Will China attack Taiwan in 2018?

January 15, 2018 10:57
Under Xi Jinping, China's defense spending last year amounted to US$148 billion, with the top leader adopting a more nationalist agenda. Photo: Reuters

One day in December the People's Liberation Army sent H-6K bombers, spy jets and Su-30 and J-11 fighter jets to patrol close to Taiwan. It was the 19th such exercise during the year, more than double the eight conducted in 2016.

On December 9, Li Kexin, a consul at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said at a diplomatic event there that the day a US naval vessel arrives in Kaohsiung would be the day the PLA unifies Taiwan with military force. Li was speaking after the US Congress passed a bill that authorizes mutual visits by naval vessels of Taiwan and the US.

A white paper published in late December by Taiwan's Ministry of Defence said the military threat from the mainland was growing by the day.

Does all this mean that the PLA will attack Taiwan this year?

"In the new year, we will not hesitate to oppose any kind of Taiwan independence activities," wrote Zhang Zhijun, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, in an article published on January 1. "We will never tolerate separatist movements nor will we sit idly to let them erode the basis for peaceful reunification."

Like all the Chinese presidents before him, Xi Jinping wants to achieve the reunification of Taiwan during his term in office. In Beijing, there are different opinions on how this can be achieved.

One is that the economy will make it happen naturally. Last year China and Hong Kong accounted for 40.7 percent of Taiwan's total trade, compared to 11.7 percent with the US and 9.2 percent with Europe. China is also the largest country for Taiwan overseas investment. An estimated one million Taiwan people live long-term in the mainland.

According to this argument, the economy of Taiwan will become so dependent on that of the mainland – as Hong Kong's did – that independence becomes impossible and unification occurs naturally.

But President Xi has a more nationalist and militarized agenda. China's defense spending last year was US$148 billion, up about seven percent from 2016. Over the last 25 years, it has grown by double-digits most years and become the second highest in the world after the US. It has used the money to develop submarines, advanced jet fighters, air-to-air refueling aircraft, satellites, and a multitude of new ballistic, cruise and tactical missile systems.

Prior to 2000, the Ministry of Defence was secretive about its new weapons. But no longer – they are shown proudly on television and social media. President Xi has overseen giant military parades, to the delight of millions of mainlanders.

They are fed a relentless diet of the imperative to take back Taiwan – no mention is made of the wishes of the island's people or the fact that they elected a president from the Democratic Progressive Party. When you ask mainlanders whether the Taiwan people should be consulted about this decision that would change their lives forever, they shake their heads. The question has not occurred to them. Nor do they consider how this propaganda barrage is alienating many Taiwan people and making them even more hostile to the mainland.

When Vladimir Putin's army annexed Crimea in February 2014, he did so in the knowledge that a majority of its population were ethnic Russians; most of them supported the annexation.
That would not be the case in Taiwan, where less than 10 percent of people support unification.

So a PLA attack would be resisted not only by Taiwan's armed forces but a majority of the population. It would lead to enormous destruction not only in Taiwan but also in Shanghai, Xiamen and other mainland cities – also perhaps Hong Kong – if the Taiwan military chose to fire missiles at them.

It would ruin forever China's promise to be a 'peace-loving nation' and shatter its relations with the Western world.

For these reasons, an attack this year is unlikely. The high-profile maneuvers are a way to put pressure on President Tsai, to force her to recognize the 9-22 consensus (of One China), and on the US administration to stop selling weapons, especially advanced ones, to Taiwan. They also aim to persuade the island's voters to choose the Kuomintang candidate at the 2020 election, with the promise of better relations.

The pressure on the US has had the opposite effect. Last week the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which would allow high-level Taiwan officials to meet US officials, including those from the Department of State, and conduct business in the US, for the first time since the two sides broke off relations in 1979.

So 2018 is going to be a year of worsening cross-straits tensions and more military maneuvers. Let us pray that the pilots and commanders of the planes and ships of two sides behave with the maximum restraint and do not cause an incident that could have unimaginable consequences.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.