By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)
It took an octogenarian who is on the sunset of her political career, to inject self-confidence into the US power structure and to teach the rest of the world what it takes to deflate a dragon. It also was a revelation as to how calm the people of tiny Taiwan are, as China kept breathing fire from across the Taiwan Straits. There is also a huge lesson for many in India who prevaricate between hollow chest thumping and utter cold feet at the mere mention of China. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan needs greater analysis than mere reporting.
The moment the US house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was contemplated, China got into an overdrive of fire and brimstone. It saw a trip by Pelosi, being the third highest ranking US official, provocative support to ‘Taiwan’s Independence.’ It put the skids under China. The official mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party started parroting Xi Jinping’s warnings against ‘playing with fire over Taiwan’ and ‘Red Lines’ not to be crossed. ‘Grave Consequences’ and ‘strong military measures’ against the USA were promised.
Fiery comments on social media, for direct military response went viral on China’s tightly controlled internet. Threats to intercept Pelosi’s plane were popular on the Chinese social media. There were reports that Xi Jinping conveyed to Biden during their two hour tele talk that “it was the will of 1.4 billion Chinese people to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The US must see this point clearly and abide by the one-China principle with its words and deeds”. A lot of nationalistic hype was built up through unadulterated propaganda. It almost paid off since the trip went under a cloud of uncertainty.
The USA prevaricated through multiple flip flops. Initially there was silence on the trip. It reiterated adherence to the ‘One China’ policy at one level and ditched it at another. President Biden had also stated to extend US support to Taiwan in case of a conflict but subsequently the Govt statement indicated a status quo policy. It was explained as ‘Strategic Ambiguity’. Further, the Presidential statement on Nancy Pelosi’s visit ‘not being a good idea’ as per the Army’s assessment indicated that the visit was in doubt. When Nancy Pelosi left USA, her itinerary did not indicate a trip to Taiwan. It almost gave rise to the thought that China had cowed down USA into submission. The USA seemed to have lost its footing. Nancy Pelosi had other thoughts.
Chinese spin doctors claimed that there was cowardly silence in Taiwan over the trip. They also accused President Tsai Ing-wen of keeping quiet and letting Washington decide whether the US House speaker should visit Taiwan as if the island has no say in the matter. They derisively said that she is turning Taiwan into America’s 51st state and that her silence was deafening and she has made herself look like a by stander. Taiwan was also warned that it will have to bear the wrath of Beijing if Nancy Pelosi goes ahead with the visit.
Nancy Pelosi, arrived in Taiwan amidst repeated warnings from Beijing. It ran the risk of triggering a military conflict. During her visit, she has pledged closer economic ties with Taiwan. She made it unequivocally clear that USA will not abandon its commitment to Taiwan. She further stated that China cannot stand in the way of visits by other members of the US legislature to Taiwan. She mentioned that the US supported Taiwan’s status quo and ‘we don’t want anything happen to Taiwan by force… we have to show the world … the success of the people of Taiwan, their courage to transform their own country to become more democratic…offers a very strong contrast to what’s happening in mainland Chinawhat happened in Hong Kong under ‘one country, two systems’. In the process she has galvanised the entire US machinery to line up behind her. They have simply shown all the guns which they hold. That has put China in a corner. To add to China’s misery Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said the island would not back down in the face of military threats, vowing to strengthen Taiwan’s defences and remain a reliable US partner. Most importantly the visit of the highest ranking US official in 25 years gives great recognition and credence to Taiwan. Both these gutsy ladies have cocked a snook at China and have shown what it takes to handle a toothless dragon.
In response, China vowed military operations around Taiwan. It was reported that PLAAF scrambled an unknown number of Su-35 fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait as Pelosi’s plane approached Taiwan. However Taiwan stated that the median line was not crossed. Presently, joint naval and air force exercises have been launched skirting Taiwan’s island’s coastline and airspace to its north, southwest and southeast. It appears that PLA might violate the territorial waters of Taiwan. The response also consisted of long-distance, liveartillery shooting in the Taiwan Strait as well as conventional-headed missile test firings in the waters east of the island. All this is meant to be ‘a solemn deterrent against the recent major escalation of the negative actions of the United States’. The PLA demarcated six no-entry zones around the island for civilian ships and planes, warning it could conduct ‘important military exercises with live-fire shooting’ in these areas from Thursday to Sunday. Over and above this, China has suspended imports of citrus fruits and fish products from Taiwan and export of natural sand to Taiwan. Overall the Chinese response has been one of bullying. It will come out with many more threatening and coercive statements. It amounts to lot of hot air and sound with no tangible outcomes.
Where does it leave China and XI? With an egg on the face. This episode has proven that there is very little that China can do when the USA decides to do something. There is a huge contrast which is emerging. USA is engaging Russia in a proxy war, sorting out terrorists in Afghanistan and handling China simultaneously. China is not able to deter even one adversary! It will be a folly to count out US military power and think that China is an all-conquering military. It will do us well to recount that China has a limited military reach. Secondly, this entire episode has been played out at China’s door step. Any belligerent action against US assets or any firefight would have resulted in damage to life and property on Chinese mainland on its prosperous East Coast. Would it be politically acceptable to China?
China is going through a lean economic patch. It is struggling under the weight of its Zero Covid policy. Its real estate sector and BRI are under huge stress. Its tech sector is in trouble. Loss of jobs and pay cuts are real. Its internal consumption is weak. It has to depend on exports to sustain its economy. Any dispute or a conflict in the vicinity of its coast will result in an automatic naval self-blockade, adverse effect on global shipping, and disruption of its exports. That will hit China badly. In turn it will show Xi Jinping in poor light and reflect on his incompetence. In any case, the outcomes of any conflict are unpredictable highrisk factors. In such eventuality will Xi Jinping take the risk of any further escalation at this stage? He will seek stability at his door step. He will do nothing till the 20th Party Congress happens and his third term is secured. Politics trumps everything else in China. The stakes are too high for an escalation with USA. China will find different ways and time to get back at USA. In the meantime, China has found international support from Russia, Iran and Pakistan.
The popular opinion is that China will punish Taiwan. The expectation is also that it can mount an invasion to usurp Taiwan when this episode is over. That won’t happen for many reasons. Firstly, as Putin has found out in Ukraine, war is a high risk option with no guarantees of a positive outcome. If Taiwan does a Ukraine act, we might not only see the end of a super power dream but might see the finish of communism in China. That is too big a risk for China to take any time. Secondly, an amphibious operation across 160 -230 km of open ocean is the most complicated military operation even for an experienced military force. The English Channel with a width varying from 35-150 km could not be crossed by Hitler’s well trained, battle hardened and superbly led Wehrmacht. Generals of the calibre of Von Rundstedt, Manstein, Rommel and Model demurred at such a crossing during the second world war. The Chinese do not have the training, expertise, and capability to carry out the most complicated form of conventional operations. Also do not get fooled by all talk of cyber capabilities, AI, 5th generation war et al. Discussions on these topics ceases when Artillery starts firing and people start dying. An analysis of a cross strait amphibious operation in detail @ Win The Taiwan Battle and Lose the China War indicates that China does not have the capability or wherewithal to invade Taiwan and usurp it militarily. At this point of time, China is an empty vessel making lot of noise.
China is miffedon the pretext that its sovereignty and territorial integrity stands eroded. USA needs China to deal with Russia, Iran and North Korea. China has eroded US influence in the Middle East and in its backyard in South America. All these factors suggest that engagement is important irrespective of differences. Competition and cooperation will go hand in hand. After all there is a limit of friction points which USA can handle. In this context, USA will have to find some way to placate China with a diplomatic sop.
There is a lot to learn from this episode for India. The calmness and confidence of Taiwan under the situation is an admirable quality to imbibe. The major lesson is that China can be handled if one has the capability and resoluteness to go with it. I have always maintained that, if China is thwarted at Taiwan, it will turn to India. China needs a military victory badly to seal its international status. We need to put our guard up. We must focus on building adequate deterrent capability and be prepared for all eventualities.
Lastly as stated once by Tsai Ing- wen ‘A failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese, but it would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades’. To that extent, the world will change forever. If and when China usurps Taiwan it would have broken the first Island Chain completely and will become a military superpower without doubt. That is something the world and USA cannot afford. Neither can India. Cooperation with Taiwan will do us well. This is also the time to put forth our position on the issue without ambiguity. Mere chest thumping rhetoric will not do us good.
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.
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