflict, including technological superiority and the benefits of island defense, many military analysts now conclude that China could take Taiwan by force, and that the United States would be hard-pressed to stop it.
Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to cast a gimlet eye on Davidson and Aquilino’s warnings of a near-term or even medium-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
First, the US military brass has a long history of inflating threats in order to ensure continued support from elected officials, particularly the lawmakers who fund their operations. It should be no more surprising that the head of Indo-Pacific Command is hyping the prospect of Chinese military adventurism than it is to hear the head of Southern Command opining that fragile states in the Western Hemisphere pose an “existential” threat to the United States.
The Pentagon’s own annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, released last year, makes clear that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be “a significant political and military risk” for China.
Large-scale amphibious invasions are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, and this would likely be the largest mass military mobilization the world has seen since D-Day. It would require the PLA to transport its soldiers across a body of water nearly five times as wide as the English Channel, all while ensuring that it maintains unchallenged control of the seas and airspace around the island.
As Taiwan-based writer Brian Hioe recently pointed out in a piece for the online magazine New Bloom, it is doubtful that the PLA currently has adequate amphibious lift capability to sustain an invasion and occupation of Taiwan.
China could try to make up for this deficiency by utilizing coast guard ships, commercial vessels and even fishing boats – engineering what some analysts have called a “reverse Dunkirk” – but that would entail its own discrete risks.
Whatever the case, it seems clear that Chinese military planners would prefer to have more time to develop their amphibious capabilities before attempting to take Taiwan by force.
Beijing must also factor in the likelihood of an intervention from the US and its allies, particularly Japan, which hosts the largest overseas contingent of American active-duty military personnel. Most of them are stationed in Okinawa, just 750 kilometers – roughly 466 miles – from Taiwan.
Japan, too, maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan, and would view any Chinese aggression toward the island as a threat to its own security. According to a recent report in the Nikkei, a leading Japanese newspaper, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden are planning to underscore the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement when they meet in Washington later this month.
As the Nikkei notes, the last time Japanese and American leaders expressed such concern was in 1969. Should it wish to forcibly annex Taiwan, Beijing would have to accept the high likelihood of a war with its top two trading partners.
Even if China successfully pulls off a cross-strait invasion while keeping the US and its allies at bay, the human and economic toll would be nothing short of catastrophic. Taiwan’s technology and manufacturing sectors play crucial roles in global supply chains, and Beijing would likely come under tremendous international pressure, including economic sanctions, to reverse course.
Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, two scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have also argued that China would have to deal with the prospect of a prolonged resistance movement on the island.
“An all-out invasion of Taiwan might bog down the PLA in a counterinsurgency effort that lasts for years, which could compromise the military’s modernization efforts, drain precious resources from the Chinese economy, and lead to dissatisfaction at home as the body bags come home, many of them likely to be their parents’ only sons,” they wrote in Foreign Policy last year.
This would be exactly the type of aggressive military intervention and occupation that China has castigated the US for mounting in the past.
None of this means that China’s threatening behavior against Taiwan should not be taken seriously.
Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told lawmakers in Taipei this week that he considered China’s provocations to be a kind of “war of attrition,” likely referring to the fact that Taiwan has incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in additional maintenance costs to facilitate the frequent scrambling of its jets, many of which are older models.
Chang’s comments speak to a core pillar of China’s strategy: Wearing Taiwan down psychologically in the hope that, eventually, its leaders will be forced to negotiate the terms of their surrender.
Of course, Beijing itself has undermined that strategy with its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong and on the city’s autonomy, making a mockery of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that Chinese leaders once put forward as a template for unification with Taiwan.
Going forward, China is more likely to continue and perhaps build upon its multipronged pressure campaign against Taiwan. This could mean further efforts to isolate Taipei on the world stage by trying to poach its remaining diplomatic allies and continuing to block its access to international organizations.
It could even try to test Taiwan’s resolve – and the international community’s commitment to defending it – by taking over one of the smaller islands that Taiwan administers in the South China Sea. But at least in the immediate term, it is difficult to envision Chinese leaders justifying the political, economic and reputational costs of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
Pentagon officials are fond of saying that the US military is a planning organization. Its job is to plan for contingencies, and a military conflict over Taiwan is certainly worth putting at or near the top of the list. There are a number of scenarios that, while improbable, could spark an escalatory cycle and change China’s cost-to-benefit calculus with regard to Taiwan.
But no one is served by publicly exaggerating the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait – not the United States and certainly not the people of Taiwan, who ultimately have the most at stake.
Elliot Waldman is the senior editor of World Politics Review.
Beijing has warned Washington not to cross its “red line” on Taiwan after a US envoy arrived on the island as part of a delegation from Palau, one of Taipei’s 15 remaining allies.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that “the Chinese side resolutely opposes any form of official contacts between US and Taiwanese officials,” adding that any such contact would hurt US-China ties and affect stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The warning came after Palauan President Surangel Whipps arrived in Taiwan on Sunday for a five-day trip to launch a “travel bubble” to ease coronavirus between Taipei and Koror, Palau’s biggest island.
US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland was part of the delegation, becoming the first US envoy to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned to its control by force if needed, has repeatedly warned the US against official contacts with the island.
On Monday, a day after the US ambassador was reported to be visiting Taiwan, Beijing sent 10 warplanes to Taiwan’s southwest air defence identification zone to ramp up pressure on the island, according to Taiwan’s defence ministry.
In Taipei, Whipps said his country needed support from both Taipei and Washington.
“Having the US ambassador here with us is just a demonstration of how we work together to get this ‘sterile corridor’ or ‘travel bubble’ started,” he said, referring to US supplies of vaccines to Palau that enabled the formation of the travel bubble.
“As a small country, we could easily be infiltrated, and we depend on our partners to protect us and give us security. So I appreciate [Hennessy-Niland] joining us … which demonstrates [the US] friendship and commitment in protecting us and giving us security.”
Observers said Hennessey-Niland’s presence was a strong signal from the US that it would respond to any effort by Beijing to bring Palau into its fold.
“According to normal diplomatic practice, Amb. John Hennessey-Niland would not be able to come to Taiwan without permission from the State Department,” said Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.
“[His visit] signals the US effort to assist Taiwan in securing diplomatic ties with Palau against pressure from Beijing.”
Whipps told Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency that soon after he was elected president late last year, Beijing tried to persuade him to switch diplomatic recognition to the mainland but he rebuffed Beijing’s overtures, saying he valued Palau’s ties with Taipei.
Hennessey-Niland has said Pacific nations need to be aware of the risks and the potential loss of autonomy in siding with Beijing. And in a US Senate hearing in December 2019, he said Taiwan was a US partner and critical to helping contain Beijing’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.
Huang said Hennessey-Niland’s visit “implies that the Biden administration has observed the Taiwan Travel Act and the decision made by its predecessor to lift unfair and unnecessary restrictions on certain official engagements with Taiwanese counterparts.”
Former US president Donald Trump approved the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 to allow high-level official visits with Taipei. His administration also removed decades-old, self-imposed restrictions on how its diplomats and other officials interact with the island.
Observers said the US envoy’s presence on the trip also indicated that US partnership with Taiwan had gone beyond just the US-Taiwan level, but also involved a third party such as Palau.
“It looks like a concerted action,” Huang said, adding that more evidence was needed to assess whether the three had established a formal partnership.
Lin Ting-hui, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Society of International Law, said he did not rule out a joint coastguard drill between Taiwan, Palau and the US, given that Palau had a coastguard agreement with Taiwan and the US had a similar arrangement with Taiwan and a defence deal with Palau.
Putin’s success augmented “the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” as US President Barack Obama put it at the time. Given Crimea’s location in a small country – and the complex, often ethnically tinged territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia – the world was not willing to fight for it.
History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes; today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea. In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.
Also known as the Pratas Islands, they have no permanent inhabitants, but they host a detachment of some 500 Taiwanese marines, and are also visited by fishers and researchers. Although the Dongsha are located about 275 miles from Kaohsiung, the municipality in southern Taiwan that administers them, they lie just 170 miles from Hong Kong and are within the city’s airspace, putting them in easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army.
In recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, where it maintains expansive maritime claims that are not recognized under international law.
On countless occasions, China’s fleet has harassed, intimidated or even rammed into other countries’ ships in this strategic waterway – including naval vessels, fishing trawlers and oil exploration rigs. The PLA has also built military installations atop reefs and rock formations in the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.
But unlike those features, which are the subject of numerous overlapping claims and international legal disputes, the status of the Dongsha Islands is a bilateral row between China and Taiwan. This makes it easier for China to attempt a unilateral change to the status quo.
Indeed, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Beijing has stepped up the pace of its military exercises near the Dongsha, prompting Taipei to respond with live-fire drills on the islands, including one earlier this month. As his administration looks to build closer ties with Taiwan, President Joe Biden would be wise to pay close attention to this potential flashpoint.
The Dongsha Islands have long been seen as strategically significant in China, which could use them to control and hinder foreign access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines that Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Western Pacific Ocean.
Chinese writers and scholars have in recent years made Beijing’s position plain: The Dongsha Islands are necessary to both China’s eventual unification with Taiwan and for Beijing’s broader geopolitical interests.
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, put it simply, writing in a recent article for the state tabloid Global Times that the “Dongsha Islands’ location is strategically important as it links the South China Sea and the West Pacific, and if the Taiwan authority lets US military forces deploy facilities in the islands, it would be a major threat to the PLA and the mainland’s security.”
For reasons that remain unclear, though, the exercise was apparently canceled at the last minute. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, was quoted by the Global Times as denying that the drills were ever planned. Still, China’s designs for these islands remain clear.
In fact, there is already precedent for this. In October 2020, the Hong Kong government prevented a Taiwanese aircraft from using its airspace to fly to the islands, reportedly due to nearby PLA missile drills. Less than a week later, a senior Taiwanese military officer, Lt. Gen. Li Tingsheng, made a trip to the islands with a delegation of coast guard personnel, sending a clear message of defiance to Beijing.
However, the Dongsha Islands’ presence in Chinese airspace makes fortifying them and maintaining effective control over the territory a much harder and more expensive task for Taiwan. Here, the parallel to Russia’s takeover of Crimea is disturbingly clear, given that the peninsula’s geography – almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea – and proximity to Russia made it difficult for Ukraine to defend.
When Putin seized Crimea, the international community responded by isolating Russia and imposing sanctions. Yet despite this pushback, it was clear that the United States, the European Union and the rest of NATO were not going to risk war with Russia over Crimea.
Taken in sum, these efforts may have avoided a military confrontation. But they also made it clear to Putin that while he might face some short-term pain, he could redraw Europe’s borders by force without fear of military pushback. And now, some seven years later, it is apparent that he has done just that.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, he appears to have been emboldened by the democratic world’s collective failure to hold Putin to account after the seizure of Crimea. China continues to not only claim nearly the entire South China Sea, but physically fortify its islands there, prompting, again, “only muted response from the international community,” as US Air Force Capt. David Geaney put it in a recent op-ed.
If Xi believes he can get away with militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea – and with sinking and harassing neighbors’ vessels there, as he has so far – he may very well see the Dongsha Islands as ripe for the taking.
In the event of such aggression, the rest of the world would be wise to bear in mind the lessons of Crimea. If the architects and most fervent supporters of the rules-based international order – namely, the United States, the EU, Japan and others – again fail to defend the victims of outright aggression and annexation, this time off China’s coast, the attractiveness and validity of that order will only further decline, as it has since 2014.
The United States and its partners cannot expect countries around the world to support and stand by the US-led international order, rather than defect to China’s illiberal vision for the world, if Washington and Brussels do not stand up for smaller countries that are threatened by the bullying behavior of nearby great powers.
In 2014, the international community’s red line should have been Crimea; today, it must be the Dongsha Islands.
Shahn Savino is a program analyst with VTG, a defense contractor. He is a member of the Black China Caucus and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ShahnMarc.
Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at the LSE IDEAS think tank and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.