How do Taiwanese see mainland China

Cold Peace in the Taiwan Straits

It's amazingly quiet on the Taiwan Strait these days - almost too quiet. The elections of January 16, 2016 laid the foundation for new tensions in the still unsolved conflict between Beijing and Taipei. This dispute has been waiting for a solution since 1949. At that time, Chiang Kai-shek had lost the civil war against the Communist Party of Mao Zedong and had fled to Taiwan with his remaining supporters. The state designation, which once applied to the entire Chinese mainland, moved to a certain extent to Taiwan, which in the following years was developed into a bulwark of the Kuomintang. China, on the other hand, has never recognized the statehood of the neighboring island; it simply regards them as a "renegade province".

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen won the recent presidential elections in Taiwan very clearly - a political force that campaigns for Taiwan's independence. With 56.1 percent of the vote, Tsai outclassed their competitors Eric Chu from the Kuomintang (31 percent) and James Soong from the People First Party (12.8 percent).

A political landslide also occurred in the parallel parliamentary elections, the legislative yuan. 68 of 113 seats went to the DPP, the Kuomintang only got 35 seats. The vote for the DPP is therefore clear. Even more: for the first time ever, the office of President and Parliament are in the hands of the DPP at the same time.

No wonder that China's leadership around state and party leader Xi Jinping finds the election result worrying. On the sidelines of the meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing in March 2016, he commented on the change in power in Taiwan with a clear warning that he would be determined to curb separatist activities.

There are several reasons for China's concern. These include the very bad experiences with Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's first DPP president from 2000 to 2008. During his tenure, relations between Beijing and Taipei reached a low point as he aggressively toyed with the idea of ​​independence. Currently, the situation in Hong Kong is another factor. In autumn 2014 there were protests by democratic activists in the former British crown colony. To the annoyance of Beijing, the then President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou had declared his solidarity with the movement. The Chinese government is now likely to fear that a renewed discussion of the island state's independence could affect the situation in Hong Kong. Beijing will also have been irritated by the fact that the government in Tokyo, of all places, congratulated the DPP candidate on her election victory.

China is therefore a lot because Tsai Ing-wen, after her inauguration on May 20, 2016, as the (first female) president, does not continue the era of her predecessor Chen, during whose tenure she was minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, among other things. Beijing calls for recognition of the "1992 consensus". So both sides accept that there is a China; however, it is up to them to interpret this independently. Under President Ma, the "1992 consensus" was accepted. Tsai has so far rejected it and will now have to find a formulation that is at least acceptable to China. It is precisely on this that it will depend on whether the situation on the Taiwan Strait remains peaceful.

Confident and independent

The Chinese leadership knows that the new leadership in Taipei's room for maneuver on this issue is limited by domestic politics. Tsai mustn't alienate her party. The "Resolution on the Future of Taiwan" passed by the DPP in May 1999 is still in force. It states unequivocally: "Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country."

Tsai's voters will expect them to at least modify President Ma's course. He was accused of being too close to the mainland, especially due to ever closer economic ties. For example, almost 40 percent of Taiwanese exports go to the mainland. Ma's meeting with Xi in Singapore in November 2015 - the first of its kind since 1945 - was also criticized. In addition, the new president must take into account the changing identity patterns of the electorate. Surveys by the National Chengchi University in 2015 showed that 59 percent of the citizens of the Republic of China consider themselves “Taiwanese” - rather than Chinese. In 1992 only 17.6 percent of those questioned were of this opinion.

At the same time, Xi Jinping's scope for action is also narrow. With the recovery of Taiwan one of the mainland's "core interests", compromises on this issue are impossible. At most temporary tactical concessions are conceivable, since China is already experiencing enough criticism in its neighborhood and probably does not want to open another diplomatic flank. The island deposits in the South China Sea since the end of 2013 have angered not only Vietnam and the Philippines, but also the USA. In the East China Sea, tensions with Japan have intensified significantly since autumn 2010. An escalation of the Taiwan question would fuel the suspicion, which is already cherished in the region, that the rise of China will not proceed peacefully. This would have very undesirable consequences for Beijing: the states of East Asia would seek closer proximity to the USA even more intensively.

Against such rational considerations, the fact that China continues to prepare for a military conquest of its "breakaway province" - which was also the case during the quiet years of President Ma's term of office from 2008 to 2016 - speaks against it. The stable status quo in the Taiwan Straits never went beyond a cold peace. Up to 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles are currently aimed at the island. In the event of an attack, they would attack Taiwan's airfields and air defense systems in preparation for the deployment of the Chinese air force. In the National Defense Report of the Taiwanese Defense Ministry from October 2015, the situation is assessed soberly: "The People's Liberation Army plans to build a considerable military arsenal before 2020 to carry out military operations against Taiwan."

Consequences of a war for Europe

Most European governments are responding to this development with benevolent disinterest. But the strategic slumber of the “old continent” is dangerous. Should there be a war between China and Taiwan, it is very likely that the USA and its most important ally in East Asia, Japan, would also take part. This scenario would be a disaster for Europe. If the cold peace turns into a hot war, the global production networks would be immediately impaired and the international stock exchanges would be shaken. The effects on the European economy would be clearly noticeable - in 2015 the EU conducted over 30 percent of its total foreign trade with Northeast, Southeast and Australasia.

The Europeans would also have to make a difficult choice in diplomatic terms: do they position themselves on the side of China or the USA? Any support for Beijing is likely to strain transatlantic relations to the utmost. It is also foreseeable that Washington would concentrate more on the Far East in such a conflict. The EU would then have to take on more responsibility for security policy on its own geopolitical periphery. It is currently not prepared for any of these scenarios.

For German observers in particular, such simulation games take getting used to, because the European and East Asian understanding of security is fundamentally different. On the one hand, interstate integration has succeeded, on the other hand, it is mostly not even desired. In addition, there are no longer any great power conflicts among EU states that need to be taken into account in their own defense planning. In the Far East, on the other hand, extensive conference diplomacy has not changed the military competition between China on the one hand and the USA, Japan and Taiwan on the other.

As a result, the EU's security policy horizon is greatly narrowed. Recommendations for defusing the Far Eastern security dilemma therefore have little relation to reality. This is shown by proposals from Brussels to make ASEAN the nucleus of a Far Eastern security architecture. In practice, the Southeast Asian organization of states already had major problems between 2008 and 2011 in getting the small border skirmish between Thailand and Cambodia under control. The fact that East Asia's security today is primarily maintained by the USA, its allies and the American troop presence on the ground is only worth a marginal note for strategists in Brussels.

It is therefore not surprising that Europeans follow a one-sided security policy narrative in the Far East. This includes seeing almost only opportunities in the rise of China. What a possibly aggressive Middle Kingdom would mean for Europe in the future is not reflected on. Nobody seems to care that the “old continent” has been within the range of Chinese ICBMs with nuclear warheads for years. And when the Russian and Chinese naval forces carried out a military maneuver with live ammunition in the Mediterranean in May 2015, there was also no protest. Brussels seems to live in a security-political fantasy world and is unlikely to be even remotely prepared for a military conflict in East Asia.

Tsai Ing-wen in particular is in control of whether the situation on the Taiwan Strait will worsen in the summer of 2016. Presumably she will avoid provocative language in her inauguration speech. She is familiar with the “red lines” drawn by China: the People's Liberation Army would most likely attack if Taiwan declares itself independent. However, Tsai will not be that imprudent. According to the Chinese Taiwan White Paper of February 2000 and the Anti-Secession Act of March 2005, there is still another threat. China has said it will consider an attack even if Taiwan persistently refuses to negotiate political reunification. Beijing has thus given itself a license to invade.

Taiwan's security strategy

Under these conditions, the new President Tsai is well advised to continue and expand the security strategy of her predecessor. The most important goal corresponds to what was already the case in the Ma era: saving time. Should China - contrary to expectations - one day democratize, the military threat against Taiwan could be dropped. In the meantime, there is hope that the détente policy will continue as long as Taipei adheres to the "1992 consensus". If economic interdependencies are expanded, there are further incentives to stick to the path of peace. At the same time, however, Taiwan must ensure that China is taken seriously. This presupposes that the island state has a powerful defense policy.

For Taipei it cannot be a matter of trying to compete militarily with Beijing on an equal footing. Those days are long gone. Economically, China simply has better starting conditions than Taiwan to massively expand its defense budget. On the one hand there is a state with almost 1.4 billion citizens, on the other hand there are only 23.4 million. The gross domestic product of the mainland in 2014 was 10.4 trillion dollars, that of the island state was 530 billion dollars. These differences in size are reflected in the defense budget. While China (officially) had a total of 146 billion dollars at its disposal in 2015, Taiwan had to make do with 10.3 billion dollars.

The island state is therefore forced to tread unorthodox paths in its security strategy in order to remain defenseless. Since Taiwan cannot keep up with China on a symmetrical level, it has no choice but to prepare for an asymmetrical war. Since 2009, this term appears increasingly in the central defense writings of Taipei. In parts, the defense structure has already been aligned accordingly. The aim of the asymmetric war is to hit the Chinese military apparatus at its weak points. Above all, however, the political costs of war for China should increase. If Taiwan could not be conquered in a flash, the People's Liberation Army would also have to reckon with casualties. Diplomatic and economic collateral damage is foreseeable.

Domestic political pressure may even increase and the Chinese Communist Party's claim to power would be called into question. Ideally, the leadership around Xi Jinping will move away from invasion considerations at an early stage, as they understand that a war against the “breakaway province” would have too many unwanted side effects. In order to set this thought process in motion, Taiwan has to be defensive. The asymmetrical war makes it a hard-to-digest invasion victim. If it works out, the island nation is arming so as not to have to fight.

To this end, Taiwan could follow the “porcupine strategy” (William S. Murray), that is, militarily shut itself up. The approach is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Verdun in 1916. The aim would be a war of attrition in which China does not gain any terrain and in the end loses its nerve. The defense could be organized - here roughly simplified - over four rings: In ring 1 the invading force is kept at a distance with anti-ship missiles of the type Hsiung Feng III. If this line is broken, Hellfire missiles with a range of eight kilometers will be deployed in Ring 2. They can be fired flexibly from attack helicopters, trucks or ground troops. As a precaution, “intelligent” mines are being laid in ring 3, which must be activated as soon as a landing maneuver is foreseeable. In ring 4, battle tanks and artillery units, among others, are preparing to fight down a bridgehead that is in the process of being built.

This is regularly trained by the armed forces of Taiwan. The overriding goal of the “porcupine strategy” is to gain enough time for a US relief. Most observers assume that Taiwan will only survive a Chinese attack for a few weeks. So in preparation for an American intervention, every day would count.

To further increase the price of invasion for China, Taiwan could threaten to attack targets on the mainland. It also has the Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missile with a range of 600 kilometers. If reports are correct that the island nation is in possession of the Yun Feng surface-to-surface missile, the asymmetric war would be even more effective. This missile is said to have a range of 1,200 kilometers, which could be used against the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province. The Pentagon had already speculated about such a deployment option in 2004.

Beyond such invasion scenarios and defense options, China could also start at a completely different point in order to put pressure on Taiwan. A well-organized sea blockade should quickly bring the island to the limits of its survivability. Statistics show that Taiwan has to import 98 percent of its energy needs. The country is not self-sufficient in the food sector either; many products have to be introduced.

Taiwan would be hit at its most sensitive point. For the People's Liberation Army, as the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu recommends, it would probably come to victory without a fight. Because the Taiwanese armed forces hardly have the means to break a blockade. The submarine weapon consists of only four units, two of which are museum standards. Washington had agreed to deliver eight diesel submarines to Taipei in 2001, which for various reasons did not materialize. That is why the country decided to build its own submarines while President Ma was still in office. The influx will still take years, as there is not only a lack of money, but also the necessary know-how. The value of the submarine weapon was shown in 1982 during the Falklands War. At that time, a single Argentine submarine had managed to draw the attention of the British expeditionary force considerably.

The outcome of a military exchange of blows between China and Taiwan is not foreseeable. Open questions and imponderables cannot be conclusively clarified in any well thought-out simulation game. This is especially true for assessing the ability to wage war. Neither side has had any experience of war in the past few decades. How are officers supposed to learn to fight a battle under these conditions? These and other questions show that the decision to go to war will have unpredictable consequences for Beijing and Taipei. The only conclusion that can actually be drawn from this is that the continuation of the status quo must be in the interests of all parties.

Will Taiwan fall to China?

The future of Taiwan is connected with numerous question marks. Tsai will find it difficult to increase the defense budget substantially in order to increase the ability to conduct asymmetrical warfare. The US is still firmly on the side of Taiwan. But American scientists have been debating for a number of years whether it might not be wiser to give up the country. According to John J. Mearsheimer, everything will come down to the “Hong Kong solution” preferred by Beijing - ie “one country, two systems”. Taiwan and the USA would have nothing to counter the strengthening Middle Kingdom in the long term.

Europeans in particular do not realize what a peaceful or violent unification of the island with the mainland would mean. China could then set up bases for its naval forces on Taiwan's east coast. These would get the long-awaited direct access to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, they could not only directly threaten the sea routes of Japan. It is also foreseeable that the maritime competition with the USA will intensify. Washington would also lose an important intelligence reconnaissance post. For example, it would no longer have access to what is probably the largest radar system in East Asia on Leshan Mountain. The Taiwanese intelligence service, with which the US should work very closely, would no longer exist. As a result, the West would know less about China overall.

If the Europeans want to influence this situation, then they would have to rethink security policy. This also applies in particular to Germany. The armament of states is viewed by left-wing liberal observers per se as a threat to peace. This may or may not be true. From the perspective of the political science offense defense theory, other interpretations are also possible. So attacks are more likely when they are simple. For the Taiwan Strait, this means that selective and targeted exports of European arms technology would help stabilize rather than destabilize the situation. For example, individual members of the EU could help Taiwan build submarines. This would complicate a possible Chinese invasion and make it less likely.

The export of defensive armaments technology would not be a violation of the principles of the “one China policy”, as the Europeans could invoke an important precedent. During his term in office alone, President Barack Obama has pledged arms exports to Taiwan worth over 14 billion dollars. The USA sees this as covered by its interpretation of the “one-China policy”.

Can Taipei expect such a policy from Brussels? Rather not. The EU is currently too preoccupied with itself: Greece and the euro crisis, Russia and Ukraine, the “Islamic State” and the attacks in Paris and Brussels, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the influx of refugees and migrants absorb any attention. Should a war break out in East Asia, the Europeans will only be able to run after the events in surprise here as well. Then there will be revenge that the EU’s current strategic vision ends east of Afghanistan.

The conclusion is therefore sobering: Should a military conflict arise on the Taiwan Strait, Taipei cannot expect anything from Europe. Only the USA serves as a lifeline. The Europeans will show themselves concerned, urge the conflicting parties to exercise moderation and condemn the war. Taiwan cannot buy anything for it.

Prof. Dr. Martin Wagener teaches political science with a focus on international politics at the Federal University for Public Administration in Brühl and Haar.