Cross-Strait Relations: Continuity and Change

In the report to the 20th  National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2022, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping said, “China will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force. We reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.” This was not the first time that China has referred to the use of force in case of reunification with Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has consistently refused to rule out the use of force if Taiwan takes overt actions toward independence and has built military capabilities to make this threat credible. Furthermore, the Chinese government, in its 2020 work report to the Chinese National Party Congress (NPC), had also dropped the word “peaceful” while referring to reunification with Taiwan, breaking with nearly three decades of precedent – also indicating the worsening of the cross-strait relations.

Understanding Cross-Strait Relations: Continuity 

Since the formation of the PRC in October 1949, the CCP has maintained that Taiwan is an integral part of China and must eventually be unified.  It also initially attempted to “liberate Taiwan” by the use of force, but lacked experience and skills in conducting amphibious landing operations in the 1950s. 

In 1979, the PRC announced a new policy of “peaceful unification,” but also reserved the right to use force under some circumstances. Beijing termed this governance model as “one country, two systems.” Under this model, the PRC allowed Taiwan to keep its economic and social systems, government, and even military in return for acknowledging that it was part of the People’s Republic. Taiwan rejected this proposal. However, a much-altered version of this model, favouring China, was eventually applied to Hong Kong and Macao, which became special administrative regions (SARs) within the PRC in 1997 and 1999, respectively. China initiated this policy change after the United States (US) moved to recognise the PRC and de-recognise the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979, stating, “The People’s Republic of China was the sole legal Government of China.” 

It is extremely important to understand and distinguish between the “One China” Principle (一个中国原则, yige zhongguo yuanze) and the “One China” Policy (一中政策, yi zhong zhengce) to understand the cross-strait problems. The PRC follows the “One China” Principle, a core belief stating that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, with the PRC serving as the sole legitimate government. The US, meanwhile, follows the “One China” Policy – meaning the PRC was and is only China, with no consideration of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) as a separate sovereign entity. Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China. But it did not give in to Chinese demands to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. To this day, the US position stands and the ambiguity that it creates has maintained the status quo and preserved stability in the Taiwan Strait.

This complex understanding was first tested during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96 when President Bill Clinton granted Lee Teng-hui, former President of ROC, a visa to visit the United States to attend a reunion at Cornell University. Previously, the Clinton Administration had revised its Taiwan engagement protocols to allow for higher-level meetings and had also agreed to sell 150 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. The PRC saw a pattern in Washington’s behaviour and, ahead of Taiwan’s first popular presidential election, responded by mobilising over 100,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Fujian province. It also carried out military exercises, including firing missiles into waters just 20 miles from Taiwan’s coast – one of the missiles passed over Taipei – and also resorted to nuclear signalling. In response, the US signalled resolve by sending two aircraft carriers to East Asian waters – The USS Independence and the USS Nimitz. It was the first real test for the US strategic ambiguity and is considered an important learning lesson for China for taking steps towards ongoing military modernisation.

Changing Balance of Power

The third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Gulf War I and the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were important lessons for the Chinese leadership and major drivers of Chinese military modernisation. As Cortez A. Cooper III argues, “From 1998 to the present, China’s defence white papers have been a primary conduit for delineation of the threats to Chinese national interests and objectives, both domestic and foreign, and have called the PLA to modernise.” Chinese military modernisation began in the late 1990s under the mysterious “995 Project” armaments development plan – A plan which adjusted the relationship between Chinese national defence construction and national economic construction to boost Chinese defence industrial production. This was expedited by Xi when he announced the reduction of troops, restructuring of military regions into theatre commands and formation of three new services in its ongoing military reforms to convert the PLA into a “world class force.” As I have documented elsewhere, these reforms have enhanced China’s state capacity to achieve stated and revealed national security objectives – one of which is cross-strait reunification. For instance, the formation of the Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) with a modern joint command system (for instance, ETC has Navy and Air Force at its disposal), focused weapons manufacturing and acquisition (like ZLT-05 amphibious fighting vehicles), targeted military exercises and integration and use of cutting-edge military technology have shifted the cross-strait balance of power. Furthermore, China’s development of anti-access/area denial systems (A2/AD) in the near-seas region, which currently reaches the first island chain – including Taiwan, and could also reach Guam by 2027, have possibly limited the role of the US in case of a cross-strait crisis. This was reflected in the 2019 testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee, as Admiral Philip Davidson, former Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said that there is no guarantee that the US would win a future conflict with China (especially in China’s backyard).

Besides military measures, China has also taken non-military measures to coerce Taiwan. It terms the Taiwan issue as its “core interest” (核心利, hexin liyi) — the PRC’s version of what India would call “non-negotiable national security interests.” Andrew Scobell explains that this designation underscores the island’s continuing central importance to the CCP and strongly suggests that Beijing believes Taiwan is worth fighting for. Previously, under the former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, the PRC passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2005 that laid a legal basis for “non-peaceful” action in case of Taiwan’s independence. Furthermore, Xi himself in 2013 and 2019 stated that the Taiwan issue “should not be passed down generations after generations.” Moreover, since 2017, CCP leaders have started linking Taiwan’s re-unification to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” that is to be achieved by 2049, creating an implicit non-negotiable deadline. As Oriana Mastro explains, all these steps indicate “a palpable shift in Beijing’s thinking, made possible by a decades-long military modernisation effort, accelerated by Xi, aimed at allowing China to force Taiwan back into the fold.”

China’s Recent Cross-Strait Military Coercion

In recent years, China has stepped up its military ante in the Taiwan Strait. For instance, in 2020, the PLA Air Force’s (PLA AF) two fighter aircraft intruded into Taiwan’s side of the median line. It was for the first time that the PLA had crossed the median line since 1999. In response to the US Speaker of the House’s Congressional Delegation visit to Taiwan in early August, the PLA AF flew more than 250 fighter aircraft sorties across the median line in August 2022, according to Taiwan Ministry of National Defense data. Furthermore, since September 2020, China has also increased its air operations in Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). In 2021, the PLA AF entered Taiwan’s ADIZ in 240 days. Similarly, in 2021 the PLA Navy (PLAN) also conducted more than 20 naval exercises with an island-capture element, exceeding the 13 observed in 2020. Additionally, in response to the US Congressional Delegation’s visit, the PLA Rocket Force (PLA RF) fired multiple ballistic missiles into impact zones in waters around Taiwan, including at least four missiles that overflew Taiwan, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense. This is besides over 15,000 gigabits volume of cyber-attacks on Taiwan governmental units during the Congressional Delegation’s visit, 23 times higher than the previous daily record, as per the data provided by Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang.

China’s Taiwan Invasion Campaign and Taiwanese Deterrence 

There is no explicit timeline that Beijing has declared for reunification with Taiwan, but as Oriana Mastro highlights, based on her conversations with Chinese scholars, strategists and officials, Xi wants reunification with Taiwan as a part of his legacy. In a recent interview after the US Congressional visit, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that “China has used the drills in its military play-book to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan.” Even the US Navy Chief, Admiral Mike Gidlay, recently said the US had to consider that China could take action against Taiwan much sooner than even the more pessimistic warning. Gilday’s comments came two days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China was “determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline” after deciding that the status quo was “no longer acceptable.” 

Thus, an important question for the policy planners and strategic community is not if a Taiwan invasion is imminent but when it would happen and how it would manifest. There is no substantial evidence on the timeline of the invasion, however, Chinese literature and recent scholarly analysis highlight the types of campaigns that China could undertake while invading Taiwan. For instance, using Chinese literature like multiple editions of Science of Military StrategyScience of Joint Operations, Science of CampaignsScience of Second Artillery CampaignsLectures on Joint Campaign Command and Joint Operations Headquarters Work: Edition 2004, Michael Chasey has analysed that Beijing could indulge in three possible cross-strait military campaigns for reunification with Taiwan. They are joint-firepower strike campaign, joint-blockade campaign and joint-island landing campaign. 

He explains that the joint-firepower strike campaign is an offensive operation with multiple services coordinating the planning, timing, and spacing of long-range precision strikes to intimidate an adversary’s leadership and population to abandon or reverse the country’s strategic intentions. The joint-blockade campaign is a “protracted campaign” to sever enemy economic conditions for submission to campaign goals. And the joint-island landing campaign is a large-scale joint offensive campaign to “break through the enemy’s seacoast, and to seize landing fields and harbors to enable favorable conditions for subsequent military operational activities.” 

Besides these three operations, China could also indulge in what Fiona Cunningham describes as a “Joint Information Warfare Campaign to interfere with and damage enemy information and information systems in the cyber and electromagnetic domain. “This would influence and weaken an enemy’s capabilities for information gathering, transmission, management, exploitation and decision-making and ensure the stable functioning of one’s information systems functions, information security and accuracy of decisions,” she testified to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Since China has been an existential threat to Taiwan since 1949, the island country takes deterrence and defence preparedness extremely seriously. Taiwan’s defence is closely linked with the US weapons systems procurement and innovation, doctrines, training and exercises, and caters mainly to the US regional strategies and interests. However, due to the shifting balance of power across the strait – due to the extreme imbalance of resources between China and Taiwan – the island country’s approach to defending itself by counter-invasion force has become outdated.

The most major debate in Taiwan policy circles is between retaining a conventional legacy force and building a more asymmetrical military capability. Thus, Taiwan was moving towards the latter, termed the Overall Defense Concept (ODC) (整体防卫构想, zhengti fangwei gouxiang), a brainchild of its recently retired chief of general staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-ming. He argues that Taiwan should abandon the traditional war of attrition and adopt concepts of asymmetric warfare. It should embrace the concept of denial over control and should invest in highly survivable, lethal and mobile asymmetric capabilities like mines, unmanned systems, small stealth missile corvettes, short and medium-range precision ammunition, mobile area air defence systems, etc. He argues that these systems would not help Taiwan counter Chinese grey zone activities, however, they would effectively address the threat of full-scale invasion. Given Taiwan’s limited defence budget, he argues that the island country should invest most of its resources in weapon systems that can effectively counter a full-scale invasion from China instead of against grey zone aggression. 

Taiwan had started moving towards Admiral Lee’s ODC, however, with his retirement in 2019, the Ministry of Defence purged the ODC and resorted back to pursuing high-profile, high-prestige, and high-cost weapons. For instance, as Michael Hunzeker highlights, Taiwan announced the purchase of 66 F-16 aircraft for an estimated $8 billion, its ongoing efforts to build eight indigenously developed submarines for approximately $16 billion and wants to spend nearly $1 billion on 40 M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers. However, genuinely asymmetric capabilities, like the proposed fleet of 45-ton fast-attack missile boats, remain unfunded. Now, the ODC has completely disappeared from the Ministry of Defense’s dictionary as it didn’t appear in either the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review or the 2021 National Defense Review. Such inter-ministerial problems have significantly weakened cross-strait deterrence, making defending Taiwan unrealistic in case of a full-scale Chinese invasion. 

India’s Role 

The latest research by Rhodium Group predicts that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan would cause $2.5 trillion in economic damage. It would also severely impact India, as nearly 55 per cent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region pass through these waters. Furthermore, if China succeeds in reunification, then any efforts to build a balance of power in Asia would be impacted. As Rajesh Rajgolpalan highlights, if China succeeds, it will achieve dominance over the region, like the US position in the Western Hemisphere, thereby reducing India to a secondary position in its backyard. Or, a successful Chinese invasion might lead to the formation of a coalition of Asian and other powers deciding that they can no longer trust China’s words, leading to more tension and possibly a major war. In both these scenarios, India ends up on the losing side. 

However, despite these concerns, India has a limited role to play in case of a cross-strait crisis due to its capabilities and resources deficit. Some scholars have highlighted what Chinese strategists refer to as “chain reaction” warfare – a long-held worry over regional powers (like India) possibly exploiting a Taiwan conflict to solidify its own territorial claims. However, looking at India’s defence posture at the Line of Actual Control, which currently aims to deter China by denial, and its history of pursuing strategically defensive war aiming to maintain the territorial status quo, India’s participation or initiation on the “chain reaction” warfare seems unrealistic.

Thus, India’s peacetime options include improving its ties with Taiwan, even if it stays short of recognising its independence. Some scholars have also argued for continuing with the growing economic relations and helping Taiwan build popular support for participation in multiple regional, multilateral and security groupings and organisations in the wake of India’s troubles with China. Furthermore, India is the only country that has recently dealt with the PLA Ground Force (PLAA). Thus India’s intelligence and experiences of dealing with the PLA would be extremely useful for Taiwan and India’s partner countries.

During the crisis, India could potentially play an important role in rallying diplomatic condemnation of a Taiwan assault in the developing world. Its remains to be seen if India would allow the US aircraft or vessels to refuel on the mainland and grant the US access to its Andaman and Nicobar Island bases to facilitate a blockade of China’s energy supplies passing through the Malacca Strait. However, allowing the US aircraft and vessels to refuel on the Indian mainland and granting access to the Andaman Nicobar Island bases for blockading China are extremely escalatory steps, which could lead to an eventual Chinese response on the Himalayas at the time and place of the PRC’s choosing. Given these limitations and the challenges, it remains to be seen if India would directly get involved in the East Asian conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, as I have documented elsewhere, none of the measures that India plans to adopt before or during the war are cost free, however, doing nothing also carries its own set of costs. 

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