China shoots for the moon with Taiwan, Latest Views News - The New Paper

China shoots for the moon with Taiwan

This article is more than 12 months old

While President Xi's recent speech focused primarily on peaceful reunification, no one would have missed the talk of use of force

In the first week of 2019, as China grabbed headlines for landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a New Year's Day editorial in the nation's official military newspaper said that "war preparations" should be a top priority for the year.

The following day, President Xi Jinping offered a forceful reminder of what Beijing considers its most likely focus of conflict to be: Taiwan.

On Wednesday, Mr Xi warned the "problem" could not be held over for another generation. While he talked primarily of "peaceful unification," he said Beijing reserves the right to use force if necessary.

The speech brought a sharp rebuke from Taiwan, where residents remain strongly opposed to rejoining China, even under a Hong Kong-style "one country, two systems" deal.

Nothing in Mr Xi's speech suggested that China sees conflict as imminent.

However, his comments about support for peaceful "reunification" included a warning that "we do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures" to prevent Taiwan's independence.

If Beijing truly wishes to reassert control over the island, military force may be its only option.

That would be risky for a government that has not fought a war against a foreign state since a brief and unsuccessful conflict with Vietnam in 1979.

It would also put Beijing on a collision course with Washington, which does not support Taiwan's independence but has what the US State Department describes as "a robust unofficial relationship" with Taipei.

To invade the island, most military analysts argue that Beijing would have to deter the US from intervening or defeat nearby US forces and prevent others from entering the region.

Chinese military tactics revolve around this kind of war, where Beijing would grab territory while keeping US forces back.

Much of China's military build-up has been based around ships, aircraft and weapons that appear suited for the type of conflict needed to take Taiwan.

As well as landing ships for assault troops, the focus is to design missiles to destroy US aircraft carriers.

In the run-up to Taiwan's elections last November, Taiwanese officials accused China of a Russia-style messaging campaign to undermine support for President Tsai Ing-wen's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Those elections saw a serious setback for the DPP and a strong performance by the pro-Chinese Kuomintang opposition, but Mr Xi's comments last week suggest Beijing still sees military posturing as the best way of pressuring the island.

But taking Taiwan militarily would not be simple.

Chinese forces would face Taiwanese missiles, mines, submarines and aircraft if they cross the 180km Taiwan Strait.

The island's highly populated cities and densely forested mountains would prove a guerrilla fighter's paradise.

A botched Taiwan invasion could prove an international humiliation and start a domestic political crisis for Mr Xi.

Taiwan clearly wishes to show China that it is not an easy target.

Taipei intends to spend US$11 billion (S$15 billion) on defence this year, a 6 per cent increase from last year.

On Jan 2, Taipei unveiled its latest locally built anti-ship missile, able to inflict serious casualties on an invasion force.

China may be reaching for the moon, but Mr Xi's speech was a reminder that its greatest territorial ambitions may lie much closer to home.

In a world where the risk of conflict between major nations seems to ratchet higher every year, China's desire to dominate Taiwan may yet be what lights the spark.

The writer is a Reuters global affairs columnist.