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China’s pursuit of reunification with Taiwan and what’s at stake for the U.S.

By Matthew Egger

Introduction 

From August 2-3, 2022, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taiwan, making her the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1997. Pelosi’s visit was met by significant retaliatory measures from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which conducted eleven days of live-fire military exercises surrounding Taiwan to signal its disapproval of the Speaker’s support for Taiwan’s autonomy. The exercises were unprecedented in size and for their proximity to Taiwan, with some missiles flying directly over Taipei, and were regarded by experts as training for a blockade and potential invasion of Taiwan. The exercises can be understood within a broader context in which Beijing has, in recent years, more aggressively pursued reunification with the island and in which the U.S. continues to deepen cooperation with Taipei and restate its commitment to defending Taiwan’s autonomy.

This report analyzes how Chinese attempts at reunification with Taiwan could damage the American national interest and addresses the U.S.’s weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities for handling the threat against Taiwan. It argues that the steep cost of using military force to pursue reunification with Taiwan deters China from doing so and motivates Beijing to operate the gray zone instead, conducting intense political, economic, informational, and military operations more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy to achieve reunification at a comparatively low cost. Consequently, the report argues that Washington must divert attention away from deterring and defending against a Chinese invasion or other forms of military action against Taiwan and instead develop a strategy to counter Beijing in the gray zone. 

How Chinese reunification with Taiwan threatens American interests 

The growing tensions between Taipei and Beijing significantly threaten Washington’s regional interests in Southeast Asia. The loss of Taiwan, a critical democratic ally with normative, economic, and strategic significance, would present a major blow to Washington. The failure to defend Taiwan would damage the U.S.’s reputation among its allies, who would perceive this failure as evidence of Washington’s unreliability and represent a devastating loss in America’s drive to uphold democracy worldwide. Chinese action against Taiwan would also result in major negative economic consequences, two of the most significant being a shock to the global supply of semiconductors, which are key to the functioning of the modern economy, and the disruption or halting of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes—the Taiwan strait. Finally, should China take control over Taiwan, it would be able to break through the first island chain extending north-south from the Kuril islands off mainland Russia to the Malay Peninsula, enabling Beijing to project power on an unprecedented scale. 

Beijing has three main paths toward reunification with Taiwan. First, the PRC could launch a large-scale amphibious invasion of the island. Second, Beijing could use limited kinetic action, imposing a blockade against Taiwan or seizing one or several of its outlying islands to demonstrate political resolve and gain leverage over Taiepi. Third, China could operate in the gray zone, using coercive measures such as air space incursions, political and economic warfare, information and psychological operations, and other non-kinetic measures to undermine Taiwan’s resolve and autonomy. While U.S. policymakers must be prepared for all of these eventualities, likely, the significant costs and risks of using military action to gain leverage over Taipei make it an unattractive option for Beijing. An invasion risks disastrous defeat, devastating economic fallout, and China’s international image becoming tarnished. Even limited military action could backfire by galvanizing pro-Taiwanese independence sentiment, result in escalation and a protracted war, and damage Beijing’s international reputation. This report consequently argues that Washington should focus on countering China in the gray zone, as American policymakers have directed an undue amount of attention and resources toward deterring and defending against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan despite evidence suggesting that Beijing would prefer to use a non-kinetic approach toward reunification.

Weaknesses in the U.S. approach toward defending Taiwan

The U.S.’s current approach to defending Taiwan’s autonomy suffers from numerous weaknesses. First, American policymakers tend to interpret China’s military modernization and increasingly aggressive rhetoric and behavior vis-à-vis Taiwan singularly as evidence that Beijing is preparing to launch a full-scale invasion of the island. Second, policymakers suffer from a limited understanding of Chinese strategic doctrine, which has emphasized for centuries the value of being able to win without fighting (不战而胜). Consequently, policymakers fail to understand the significant role that gray zone warfare plays in Beijing’s pursuit of reunification with Taiwan and have thus failed to develop a suitable counter-strategy. Third, Washington’s drive to uphold Taiwan’s autonomy is weakened by Taiwan’s limited military capabilities. Taiwan’s active duty military consists of 170,000 troops, less than a tenth of China’s two million. While the active duty military is well-trained, Taiwan’s reserve force, which consists of 2.31 million conscripts, is not. Conscripts receive insufficient tactical and weapons instruction during the initial training period, which until December 2022 lasted only four months. Having lengthened the initial conscript period to one year, however, Taiwan may be able to train more combat-ready troops, increasing Taipei’s deterrent and defense against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA, however, dominates Taiwan’s military in terms of expenditures, naval power, airpower, tanks, and logistics. Likewise, while the U.S. military remains generally superior to the PLA, China’s capabilities in the Western Pacific likely surpass Washington’s. According to a 2017 report published by the RAND Corporation, the PLA’s capabilities on its immediate periphery are at least equal to, if not superior, to the U.S. military’s, indicating that a war with China over Taiwan could result in an American defeat. Indeed, numerous war games have demonstrated that the U.S. military would lose to the PLA in an engagement in the Western Pacific as a result of China’s advanced anti-access/area denial capabilities consisting of anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-ballistic missiles. Despite the PLA’s superiority over the U.S. military in the Western Pacific, the U.S. enjoys several advantages over its Chinese adversary and has numerous opportunities to gain an upper hand over the PLA in the future. 

Strengths Facilitating the defense of Taiwan

Any attempt by Beijing to conduct a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan faces significant challenges. Taiwan and China are separated by a 100-mile-long strait across which the PLA would have to transport troops, aircraft, naval vessels, and supplies all while taking fire from Taiwan and any intervening allies. China lacks the number of naval vessels requisite to transport the troops and materiel required to execute an amphibious invasion. Even if the PLA was able to conduct a full-scale amphibious invasion, Taiwan’s rocky coastline offers few viable landing sites on which Taiwan would likely concentrate heavy fire. Next, if the PLA was able to establish a beachhead from which it could advance inland, it would have to defeat Taiwanese forces entrenched in Taiwan’s defensively advantageous mountainous and urban areas, no easy feat. Further deterring Beijing from launching a full-scale invasion of Taiwan is the island’s semiconductor industry, which some refer to as a “silicon shield.” Any military action conducted by China against Taiwan risks damaging the latter’s semiconductor production facilities which are crucial to the functioning of the Chinese economy. Taiwan produces 60% of the world’s semiconductors and 90% of the most advanced ones, which are key to manufacturing goods ranging from consumer electronics to defense technology. In 2020, China’s semiconductor imports totaled $350 billion, twice the value of its oil imports, reflecting how crucial the chips are to the Chinese economy., Beijing is aware of its dependence on Taiwanese semiconductors and is thus attempting to increase its domestic production of chips. Nonetheless, as of 2020, domestic production fulfilled only 6% of Chinese demand, and it is very unlikely that Beijing will be able to increase semiconductor output to an extent that will degrade the deterrent provided by Taiwan’s semiconductor industry in the near future. In sum, the difficulty of conducting a successful amphibious invasion of Taiwan coupled with the deterrent provided by Taiwan’s semiconductor industry strengthens the U.S.’s position vis-à-vis China and renders large-scale military action against Taiwan an improbable choice for Beijing as it pursues reunification with Taiwan. The next section of the essay consequently suggests that Washington should exploit opportunities to deter and defend against Chinese activity in the gray zone to uphold Taiwanese autonomy and America’s regional interests. 

Opportunities for better defending Taiwan’s autonomy

As mentioned, Washington’s approach to defending Taiwanese autonomy skews towards deterring and defending against a full-scale amphibious invasion of the island, which is unlikely to occur in the near future. Consequently, this paragraph focuses on what Washington can do to counter Beijing in the gray zone. First, the U.S. should scale up responses against Chinese gray zone operations in the air and at sea to impose greater costs on Beijing’s attempts to erode Taiwan’s political resolve and autonomy. To counter Chinese gray zone operations in the air, the U.S. should sell unmanned patrol aircraft to Taiwan, thereby allowing Taiwan to intercept intruding Chinese aircraft at a lower cost than using manned aircraft would incur. Second, the U.S. should increase cooperation with the Taiwanese Air Force in the Western Pacific to signal support for Taipei and draw Chinese aircraft away from conducting incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, which tax the Taiwanese Air Force by forcing it to expend manpower, money, and equipment on intercepting intruding aircraft. Washington also needs to counter Beijing’s gray zone operations at sea. China often deploys its coast guard and maritime militia to deniably threaten and harass competitors and establish a regional presence beneath the threshold of conflict. To counter Chinese maritime gray zone operations, the U.S. should deepen cooperation with the Taiwanese, Japanese, Australian, and Philippine Coast Guards to signal resolve and unity against Chinese aggression and to facilitate joint exercises, basing, and even patrols to force Beijing to reckon with multiple unified regional states in the gray zone. Washington should also sanction PRC municipalities home to aggressive maritime militia elements that threaten Taiwan. Displays of U.S. and allied forces can demonstrate Washington’s willingness to uphold Taiwan’s autonomy, thereby boosting Taipei’s resolve and undermining the coercive gray zone strategy employed by Beijing, which can only succeed if Taiwan loses the will to defend its autonomy. Finally, Washington should support Taiwanese efforts to counter Chinese information operations which propagate pro-mainland narratives and undermine Taiwanese morale. Having been the target of Chinese information operations since the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan over seventy years ago, Taipei is already adept at countering disinformation, but continuing to do so will require effort and resources from Taipei and its American ally as Beijing pursues reunification with greater fervor. 

 Conclusion 

As cross-strait relations become increasingly tense, there is much at stake for U.S. interests in Southeast Asia. This report addressed the threat to American interests posed by the rising tensions in the triadic relationship between China, Taiwan, and itself. It also addressed the U.S.’s weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities for more adeptly defending Taiwan’s autonomy. The report argued that because Beijing is, for the time being, averse to using military action to pursue reunification with Taiwan, the U.S. should divert attention and resources away from deterring and defending against a Chinese invasion or other military action against Taiwan and toward countering Beijing in the gray zone. Nonetheless, policymakers should not discount entirely the threat of an invasion, especially as the balance of power in the Western Pacific shifts in China’s favor. Defending U.S. interests in Southeast Asia in light of the growing tensions between Washington, Beijing, and Taipei will significantly challenge American foreign policymakers in the coming years. Directing more attention and resources toward countering Beijing in the gray zone, however, will enable Washington to more ably navigate the complex triadic relationship and defend its regional interests.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.