BY GWYNNE DYER
China’s President Xi Jinping promised last Saturday that “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland … will definitely be fulfilled.” That was a threat to Taiwan, but a threat without a deadline. However, Chinese state media, in the form of the ever-rabid Global Times, warned that war “could be triggered at any time”.
On Sunday, President Tsai Ing-wen replied that “nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us”. She added that the island country of 23 million people faced a situation “more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years”. That is, since the Nationalist government of China lost the civil war and retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
And the United States, while not directly promising to defend the island at the expense of a war with China, let it be known that there are US special forces and marines in Taiwan on training missions. Beijing already knew that, of course (Trump sent them there two years ago), but Washington’s open confirmation of it was a clear warning to China.
So there is a crisis of sorts, although a slow-moving one. As Defence minister Chiu Kuo-Chen said in Taiwan, Beijing is capable of invading the island even now, but will be fully prepared to do so in three years’ time.
“By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”
What did he mean, exactly, and is it true?
In part, it’s a recognition that China is rapidly accumulating weapons that will make a seaborne invasion across the Taiwan Strait possible, although it is 180km wide at its narrowest point.
The key Chinese weapon is long-range rocket artillery that can reach all points in Taiwan with high accuracy (guidance by the BeiDou satnav system), and can be launched in such numbers that Taiwanese anti-missile defences would be overwhelmed.
Such a weapon exists. It’s called the PCL-191, and it’s a glorified version of the “Stalin organ” and other multiple rocket launchers of Second World War vintage, but with a range of 350km. There are eight or 12 rockets on each mobile launcher, depending on the range and the explosive power required, and they can be reloaded quite fast.
There are already two brigades of these rocket-launchers stationed on the Chinese coast facing Taiwan and the number is going up all the time. Soon, if not already, they will give Beijing the power to launch saturation strikes on all of Taiwan’s airfields, radar stations, anti-aircraft defences and ports simultaneously.
If all the runways and ports in Taiwan are shattered, then its planes and warships cannot stop Chinese assault troops crossing the Strait in ships (10 hours), and nobody else will be close enough to help even if they want to. Taiwan is at extreme range for fighter aircraft based in Japan and the US Pacific Fleet is very unlikely to be within reach if the attack is a surprise.
So what “other things” may still deter China from making such an attack even after it has enough rocket launchers on the coast? Just one is enough: the certainty that even if the US could not intervene militarily in time to save Taiwan, it would certainly institute a complete naval blockade of China immediately afterwards.
That might be of little consolation to the Taiwanese, but the Chinese economy is utterly dependent on foreign trade and China’s geography makes it extremely vulnerable to blockade.
Ships from China crossing the Pacific must pass between the “first chain” of islands (Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines); shipping to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Europe has to go through the Strait of Malacca (Malaysia and Indonesia). In practice, there is no way out: China’s economy would be strangled within months.
Further escalation by either side would be deterred by the fear of nuclear war and some sort of deal would have to be made. It could be very humiliating for China, perhaps so humiliating that it would even undermine the control of the Communist Party. So Xi Jinping won’t ever really risk it.
That’s the way people steeped in classic strategic thinking see it and they are probably right. Although you don’t get your money back if they are wrong.
- Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.