There are many works in the strategic literature that point to the difficulties of mainland China conquering, and invariably, unifying Taiwan by force. One can be with two for now. The work of Michael O Hanlon (Brookings Institution) is one of them. The late Alan Wachman of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy also averred to the same conclusion. The choppy waters in the Taiwan Straits and the mountainous terrain of Taiwan do provide Taiwan with some natural barriers and advantages. If mainland China seems many times geographically larger than Taiwan, no matter how formidable the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may be, the military classics of ancient philosopher Sun Tzu insist on a total and complete victory, without which one should not be launched at all.
If anything else, the adversary must at all times be mindful of the seas, the weather, not excluding the tenacity of the adversary to invade it almost blindly. Wars, by Sun Tzu’s standards, are hard to pull through as the bar is very high. Whether by design or default, Taiwan is an island imbued with many geographical advantages that deter the PLA from ever attempting a massive assault on land or by sea. Undeterred, China has instead placed some 2000 long and short range missiles aimed at Taiwan, with the explicit goal to prevent the rambunctious Parliament from declaring Taiwan’s independence, or becoming a break away republic of mainland China.
In many ways, Taiwan is also protected by vociferous support by Japan. Aside from the Ishigaki municipality, which has acknowledged Taiwan, China will likely seek to pre-emptively apply pressure to other municipalities throughout Japan to keep them from approving a similar resolution calling on the central government to pass a “Japan-Taiwan Basic Relations Act.” However, as there are more than 1,700 municipalities in Japan, together with 47 prefectures, it will have a difficult time and it may even backfire.
According to Robert Eldridge, “Many of the communities in Japan have close relations with Taiwan and a great affinity for the country.” This bond is difficult to break. And, when the Quad weighs in on Taiwan, Australia, Japan, the United States and India will provide a further buffer. At the 19th party congress in China last year, the phrase Beijing had dropped from the speech of President Xi Jin Ping on Taiwan—for first time ever—-was to forsake the right of peaceful reunification altogether. For the lack of a better word, it further implies forceful reunification will always be one of the options.
There are other reasons why China cannot just resort to the use of sheer military options to ostensibly “take Taiwan back.”
First and foremost, the island is without a doubt a democracy especially after the passing of President Chia Ching Kuo in 1988, who in turn was the son of the founder of Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek.
Although the Virtual Summit of the Quad on March 12, did not explicitly express the defense of Taiwan, the entity of four countries, regardless of their democratic imperfections, is partly inspired by the Japanese concept of “the Arc of Democracy,” a vision articulated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan, and a message further reinforced by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
As pointed out by the book of Lin Syaru, a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Virginia, the “Taiwanese identity,” has become more and more consolidated over time. Having seen how China literally pulverized the One Party, Two System of Hong Kong to brook no further descent, any thought of trying to force Taiwan to be reunited with China would literally create a defiant population with their pitch and forks.
In other words, Taiwanese identity has become the imprimatur of how more and more Taiwanese have seen themselves as unique and apart from mainland China. This trend did not happen over time. Since becoming the first native Taiwanese president, Lee Teng Hui, who has since passed on, marked an important juncture in the history of Taiwan and China writ large.
His rule was considered an unprecedented event as no other native Taiwanese leaders between 1988-2000 had ever become President of the Republic of Taiwan before. It also marked the first successful transition of power in the world of Chinese politics.
Thus, since the tenure of Lee, other native Taiwanese had gone on to serve all their terms successfully, with the sole exception of former President Chen Shui Bian ending up in prison after his tenure that was draped in corruption.
Beyond that President Tsai Ying Wen, has also broken the gender glass barrier, when she was finally elected as the too president in May 2016, and is now in the beginning of her second term, which will end in 2024, after which she cannot seek further re-election.
More impressively, while the world was wracked by the pandemic, Taiwan has merely had less than one thousand cases, with a low mortality of ten deaths; a number that remains lower than that in other countries such as Vietnam, New Zealand or South Korea.
Taiwan also successfully faced the global outbreak without a total lockdown of its population. While business sentiments were affected due to the Covid crisis, Taiwanese economy did not hit a tailspin. In fact, envious of Taiwan’s cutting edge technology in semi-conductor, of which China faces many supply chain disruptions, the media has found China trying to poach the talents of Taiwan.
The success of Taiwan, to allow civil society to flourish into a democracy, has won it many plaudits. More importantly, Taiwan showed the way on how democracy can continue to function, without a public health system that was pushed to any breaking points from December 2019 onwards. This made Taiwan a sterling example of crisis management, despite being placed in mainland China’s vicinity.
On the foreign policy front, while President Tsai Ing Wen and President Biden have not had any exchanges yet, the Taiwanese government has been told by the Biden Administration that US-Taiwan relations would be based on the template of the three Communiques and six assurances, which effectively ensures that the US would not stop any sales of advanced weaponry to Taiwan to match the growing military prowess of mainland China. Taiwan’s hard and soft power are growing in tandem.
Unhappy with the promise of the Biden Administration to Taiwan, China restored to violating Taiwan’s air space without any prior warning, going as far as flying over it twice in a matter of two weeks to test both the resolve of the Biden and Tsai Administration in President Biden’s first month in office.
Not to be intimidated, President Biden responded with a coordinated American and Taiwanese response against China, yet refraining from engaging in any bellicose behavior that can affect the status quo of the Taiwan situation, in addition to sending its fleets into the Taiwan Straits to shore up the support and morale of the administration of President Tsai Ing Wen and the people of Taiwan.
Given Taiwan’s recent achievements, with no decoupling of its relationship with the US, nor being singled out by China, such as by limiting the economic investment of Taiwan in mainland China, one would have to affirm that Taiwan is strengthening itself Given this context, mainland China and Taiwan will in due course be caught in an “extreme competition”, not unlike the US-China relationship. In fact, the China-Taiwan relationship is a subset of the China-US stir.
Whether Taiwan has sufficient hard power to defend itself singlehandedly, other foreign powers are entering the fray of the Indo-Pacific arena, with a deep belief that it must remain “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” ocean (FOIP).
Both concepts have attracted global attention, especially the four European powers such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. These developments will further enhance Taiwan’s defensive and offensive capabilities. Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington DC, with decades of strong policy coordination, could be the benchmark on which the Quad nations take their first lead; whether on the best methods to handle a vast spectrum of issues, or, the manner by which each country can engage with mainland China, without being held to hostage, not unlike the fate of Australia where punitive tariffs were imposed on Australian goods when Canberra backed the call for an independent panel on the “Origins of Sars Cov II”. With Foxconn, Taiwan, a top semi-conductor firm ready to relocate to India, they could also witness firsthand on matters of how the decoupling of the semi-conductor chain from Taiwan and the US can be executed.
What Taiwan must now do is to enhance its focus to make it into the league of high-income nations without being caught in a perennial Middle Income Trap, as Taiwan still faces the problem of aging and stagnant wages despite decades of economic growth.
While war with mainland China will always be a possibility that cannot be dismissed in an outright manner, especially with China using “grey zone” military tactics to exhaust Taiwan, in order to compel it to return to the negotiating table, invariably, on how to re-integrate with mainland China, the fact is Taiwan has learned the lesson in Hong Kong that the concept of “One Country Two Systems,” has been stalled in its track.
While 2020 has been the annus horribilis for many countries, it has become a strategic turning point for Taiwan that it has both the prescience and insight to keep mainland China at bay. This has been achieved through constant preparation of any clear and present dangers posed by China, especially a sudden war.
Predictably, while Taiwan has a Spartan-like policy attitude, helped by its growing soft power, its ability to read the tea leaves in the Byzantine politics of Beijing has also become useful in empowering other countries that are more in favor of using their sharp power sway the internal politics of China to one’s favor.
In this sense, while it does not possess any absolute sharp power per se, it can harness the sharp powers of other countries, albeit in a subtle and sophisticated manner. A concert of democracy has begun, and the maestro is not necessarily Quad, but Taiwan too.