The Untamed Dragon

Rattled by the US warming up to Taiwan, China has resorted to its usual aggressive posturing in a fresh bid to dissuade the local government to declare independence from the tyrannical regime.

Shankar Kumar

China’s expansionist policy is not hidden from the world. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist Party-led People’s Republic, Beijing annexed Tibet in the 1950s; Deng Xiaoping presided over the negotiated takeover of Hong Kong and Macau from Britain and Portugal respectively in 1997 and 1999; Xi Jinping, China’s third powerful strongman, is now eyeing for the annexation of Taiwan.

Just on the arrival of 2019, when air across the world was thick with pleasantry greetings, the Chinese President on January 2, dropped a political bomb in the Formosa Strait when he called for Taiwan’s reunification with China. Describing the Taiwan question as a historical trauma for the Chinese nation, Xi stressed on the reunification of the island with China under “one country, two systems,” a model applied in Hong Kong and Macau. He also talked about post-unification benefits and arrangements for Taiwan and Taiwanese citizens. Xi also reiterated that the political divisions across the Taiwan Strait that keeps reunification bid at bay should not be passed from generation to generation. He raised the 1992 consensus where the two sides of the strait worked together for the unification.

Yet what created flutter in the Indo-Pacific region was that soon after his January 2 speech, Xi called PLA forces to make preparations for an all-out war, which was clearly different from previous threats made against the island, considered as a renegade province by Beijing.

Xi Jinping has, since becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, consolidated power so much so that he got the party’s constitution amended to become lifetime President of the country. He evidently believes that one of the major tasks of his leadership is to annex Taiwan where President Tsi Ing-wen, a staunch anti-mainland opponent, has made it clear in her recent speech that her countrymen would never accept governance under China. But throughout 2018, China stepped up pressure on international companies, including from India to list Taiwan as part of China on their websites and threatening to block them for doing business in China if they failed to comply.

However, such renewed push from China has increased tension between Washington and Beijing. The US, under the Donald Trump administration, has begun to harden its anti-China stances. Several US government officials and foreign policy experts believe that there could possible armed conflict between China and the US over Taiwan and this conflict could occur any time before 2020, the year when Taiwan will go for the general election. Anticipating possible war with China, Taiwan has begun military preparation. Recently it staged a live-fire exercise on the island, the first in a series of exercises this year to test the military’s ability to fend off an attack from Beijing.  The week-long military exercise involved weapons launched from the air, sea and land. Taiwan President Tsai has promised to increase the military’s budget, foster locally built weapons and buy equipment overseas, mainly from the US, which has agreed to supply defensive weapons to Taipei as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing.

Recently, at a graduation ceremony at the Justice Ministry’s Investigation Bureau, Taiwan’s equivalent to the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, she accused Beijing of sending people to the island to gather intelligence. She said Taiwanese security agencies cracked 52 alleged espionage cases and arrested 174 mainlanders in 2018 alone on suspicion of gathering intelligence, infiltrating or enlisting Taiwanese as part of spy networks on the island. “Taiwan welcomes friends from the mainland to visit, and two to three million mainland visitors travel to Taiwan each year, but ‘someone’ has tried to made use of our free policy by sending people to Taiwan for espionage activities, which has seriously threatened our national security,” she was quoted as saying.

On the other hand, China has also undertaken a series of war games in order to intimidate Taipei. Chinese military officials feel that they could overwhelm the island unless the US forces came quickly to Taiwan’s aid. It conducted live fire drills off China’s southeast coast. But experts fear that China fight with Taiwan may prove risky for Beijing as the PLA military has not fought a war against a foreign state since a brief and unsuccessful conflict with Vietnam in 1979. To invade Taiwan successfully, Beijing would have either deter the US from intervening or defeat nearby the US forces and prevent others from entering the region. China may not yet be strong enough to do this, but its military enlargement means that may not always be the case. Certainly, Chinese military thinking increasingly revolves around just this kind of potential war, in which Beijing would want to grab territory while keeping the US forces bay.

Almost two years ago, China severed ties with Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen refused its demand to recognize the self-governing island democracy as a part of Chinese territory. Chinese officials have denounced the recent passage of a US law encouraging more high-level government contacts with Taiwan, saying that violates the US commitments not to restore formal exchanges severed when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Ties have also been roiled by the US plans to provide Taiwan with submarine manufacturing technology and the appointment of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton. Last year, the US Congress unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows senior US officials to visit Taiwan and Taiwanese officials to the US. In September 2018, the US recalled its ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama in protest against these countries’ decision to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan.