CJ Werleman assesses the likelihood of President Xi Jinping launching a Chinese invasion of the island state based on a widely unchallenged falsehood of territorial claim

United States military officials and security analysts differ on whether China will carry out a military invasion of Taiwan after Beijing hosts the winter Olympic Games next month, but all remain clear-eyed about the likelihood of war – with the memory of Russia invading and occupying Crimea just days after it hosted the games in 2014 firmly in their minds.

They are also mindful that China has been intensifying its sorties into Taiwanese airspace during the past two years; to demoralise and break-down the island state’s will to resist. In 2020 alone, Chinese sorties forced Taiwan’s Air Force to scramble and intercept China’s fighters and bombers more than 3,000 times at a cost of nearly $1 billion to Taiwan’s taxpayers. 

During a four-day period last October, China flew a record 150 of its military aircraft – including fighter jets, nuclear-capable bombers and refuelling aircraft – into Taiwan’s airspace. It was an act described as a “prelude to war”. That same month, China’s President Xi Jinping declared that the “reunification” of the country with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”.

Two years earlier, in what would be his first major speech on Taiwan, President Xi Jinping warned that Taiwan’s reunification was inevitable. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” he said. “Taiwan’s independence goes against the trend of history and will lead to a dead end.”

Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state – as do the governments of 17 countries, while 23 million Taiwanese citizens travel the globe on Taiwanese passports. But, somehow, the international media has come to accept Beijing’s telling of the story – that Taiwan is a breakaway province and an “integral part of China”. Worse, China’s intent to ‘retake’ Taiwan has become widely accepted by the international community as a fate accompli.

In other words, what happened to Hong Kong with inferred Chinese military force will inevitably happen to Taiwan but with actual military force – so what’s the point of challenging what China believes rightly belongs to it?

But Chinese insistence on the idea that Taiwan is an integral part of China has “failed to convince the roughly 23 million Taiwanese”, observes Evan Dawley, an associate professor of history at Goucher College and author of Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s-1950s. “Chinese views have been much more effective in shaping international opinion, but they do not change Taiwan’s modern history or the reality that Taiwan is a country,” he has said.

More than that, China does not possess any entitlement to Taiwan based on ancient or recent histories. In fact, the Qing Dynasty only partially annexed Taiwan in 1684, before happily ceding Taiwan to the Japanese in 1895, having viewed the island only as a shield that could be easily surrendered.

When the Chinese Communist Party was still an insurgent movement in 1928, it viewed Taiwan as a separate nation, as did the Nationalist Government. It was not until 1942 that the Chinese Communist Party made its first claim to Taiwan.

“In reality, it’s not a pre-eminent matter of manifest destiny,” notes Peter Hartcher, author of Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future. “There are few things so common in world affairs. There are some 150 current such disputes around the world… what distinguishes countries is not whether they have such disputes, but how they handle them. Whether they respect international law, or whether they force their will onto others.”

To that end, China under President Xi Jinping has become a serial and flagrant violator of international law – in particular the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea, for not only laying territorial claims to islands and atolls hundreds and thousands of kilometres away from its shores but also in transforming them into military bases or what have been described as “unsinkable aircraft carriers”.

Rather than seeking mutual cooperation, China has exerted raw power over its neighbours, having annexed territory from India and Bhutan in the Himalayas, and parts of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which Manila likened to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia.

China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” US Admiral Phillip Davidson, the head of Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress in 2018.

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If Indo-Pacific is to realise a continuation of what has been the region’s longest period of peace and prosperity since time immemorial, then it falls upon the international community to resist Beijing’s mythical claims to entitlement over Taiwan. 

“Taiwan’s Government is democratically elected – we have a President, we have a Parliament,” said its Foreign Minister Joseph Wu in 2019. “We issue visas, we issue passports. We have a military and a currency… Taiwan exists by itself; Taiwan is not a part of any other country.”

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would not only spark a decades-long regional-wide war – dragging in Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Vietnam and the Philippines – but also give Beijing “control over some of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies, and the ability to choke-off oil shipments to Japan and South Korea – leverage it could use to demand the closure of US military bases in both countries”, according to Chris Horton, a Taipei-based journalist.

Until now, China has shown restraint – but only because the Beijing Olympics are fast approaching. After that, however, “all bets are off”, says Lyle J. Goldstein, founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute.

If recognising Taiwanese sovereignty – as 17 countries already do – is enough to deter a Chinese military invasion, as some analysts contend, then what on earth are we waiting for?

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