Could China be preparing to invade Taiwan?

Beijing ‘flexes its military muscles’ by sending more warships and aircraft towards the island

Illustration of Taiwan map circled by sharks
China spent around 23 times more on its military than Taiwan in 2021
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

A record number of Chinese warships have been spotted in the waters around Taiwan as tensions continue to escalate between the breakaway nation and mainland China.

Taiwan’s defence ministry reported 16 Chinese warships near the island over a 72-hour period last week. During the same period it also recorded 72 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft either crossing the Taiwan Strait’s median line – an unofficial division that separates the two sides – or entering the southern parts of the island’s air-defence identification zone (ADIZ).

This represents an escalatory move, said CNN, because while the median line is “an informal demarcation point that Beijing does not recognize” it has “until recently largely respected” its existence.

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The deployment of warships and aircraft is “the latest sign of an intimidation campaign against Taipei by China’s ruling Communist Party”, said the news network.

China and Taiwan were divided during a civil war in the 1940s, but Beijing has always maintained that the island should at some point be reclaimed. Beijing has described the government in Taipei as separatists, while refusing to rule out the use of force to bring it back into China’s direct orbit.

China has been staging regular military exercises around the island for the past three years “to pressure Taipei to accept Beijing’s claim of sovereignty”, reported Reuters. The news agency said China’s military has been “flexing its muscles” in recent weeks, ahead of Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang war games when it will simulate breaking a Chinese blockade.

Military pressure

Regarded by China as a breakaway province, Taiwan is arguably “the most dangerous place on Earth”, said The Economist. It has faced “what Taipei views as stepped-up military harassment by Beijing”, Reuters reported.

While most military analysts have played down the risk of an imminent invasion, the longer-term threat cannot be ruled out.

“Rather than a lightning attack, it would probably develop slowly, over months and even years,” said The Times, starting with an air and sea embargo as practised by Chinese forces in recent months.

The paper said this is because “Taiwan’s great defensive strength, its geographical position as an island separated from the mainland by a stormy, 100-mile wide strait, is also its great weakness.

“Unlike Ukraine, which has long land borders with five, well-disposed European countries, Taiwan is dependent for resupply and rearmament on sea and air,” added the paper.

David and Goliath

If a conflict were to break out it would be “a catastrophe”, reported The Economist. This is first because of “the bloodshed in Taiwan” but also because of the risk of “escalation between two nuclear powers”, namely the US and China.

Beijing massively outguns Taiwan, with estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showing that China spent about 23 times more on its military in 2021. But Taiwan has a defence pact with the US dating back to the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty, meaning the US could be drawn into the conflict.

It means any invasion “would be one of the most dangerous and consequential events of the 21st century”, said The Times, “an event that would make the Russian attack on Ukraine look like a sideshow by comparison” and which “could quickly have ramifications far beyond the island, drawing in Japan, South Korea, and the United States and other countries of Nato”.

Diplomatic manoeuvres

As well as ramping up its military preparations, Taiwan has also embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive, specifically in fostering closer relationships with US decision-makers, much to the annoyance of Beijing.

In April, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen defied a threat of retaliation from China by meeting senior lawmakers, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, on a visit to the US.

The root of China’s opposition to the meeting lay in its “one-China” principle, whereby any government conducting official relations with China must recognise that Taiwan is an “inalienable part” of its territory to be reunified one day.

Hostilities between the two governments have grown since Tsai was elected leader in 2016. She refused to accept the one-China principle and this “led Beijing to suspend official exchanges with Taipei and step up sabre-rattling against the island”, the South China Morning Post reported.

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