Taiwan, China, the US: who's beating the drums of war?

Taiwanese marines take part in an anti-invasion drill in 2019. Picture: Getty Images
Taiwanese marines take part in an anti-invasion drill in 2019. Picture: Getty Images

As China continues to assert sovereignty claims over Taiwan in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, Five Eyes intelligence agencies are no doubt being asked about the prospect of China trying to take Taiwan by military force.

China and Taiwan of course maintain separate governments and militaries. Officially, China's position is that it seeks peaceful reunification - but it hasn't ruled out the use of force. In fact, it has recently demonstrated an increased willingness to apply military pressure to Taiwan through, for example, People's Liberation Army (PLA) air force and navy intrusions into Taiwan's air space and territorial waters.

On paper, China has an overwhelming military capability compared to Taiwan's. But while China's ongoing military modernisation has greatly enhanced the PLA's capabilities, it remains doubtful it could occupy Taiwan against determined opposition. Taiwan's military has well-prepared defences around key landing points, and regularly conducts military exercises to repel Chinese forces notionally arriving by sea or air.

As military strategists know full well, warfare is not just a numbers game. China's army did not perform particularly well in the Korean conflict during 1950-53 or the border war with Vietnam in 1979, and it's a lot easier to deploy one's forces into contiguous land areas.

Furthermore, China does not have a tradition of military achievements. Its military forces in the past have not performed particularly well for a variety of reasons, including poor military leadership, weak logistical support, and a reluctance to acknowledge failure.

China is admittedly more powerful militarily than it has ever been before, but mounting an invasion across an air-sea gap like the one between China and Taiwan poses substantial military challenges. Taiwan is a formidable 180 kilometres offshore from mainland China. Very capable German generals never felt confident enough to try an invasion against Britain in the Second World War across the 35-kilometre English Channel, and we know how difficult it was for Allied forces to mount the Normandy landings in 1944, despite having overwhelming military superiority.

Deploying airborne forces successfully can also be very challenging, as we saw with the disastrous deployment of British airborne forces at Arnhem in 1944.

Closer to China are Taiwan's Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu islands, only 10 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. They would be much easier targets for Chinese occupation, but China has shown no inclination in recent years to change the status quo.

So who, then, is foreshadowing war with China and beating the drums of war?


It might suit the American defence sector to talk up the threat from China as a way of justifying its force levels and military expenditure, as it did during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The US is a superpower in slow decline, but Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that as long as the US has the world's most powerful military forces.

The US State Department is one of the smallest US federal departments, and Defense is the largest, so there's always been a preparedness for Washington to go with the military option to confront adversaries. That's often led to unwise or overly protracted military commitments, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The US's Taiwan Relations Act 1979 falls short of promising Taiwan direct US military assistance in case of an invasion, but it does authorise American weapons sales to maintain a self-sufficient Taiwanese defence capability. Despite the weasel wording, it would be politically difficult for the US to avoid some sort of military involvement if China tried to invade Taiwan.

Should this occur, Australia would be foolish to tag along on the US's coattails once again. Britain did not get involved in the Vietnam War and did not suffer any dire consequences. Australia has little to gain from being involved in any confrontation with China over Taiwan - other than demonstrating once again that we are a loyal ANZUS partner.

Fortunately, it seems unlikely to come to substantive conflict. China is likely to continue its coercive behaviour and sabre rattling towards Taiwan, in the hope that eventually Taiwan will come to its senses and be absorbed into China. Meanwhile, Taiwan will probably not want to risk antagonising China too much for economic and social reasons.

We can only conclude that Xi Jinping seems unlikely to risk a military adventure against Taiwan that would have every prospect of going badly for Beijing and undermining China's hard-earned economic development.

  • Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law and Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
This story Taiwan, China and the US: who's really beating the drums of war? first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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