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The Russian coup attempt shows that China invading Taiwan would be a huge risk

Has Beijing learned the lessons of Putin’s failed invasion of Ukraine, and Prigozhin’s failed revolution?

Flags of the People's Republic of China and of Taiwan (Republic of China) (Image: Getty)

Landing in the Republic of China (ROC), better known to the world as Taiwan, there is little evidence of arriving at the epicentre of a coming global conflict. Walking the clean, humid, streets of the capital, Taipei, there is little security presence. There is a relaxed atmosphere in the air-conditioned shopping malls and the offices of the tech companies. Street music can be heard in the evening in the shadow of Taipei 101, the one-time tallest building in the world that resembles a stack of glass and steel shopping baskets. People queue patiently in neat lines to board the high-speed train that runs over 200 miles, from Taipei in the north down to Kaohsiung City in the south. In under two hours the train crosses the verdant plains of the island’s west, where the majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people live and where 90% of the world’s most advanced microchips are made. 

Beneath the surface is another reality. Many in Washington DC believe that Chinese military exercises, such as those conducted after last year’s visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, are precursors to a full-scale invasion. Concealed in the northern end of the rugged mountain ranges that make up the eastern two-thirds of the island are recently upgraded patriot missile systems, like those sold to Ukraine to protect their cities from Russian missile strikes. 

Those patiently queuing at rail stations or enjoying Taipei’s vibrant nightlife are increasingly concerned about the threat of war. The day before I landed, the military released an updated defence handbook that teaches civilians to distinguish between Chinese and Taiwanese soldiers based on their uniforms, and how to find bomb shelters and supplies using apps on their mobile phone. It was released after the defence ministry received feedback that the handbook needed to incorporate lessons from Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has brought into focus the risks of conflict almost 5000 miles to the east of Kyiv. 

The belief that a war between the US and China is inevitable has been influenced by the concept of Thucydides’ Trap. The political scientist Graham T. Allison has used a quotation from Thucydides, in which he claimed that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was inevitable due to Spartan fears over the growth of Athens. It describes a tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing power. Allison writes: “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.” China is Athens, the US is Sparta. The most likely location of their clash is Taiwan. 

During the recent visit by Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, the Chinese media quoted the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, saying that the Taiwan issue “is the core of China’s… interests, the most important issue in Sino-US relations, and the most prominent risk.” In March at the National People’s Congress, after the Chinese parliament handed President Xi an unprecedented third term, Xi used his closing speech to describe the need for “national reunification” as the “essence of national rejuvenation.” Xi has said he wants to see unification occur under a “one country, two systems principle”, like that employed in Hong Kong. Although he stressed the need to “promote peaceful development of cross-strait relations,” he has consistently made it clear that he has not ruled out the use of force to achieve reunification. 

After Xi’s speech Taiwan’s presidential office said that Taiwanese people clearly rejected the principle of “one country, two systems.” This was demonstrated at the polls in 2020 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, after performing badly in the 2018 regional elections, stormed to victory on the back of the public reaction to the repression of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. Whilst Ing-wen has maintained that since Taiwan is already independent it needs no further declarations, she has been unwavering in her commitment to the protection of Taiwanese democracy in the face of what her party has described as Chinese strong-arm tactics. There has been no direct dialogue between the DPP and Beijing during her two terms. Under DPP rule, peaceful reunification is highly unlikely. With no peaceful reunification, the possibility of the use of force becomes more likely. President Biden, who went some way to re-frosting any thawing of relations Blinken may have achieved by referring to Xi as a dictator days after the visit, has stated that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid in such a scenario. 

The failure of Russia’s vastly numerically superior military to take Kyiv, and the growing internal instability caused by the war, will however have given Xi and his generals in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pause for thought. Crossing a land border is simpler than crossing 100 miles of sea. Amphibious landings are difficult. The last major opposed amphibious assault that was successful was in 1950 by UN forces at Inchon during the Korean War. Despite the obvious build-up of troops in ports in the south of Korea and in Japan (the operation was nicknamed Operation Common Knowledge) an element of surprise was achieved through deception operations elsewhere along the Korean coastline. Similarly, it would be impossible to hide the build-up of forces required to conduct an invasion of Taiwan, but there is a much less coastline to defend, limiting options for deception. Of note, it was during the same war, that then President Truman dispatched the US 7th Fleet to defend Taiwan from Chinese forces. 

In addition, China’s modern army – the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) – is not battle tested. The last full-scale invasion conducted by the Chinese military was its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. The PLA also likely suffers from similar cultural problems to that of the Russian army, namely, corruption and a rigid command structure. Even if the US limits support to the provision of equipment and intelligence as it has done in Ukraine (and it is likely they would go further in their support of Taiwan due to its strategic importance in global supply chains as well as its competition with China) there is no guarantee of a quick victory. Even if any landing is successful there is no guarantee of quickly taking the urban areas or defeating an insurgency launched from the island’s mountainous spine. 

Any military activity would be supported by wide-scale disinformation and cyberwarfare campaigns to undermine morale and sow distrust with the US, as well as attacks on infrastructure, particularly communications (Taiwan is reliant on a small number of easily sabotaged undersea cables for its communications). China will have seen in Ukraine the importance of the digital battlespace. Taiwan already experiences twelve million cyber-attacks per month. According to a 2022 report by the Digital Society Project, Taiwan has ranked as the biggest target for foreign disinformation globally for nearly the last decade. During the military exercise after the Pelosi visit at least four Taiwanese government websites were hacked. Hackers also took control of electronic displays at several of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores as well as one at the Kaohsiung train station to display messages criticising Pelosi.

Ukraine is winning the online battle with Russia, despite Russian attempts to hack critical infrastructure. Ukraine has stayed online and President Zelensky has remained in the country. His government has been able to communicate and inspire its people. Inspiring tales of heroism from the frontline have been shared widely; from the Ghost of Kyiv the MiG pilot credited with shooting down six Russian planes during the Kyiv offensive, to border-guard Roman Hrybov’s last communication made during the Russian attack on Snake Island of “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. Relationships with US tech companies have allowed military and civilians to communicate and coordinate on the battlefield. Taiwan should note, as well as building their own satellite communications system to increase resilience, they need to understand the importance of the narratives Ukraine has created for both its own people and the international audience.   

This Chinese cyber activity is accompanying more traditional espionage. Beijing has allegedly attempted to recruit commanders in the Taiwan military, and political and business leaders to become agents for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There have been a series of convictions for espionage in recent years, including two security officers from Ing-wen’s security detail. These cases bring to light China’s attempts to undermine Taiwan’s military and civilian leadership, erode its will to fight, and access secret defence technology and planning information. 

As well as the enormous risks involved in any assault on Taiwan, Xi must consider the risks of success. While any conflict would likely result in further sanctions from the US, sanctions on China have been gradually increasing over the past few years, slowly acclimatising the economy (which has a vast internal market) to the effect of sanctions. A bigger risk would be the effect on the global economy of any scarcity of high-end microchips. As well as accounting for over 90% of the world’s most advanced microchips, Taiwan accounts for 63% of the total global market in semiconductors. This gives the whole world a stake in ensuring peace across the Taiwan Strait. Any dip in the global economy would put strain on Xi’s promises of prosperity back home, which would increase the risk of domestic instability, the risk that ultimately means the most to him and the Communist Party. 

One criticism of the idea of Thucydides’ Trap is that China’s ambitions, even when it comes to its overseas interests, are fundamentally concerned with managing domestic issues. Controlling Taiwan’s vast tech manufacturing capability would be attractive to China, but the long-term economic disruption brought on by conflict could be dangerous for Xi – pictures of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group advancing on Moscow will have given pause for thought in Beijing. The greatest lesson for China from the war in Ukraine is if you are going to launch an invasion, make sure it will succeed quickly – and if you can’t be certain, don’t launch it at all.

China might opt instead for “grey zone activities”, meaning blockades, economic quarantines, and cyber-operations. China has the world’s largest navy, second largest coast guard and an inestimable number of fishing boats that can be used to hassle Taiwanese vessels. They can conceal a blockade by repeated military exercises or the use of civilian vessels to create constant disruption. Taiwan imports 99% of its energy and has limited ability to store natural gas reserves. It relies heavily on shipping for many basic goods. In the Science of Strategy, a key textbook in the Chinese military, a strategic blockade is described as a way to “destroy the enemy’s external economic and military connections, degrade its operational capacity and war-fighting potential, and leave it isolated and unaided”. 

The Taiwanese and Chinese economies are closely entwined – 40% of Taiwan’s trade is with China, and Beijing wants to increase integration. These grey zone operations give Beijing a strategic hold that can be tightened, but again, this is not without risk. A miscalculation during a military exercise or blockade could ignite full-scale conflict. If this is the lesson for China, what are the lessons for Taiwan?  

If a Chinese invasion is inevitable, Taiwan needs to accelerate its preparations. The government needs to strengthen the national infrastructure, especially its energy supplies and communications infrastructure. Ing-wen must build diplomatic ties with countries that can assist in this, and which will speak up for Taiwan. The government also needs to build the military’s defensive capability – its “Porcupine Strategy”. The high morale of the Ukrainian military, leadership and population have been crucial in their fight. There are questions around the morale of the Taiwanese armed forces and the ability for the wider population to fight, although the inspiration provided by Ukraine has had an impact. A March 2022 survey in Taiwan on the Ukraine war and Taiwan security revealed that 70.2% of respondents are willing to defend Taiwan against China. This is an increase from the 40.3% who said the same in a poll just three months before. 

Ukraine has from the beginning been clear that its people will do the fighting if their allies can provide the arms. Zelensky turned down the US offer of being evacuated in the early days of the invasion, telling them: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The Ukrainian government handed out tens of thousands of automatic weapons to its citizens to defend the nation. In Taiwan, weapons are tightly controlled and culturally associated with gangsterism. The updated handbook is not enough to prepare wider society for conflict. Taiwan is planning to extend its compulsory military service from four months to a year, but this will not come into effect until 2024, when conscripts will undergo more intense training, including shooting exercises and combat instruction from US forces. Taiwan’s military also announced plans in January to include women in its reservist training for the first time – only 300,000 reservists are combat ready. Taiwan has a strong culture of citizens volunteering for civil defence, but this means unarmed volunteers who assist with emergency preparedness and who support military operations.

By improving Taiwan’s military capability and national resilience, and by forging stronger diplomatic alliances, Ing-wen’s government will hope they will not only prepare the country for conflict but also deter China from starting a conflict, by increasing the potential cost of victory. In Taiwan, while there are increasing concerns about conflict, war is not seen as inevitable. Internally, the DPP faces accusations from the opposition party, the Kuomintang or KMT, of having provoked China. As we move towards the Taiwanese elections in January 2024, accusations of provoking – or appeasing – Beijing will intensify. The KMT is calling the election a choice between “war or peace”. 

China is watching Taipei’s diplomacy carefully, especially trade or security deals that provide further international legitimacy to Taiwan’s independence. The DPP claims the coming election is a choice between “democracy or autocracy”. Ing-wen has served two terms so cannot stand again. Instead, Lai Ching-te the deputy president will stand for the DPP. Lai, who has previously called for official independence, vows to follow Ing-wen’s carefully nuanced stance.

This election could see a third candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), take a significant share of the vote, in what is usually a two-horse race. Previously voters tended to split along identity lines. The KMT were seen as the party of Mandarin-speaking mainlanders (who fled China as the Communist Party won its civil war in the 1940s). The DPP has traditionally been the party of the native-Taiwanese majority, many of whose members wanted formal independence from China. Now, more than half of voters are not committed to either party. Even though the DPP took a significant share of the youth vote in 2020 and more and more of the younger generation define themselves exclusively as Taiwanese, 40% of those in their 20s claim to be neutral.

Dr Fu-Kuo Liu, Director of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies, tells me that, while politically the country is divided between those that see the DPP as sticking up to the Chinese bully and those that see its behaviour as antagonistic, most of the people in Taiwan want to maintain the status quo. Most do not accept the inevitability of conflict and accept the idea that, ultimately, some sort of dialogue with China is prudent. In this context every action and every policy becomes more of a balancing act, a delicate dance between two bellicose superpowers. Liu encourages European countries to engage with Taiwan, but to do so responsibly, not provoking Chinese ire, especially if there is no intent to offer material support in the event of future escalation. 

As China increasingly doubts US sincerity, Europe has an important diplomatic role in preventing competition from developing into conflict and ensuring the survival of Taiwan’s democracy. But Europe’s role could be compromised by the need for trade-offs with Beijing in exchange for China pushing Putin towards a resolution in Ukraine. 

Polls have Lai in the lead, but if Ko and Hou join forces they could win. China will likely be doing more than just watching closely – these elections could be the most targeted from misinformation in history. If the DPP is ousted there could be a temporary easing of tensions. However China will continue to build-up its military and the US will continue to resist China’s rise. Taiwan’s presidents in waiting all promise peace, but, regardless of their approach, this may not be within their power to deliver. 

While reason dictates that the cost of military action outweighs the gain for Xi, the lesson the international community can take from the war in Ukraine is that reason does not always win. For Putin it was intolerable to watch Ukraine, the ancestral home of the Kievan Rus people, the Norse forefathers of modern-day Russians and the home of the Black Sea Fleet, inch closer to Nato, to liberalism and to a new social and political openness. Likewise, the continued existence of the Republic of China, in exile just 100 miles off the Chinese coast, is an infuriating reminder that the communist victory in the civil war is not yet complete. For Putin, bringing Ukrainian territories under Russian control was to be his legacy. For Xi, Taiwan has a similar emotional pull. As he considers his legacy, passion could well trump reason.

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