There is a growing debate about the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. China’s threats and rhetoric, including military provocations, against the island state have been increasing steadily. Just last week, Chinese combat aircraft made the largest ever incursion into Taiwan-controlled airspace, surpassing the previous record set in April.
Does all this presage a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? The indications are unclear, with some analysts suggesting this is political theatre for a domestic political audience because attempting an actual invasion would be political suicide for President Xi Jinping. Some suggest that though an invasion is not imminent, the possibility of China using force to take Taiwan has grown. US military leaders appear divided, with some suggesting China may use force in the next six years, while others have said China wants that capability but might not be intending an actual invasion.
If China nevertheless decides to use force, the consequences for Taiwan will be dire. Things could be almost as bad for the region and for India, especially if China succeeds. It would mean that any effort to build a balance of power in Asia would be severely impacted.
There are significant disagreements about the world’s response to this Chinese aggression as well. Some US analysts have been suggesting a ‘grand bargain’, essentially calling on Washington to reduce its commitments to East Asia – including abandoning Taiwan – in order to avoid a military confrontation with China. Other scholars suggest a middle ground: no American commitment to defend Taiwan but to help Taiwan defend itself.
The problem is that the increasing disparity in the military power across the Taiwan Straits allow for the possibility that China may be able to pull off such an attack. There are also grave doubts about whether Taiwan is serious about defending itself rather than simply hoping for the US to rescue it. Still, an amphibious assault across Taiwan is likely to be extremely difficult even with the disparity in power between the two sides. Moreover, any Chinese attempt to invade would require long preparation and massing of large forces that would be difficult to hide.
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What China’s action could lead to
Though it is obviously difficult to predict with any certainty, there are two likely outcomes of a Chinese invasion and neither of them are palatable.
One possibility is that the demonstration of China’s power and determination scuttles all chances of ending China’s hegemony in Asia. The US could withdraw, disheartened by the pusillanimity of its partners in the region. Or, the US’ partners could decide that the US was incapable of providing a balance to China. And if balancing China was now no longer an option, these American allies could decide that they would be better off buying peace with Beijing. Either way, China will achieve dominance over the region in a manner similar to the US’ position in the Western Hemisphere. India and Japan will be reduced to a position somewhat analogous to Argentina and Brazil, large countries that are nevertheless forced to live a constrained life, with external powers kept away under a Chinese Monroe Doctrine.
Alternatively, a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan could prove to be the final straw that leads to the formation of a modern Sixth Coalition, with Asian and other powers deciding that they can no longer trust China’s words or tolerate its depredations. This will very likely lead to the formation of a military alliance, leading to more tension and quite likely a major war, with all the attendant destruction and dangers. The consequences for the region would be as bad or worse than living under Chinese hegemony.
A failed Chinese invasion may be no better because the region will be left with a surly great power that feels even more aggrieved, defensive and frustrated.
It is possible, of course, that even after a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the region would continue on the same path as before, with some effort at balancing China with American assistance, while continuing economic and political engagement with Beijing. This is also within the realm of the possible. This might definitely be Beijing’s hope, especially considering the easy manner in which it has overcome opposition to its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But it is difficult to imagine that the region would be so unaffected or would be able to swallow such dramatic changes and its implications with such ease. And, of course, it is even more difficult to imagine that China would not seek to consolidate its gains further and establish its hegemony much more firmly after such a demonstration of its power.
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What to expect, what must be done
If the consequences are so dire, won’t Chinese leaders themselves be aware of the dangers and be deterred? That is definitely something to hope for, but so many Chinese actions in recent years are such strategic head-scratchers that it is doubtful we can entirely depend on it. Why, to give only one example, is China intent on behaving so cavalierly towards India as to force New Delhi into Washington’s embrace, despite India’s instinctive, decades-long, deeply-held political anti-Westernism? One possibility is that Xi Jinping sees a narrow window of opportunity, which creates a ‘sense of urgency’ that drives risk-prone behaviour.
Avoiding these disastrous outcomes requires India and other powers to redline any Chinese effort to take Taiwan by force. After all, the Taiwan issue is not just a moral question of allowing the destruction of a successful democracy by a totalitarian State, or a question of international ethics where the principle of settling disputes peacefully is adhered to. In fact, the reason for drawing that line is not about Taiwan at all, but because of what the consequences of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be for India and the rest of Asia. The day after China’s invasion of Taiwan will mark a very different Asia, irrespective of the results of the invasion.
Drawing a red line is not easy and may ultimately not work, but New Delhi and others at least need to try because of the stakes involved. One aspect of this is improving India’s ties with Taiwan, even if they stay short of recognising its independence. Others have argued for continuing with the growing economic relations and building on popular support for Taiwan in the wake of India’s troubles with China. Indeed, India has officially stopped reiterating the ‘One China’ policy, asking for reciprocity. These are all good arguments but staving off a war across the Taiwan Straits is an important additional reason. India’s voice alone is not going to change Xi Jinping’s mind, but it can complicate his calculations a bit more. That may be all that can be hoped for.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)