LONDON: Twenty-five years ago, war over Taiwan seemed imminent.
Chinese missiles flew in the direction of Taiwan and a US aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a defiant signal of resolve.
Now, tensions are rising over Taiwan again. China has increased aerial and naval patrols around Taiwan and this week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a warning to Beijing “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change [the] status quo by force.”
The public discourse has started to imply war over Taiwan may again be a possibility. Speaking in early March, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, suggested that China might launch an invasion of Taiwan within six years.
But these assessments are misleading. Although Beijing’s desire to reunify with Taiwan remains strong, and China has channelled resources to put pressure on Taiwan, it knows the cost of any invasion of Taiwan are incredibly prohibitive and could lead to a long-drawn conflict.
Rather, China is more likely to pursue a gradualist approach, slowly eroding Taiwanese sovereignty. Rather than a bloody war, China will most probably look to “salami slice” its way to reunification.
Since the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949, reunification has been a primary policy goal for Beijing. But over 70 years, the island has been able to maintain sufficient military deterrence to make an invasion seem too costly or difficult to achieve.
Despite having a population just 2 per cent the size of China’s, US support, rapid economic growth in the latter half of the 20th century and outsized investment in defence has enabled Taiwan to maintain a qualitative military edge over China for decades.
For Beijing, focused on defence of its own borders and often consumed by internal instability, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, an invasion of Taiwan seemed like an unwise task.
However, the opening of China’s economy in the late 1970s, subsequent rapid growth and an effective military industrialisation strategy have seen China leapfrog defence technology development. The military deterrence that Taiwan once possessed is being worn down.
Some estimates suggest the PLA is now not just numerically superior, but technologically on a par with Taiwan, meaning that a war across the Taiwan Strait would likely end in China’s favour.
But such studies ignore the reality that even a relatively successful invasion of Taiwan will require a bloody, costly campaign.
Taiwan sits 100 miles off China’s coast, across open water where Chinese vessels would be vulnerable to missile and torpedo attack.
Taipei has also vowed to pepper China’s coastline with missile salvoes; the 2021 Quadrennial Defence Review, released in March, noted that the island’s strategy would be to “resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead.”
China would likely lose tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of troops, to say nothing about the impossible task of pacifying an island of 23.5 million Taiwanese who would likely resist Chinese occupation.
Moreover, while China might be able to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan, the outcome is less certain if the US commits immediately and resolutely to Taiwan’s defence. US nuclear-powered submarines, carrier strike groups and missile forces throughout the region will make any cross-strait operation even more treacherous.
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For the CCP, regaining Taiwan is a defining priority, but losing a war over Taiwan is a regime-threatening event.
SALAMI SLICING TAIWAN
The alternative, and less risky, path to war for Beijing is therefore to use a strategy that has been successful elsewhere: Salami slicing.
In salami slicing, small, incremental changes are made to move towards a larger goal. Those small changes are insignificant enough to fall short of a reason for war, but when added together start to definitively change the facts on the ground.
In China’s near-seas, this process has involved a massive increase in the patrols of Chinese military, paramilitary and commercial vessels, island reclamation and more overflights of aircraft.
These tactics work on land and sea – on its mountainous border with India, China has built a string of villages in disputed territory to create a fait accompli of occupation.
With Taiwan, a similar salami slicing strategy is already in process. In recent years, China has successfully eroded decades-long norms about Taiwanese air zones. In 2016, China began frequent circumnavigational flights of the island. In 2019, regular incursions by Chinese military aircraft across the median line between the two entities began.
In the 60 years prior to this, just one intentional crossings of the median line had occurred; now they are commonplace. In September 2020, 37 aircraft crossed the line.
And Chinese aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defence identification zones a record 380 times in 2020, the most since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. On Apr 13, the largest incursion yet, of 25 aircraft, occurred.
Such flights are becoming so commonplace Taiwan has stopped scrambling jets to every Chinese incursion. It has become too costly to do so. By October 2020, Taiwan had scrambled 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft that year.
The same is happening at sea. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had exercised off the coast of Taiwan in early April. By November 2020, Taiwanese vessels had intercepted Chinese ships 1,223 times – a 50 per cent increase over the previous year.
Beijing has already started to shift the expectations of behaviour and created a new normal where the presence of Chinese military aircraft and vessels is routine, even expected.
In the wake of the new Chinese Coast Guard Law in February, Taiwanese analysts have warned harassment of Taiwanese vessels by China’s paramilitary force may be next. Sun Tzu-yun of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research noted at a mid-March forum that such grey zone tactics would be harder to counteract.
Meanwhile, Beijing has also started to use commercial vessels as a regular Chinese presence on Taiwan’s outlying islands – Chinese dredgers have since mid-2020 been reportedly “swarming around the Matsu islands”, while the Taiwanese coast guard had ejected 4,000 Chinese dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from Taiwanese waters in 2020, a 560 per cent increase over the previous year.
It is not the main island of Taiwan at most risk of such salami-slicing tactics, but Taiwan’s outlying islands such as Penghu, Matsu, Kinmen and Pratas.
With small populations and at a distance from the main island, these are vulnerable to greater pressure campaigns from China, whether grey-zone tactics or a more militarised operation.
Would Washington react militarily if China occupied one of the smaller Kinmen islands – an uninhabited rock just 10 km off China’s coastline – in a bloodless operation?
What if it were not military personnel but Chinese “fishermen” that set up camp there? Would it not be challenging to justify a military response to such a small non-military change?
The threat of war from China should not be ignored – reunification with Taiwan would be a crowning moment for any Chinese leader and the PLA is explicitly geared toward an offensive against the island.
But invasion is not the only arrow in China’s quiver. For Taipei and Washington, devising an effective response to China’s salami slicing tactics, which slowly change the facts and shift perceptions of sovereignty and autonomy, is likely more pressing in the short term.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and the founder and managing director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London.