Features Australia

Will Xi bite off more than he can Zhou?

The PLA’s gobbling up of Taiwan won’t be postponed much longer

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

The island of Kinmen (Quemoy) lies immediately adjacent to the Chinese mainland and represents a steppingstone to Taiwan itself. On 25 October 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s army killed or captured the entire PLA invasion force – a defeat for Mao so humiliating it had to be concealed from the population on the mainland for half a century. The invasion of Taiwan was postponed to another day. That day is now drawing near.

Some believe it unthinkable Xi Jinping would risk triggering a third world war by launching a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Nevertheless, there are reasons to suggest Xi will do what he has been promising to do for years, and re-stated as recently as 1 July in front of 70,000 people in Tiananmen Square: ‘Solving the Taiwan issue and realising the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party…’. Xi is likely to pull the trigger because he has – or believes he has – a good chance of capturing Taipei within a week and subjugating the entirety of the island of Taiwan within two weeks.

Taiwan, with the assistance of the US, once enjoyed a technological advantage over China. Not anymore. After the US-Soviet INF Treaty of 1987, America sidelined its intermediate-range ballistic missile capability. Meanwhile, the PRC, not a signatory to the INF Treaty, developed its PLA Rocket Force into a critical feature of any effective invasion of Taiwan. For the last three decades, according to Ian Easton, author of The Chinese Invasion Threat (2017), the PLA has focused ‘like a laser beam’ on finding a way to conquer Taiwan.

A second reason why Xi will invade Taiwan is the crash-though-or-crash jingoism his government has promoted in China. It was Xi’s belligerent boast about the enemies of China ‘finding themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion people’ that received a roar from the crowd. Why does Xi appeal to the basest instincts of his subjects? Because – as one-time judicial activist He Weifang used to point out – the rule of the CCP regime remains unlawful or illegitimate. The regime has never been endorsed through a democratic process or sanctioned by an independent judiciary. Xi clings to the old furphy that he and his unelected henchman are ‘indivisible’ from the people, and yet the bitter truth is that Leninist dictatorships are always ‘for the people’ but never ‘by the people’.

Xi has transmuted the capitalist-Leninist ideology of the late Deng Xiaoping into something more akin to imperialist-Leninism. Enhanced material conditions improved the standing of the party after the horror of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the debacle of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but it was not enough to bind the captive population to the party. Beyond running a surveillance state and threatening naysayers with imprisonment or execution, the party hit upon the idea of ultra-nationalism – not unlike Hitler’s Aryanism – to give themselves ‘legitimacy’.

Unfortunately for democratic Taiwan, its impending ‘re-unification’ with the PRC is front and centre of Xi’s imperialist-Leninism or China Dream. A Taiwanese poll from last year shows that only two per cent of respondents identified as ‘Chinese’ while more than 62 per cent identified as ‘Taiwanese’, the remainder a combination of the two. No matter because Xi has an ‘historical mission’ to complete. The authentic aspirations of the Taiwanese, like those of the Tibetans, Uighurs, Hong Kongers et al., did not feature in President Xi’s speech.

The enlightened patriotism of the Taiwanese people reveals a third reason why Xi is likely to order, at some future point, a full-sail amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Some believe Xi would never countenance an actual invasion since it runs the risk of unintended consequences such as war with America and Japan. Instead, Beijing will accelerate its grey-zone warfare against Taipei to break the will of the Taiwanese people. Grey-zone warfare encompasses everything from the PLA relentlessly breaching Taiwan’s airspace with its stealth jets and bombers to waging a shadow trade war as it has with Australia. The idea, in theory at any rate, is that over time both the citizens and the armed forces of Taiwan will become exhausted and the popularity of the pro-independence DDP government will diminish.

It is just as likely that Xi’s ongoing grey-zone warfare against Taiwan will continue to transform President Tsai Ing-wen, originally more of a technocrat than an independence activist, into a national hero in her island-nation. ‘Let’s all eat pineapples together!’ she sunnily proclaimed earlier this year after the PRC abruptly banned the importation of Taiwanese pineapples. Recently her popularity has slipped from an all-time high last year of 73 per cent but that is more to do with a second wave of Covid-19.

However, if the indomitable spirit of the Taiwanese lessens the effectiveness of grey-zone warfare, the likelihood of an all-out invasion only increases. The same, paradoxically, holds true for Taiwan’s ‘hedgehog’ strategy should a million or more members of the PLA launch their own version of D-Day. This might be summarised as high-tech asymmetrical defensive warfare to make Taiwan, as a former US national security advisor charactered it, ‘indigestible’.

Taipei’s commitment to this strategy was confirmed by its purchase, in the final months of the Trump administration, of Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems, a Field Information Communication System, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and state-of-the-art MQ-9B drones. Biden, significantly, has pledged to honour those deals. The purpose of Tsai Ing-wen’s Operation Hedgehog is to dissuade Xi Jinping from invasion, and yet, as its ‘multiple deterrence’ capability looks to become more lethal in the future might not the man driven to achieve his ‘historical mission’ be thinking it’s now or never?

The logic or, should we say, the illogicality of Xi’s crash-through-or-crash mentality might have acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own. The key to his thinking might be encapsulated when he went off-script in a meeting with a delegation from Taiwan in 2015: ‘We have the determination, the ability and the preparedness to deal with Taiwanese independence, and if we do not deal with it, we will be overthrown.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments