World is witnessing the fifth Taiwan Straits crisis. First being in 1955 when China forcibly occupied Yijiangshan island. Second in 1958 when China used artillery firing on Matsu island. In 1995 was the third when the then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-Hui visited USA. Last being after the visit of yet another speaker of the US house of representative in 1997. Newt Gingrich, the then speaker visited Taiwan in 1997. Even after his visit China resorted to fire works but on a much smaller scale. His visit did not generate any international flutter except perhaps ‘note verbale’ issued by Chinese government to USA. Latest and fifth crisis is due to Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Next and possibly sixth crisis might be when current Taiwanese president visits USA (if invited).
But that was nearly 25 years ago. In 1997 China was still a single digit Trillion Dollar economy. In 2022 China is nearly 15 Trillion Dollar economy ready to surpass US economy by 2035, if not earlier. In 1997 China’s space programme revolved around development of Long March-5 launch vehicle. In 2022 China has an independent space station, fully functional and in few aspects more modern than the ISS. In 1997 China did not have any indigeneous and operationally proven fighter jet to match with western fighters. In 2022 China has at least EIGHT fully operational jet fighters, which can “supposedly” match F-22 and F-35 capability. No doubt that China is still lagging in development of a reliable aeroengine. In 1997 china had no aircraft carrier. In 2022 China “claims” to have THREE. In 1997 China was just about developing high speed trains. In 2022 China has the longest and densest high speed rail network in the world. Comparison of China of 1997 with China of 2022 reveals startling facts as narrated.
My first visit to China was in 2005, second in 2013 and third in 2015, all as a tourist. Shanghai of 2005 was a mere shadow of Shanghai of 2015. If my memory serves me right journey by high speed rail from Shanghai to Beijing took three hours with train clocking 320 km through the entire journey.
During my 2013 visit to China, I came across a Chinese daily which listed the planned “SIX WARS” to be fought by China during next 50 years. These are;
- Accession of Taiwan (2020-25)
- Re-conquest of Sprately Island (2025-30)
- Re-conquest of South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh) (2035-40)
- Re-conquest of Islands Diyaou and Ryukyu (2040-45)
- Reunification of outer Mongolia (2045-50)
- Recovery of land from Russia (2055-60)
USAF/USN Fighters escorting Nancy Pelosi’s aircraft has been considered by China as blatant violation of their air space. One such event took place in 2013 when two USAF bombers flew over Diyaou island. Japanese call it Senkaku.
Nancy Pelosi’s daring visit to Taiwan has placed China on backfoot. Totally unwarranted and undesirable hype created by Chinese leadership supported by ultra-nationalist Chinese citizens gave unthinkable publicity to her visit. Chinese foreign minister Mr Wang Yi was nearly certain that the visit will be called off (although he did not say so explicitly). His error of judgement might cost him his job in none too distant future. President Xi also breached the proverbial red line and expressed his opinion. But the “iron lady” did not dither. Supposedly POTUS also tried to convince her to cancel the visit.
Numerous commentators and even US senators have called her decision to visit Taiwan as insane. But in my view her decision to visit Taiwan would prove to be a decision of enormous strategic significance. Her visit to Taiwan has projected China as a “barking dragon” rather than the frightening flame throwing dragon. In order to cover up the mess created, China (read Xi) has no option but to resort to sabre rattling at least for next two months. But a military option appears to be least profitable course of action and may even be out of question. Nancy Pelosi would go down in the history of US-China relations as the most charismatic US leader (after Henry Kissinger), who defied the gauntlet thrown by the ‘middle kingdom’. She just might throw her hat in the ring to be the democratic presidential candidate in 2024, primaries for which will begin early next year.
Chinese nationalist went into frenzy after Nancy Pelosi’s jet landed in Taiwan. “F**k she has got off the aircraft. Why wasn”t her aircraft shot down?” was one of the millions of rabid comments on Weibo. Without doubt USAF aircraft landing in “supposedly” Chinese territory and USAF/USN fighters over flying Taiwan can be considered as an offensive action and breach of air space. It is this event that has irked the Chinese. Yet another example of Chinese Nationalist frenzy was their response to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decision against China in a case dealing with control of islands filed by Philipines. Nearly a BILLION Chinese sent adverse messages on Weibo in a single day. Chinese Nationalists are intolerant and do not condone failures.
World is witnessing what is happening in and around Taiwan, in Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. World does not know what is happening inside mainland China. Few reports which have emerged clearly blame the present Chinese leadership for this fiasco. Nationalist Chinese do not accept such failures and have openly blamed the existing leadership for not shooting down Nancy Pelosi’s aircraft.
President Xi’s survival is at stake. He has no option but to up the ante against anti China forces, India being one of them. We must be prepared to witness increased hostility from China, both on ground and in the air at least up to end October. Firm Indian response to Chinese misadventure in 2020 and China’s inability to coerce India into submission on the issue of LAC demarcation has also projected Xi in bad light.
In this hour of grave politico-strategic crisis, president Xi’s advisors have gone into overdrive and have opted for most irrational diplomatic decision of disconnecting with USA on vital issues. Appropriate to mention that during the peak of cold war, US and then USSR heads of state kept the lines of communication open. Most famous incident took place during Bay of Pigs crisis wherein a near certain nuclear exchange was prevented only due to exchange of letters between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev. By shutting down the lines of communication China has inadvertently created a situation wherein shooting star might be interpreted as ICBM attack from USA. It is not a joke; it has actually happened in case of USA and USSR. Open lines of communication saved the day then.
USA on its part is trying to douse the flames by postponing Minuteman III test launch. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has tried calling his counterpart in China but no response. With Russia-Ukraine war still on, there is hardly any neutral country which can act as mediator between China and USA. But there is one possibility. Turkish President Erdoggan might step in to defuse the tension. He has already succeeded in bringing Russia and Ukraine to negotiating table and made them agree to allow grain shipment from Ukraine.
China’s continued belligerence will not remain confined to Taiwan strait only. It will, rather it has already affected Japan. “Self Defence Forces” of Japan are extremely well equipped to meet any challenges that might arise. Japan has always viewed survival of Taiwan as an independent entity as a prime consideration for its own security. Southern tip of Japan and northern tip of Taiwan are barely 100 km apart.
Chinese military readiness to undertake amphibious assault and/or airborne assault operations cannot be evaluated logically. Because China has never been exposed to hot war scenario after it received drubbing at the hands of Vietnam. China’s capability is only in context of possession of weapon platforms. Their usage under hot war conditions has to be seen. China, therefore, will be extremely skeptical before launching an all out offensive against Taiwan. From the available open sources Taiwan Air Defence network is potent and capable of undertaking real time retaliation. Airborne assault by Chinese military might have to face stiff opposition. Likewise amphibious assault, too, will be met with potent and effective artillery fire from ground and intense air strikes.
US B-2 bombers have already moved to their operational Australian base. Three Carrier Battle Groups are already in and around Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. They carry nearly 150 modern US Navy fighters. China cannot match US capability, if it is brought to bear on attacking Chinese forces. US Navy has never deployed three CBGs in such a small theatre of operation.
For once President Xi has miscalculated. He might have to pay the price for gross strategic blunder of giving unwanted publicity to Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Will Xi be able to ride the storm and emerge stronger? It appears to be extremely unlikely because domestic scene is also not in favour of Xi. Reputed Chinese citizens have already attacked Xi and his policies. An unsuccessful armed conflict with Taiwan might not be the best option at this juncture.