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Taiwan is a vital island that is under serious threat – The Economist – 06.03.23

Taiwan’s fate will, ultimately, be decided by the battle-readiness of its people, says Alice Su.


When Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, announced the extension of military conscription in December 2022, she called it an “incomparably difficult decision”. Taiwan’s young were previously subject to only four months of conscription. Starting from 2024, they will serve a year each, with improved training. “No one wants war,” she said. “But peace will not fall from the sky.” Taiwan must prepare for war, she added, to prevent it.


Ms Tsai’s decision should not have been so difficult. That it was reflects a troubling reality: Taiwan has not made up its mind how or even whether to defend itself. It is at once the “most dangerous place in the world” yet numb to China’s threat. Only since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has serious debate about a possible Chinese invasion become normal. That is in part because China’s Communist Party is engaged in an information war designed to sow confusion. It also reflects Taiwan’s tortuous history and politics.


Western officials are already planning for Taiwan’s possible struggle against China. Yet Taiwanese have no consensus on who they are, how they relate to China or if they should ever fight. Their future depends on how they answer these questions especially as the next presidential election approaches.


China sees Taiwan as a renegade province that it has threatened with invasion for more than 70 years. But until recently war seemed unlikely. With American help, Taiwan had the military edge throughout the 20th century, and an ambiguous but secure place within a peaceful Sino-American relationship. In the past decade, though, that relationship has flipped from economic co-operation into overt competition.


China’s president, Xi Jinping, speaks of national rejuvenation in terms of victory over America, and has expanded his army at an alarming pace. The People’s Liberation Army has begun beating the Americans in war games. China boasts the largest navy in the world, with an expected force of 400 ships by 2025 (America has less than 300, Taiwan just 26). It has expanded its missile and nuclear arsenal to keep foreign forces away from the Taiwan strait.


China is also taking more “grey zone” actions (threatening moves short of war). The number of Chinese warplanes crossing the strait’s median line, an unofficial divider, and entering Taiwan’s south-west air-defence identification zone, has almost doubled in the past two years. The figure rose especially sharply after Nancy Pelosi, who was then speaker of America’s House of Representatives, visited the island in August 2022. China acted out a mock blockade after her visit, firing missiles directly over Taiwan for the first time.


While American officials prepare for a worst-case scenario of all-out invasion, Taiwan’s defence ministry is more concerned about “grey zone” actions such as a blockade or the seizure of an outlying island. Taiwan’s main island is roughly 160km away from the Chinese coast, but the island of Kinmen is only 3km away. Kinmen has been a conduit of cross-strait tourism and economic exchange. It has been importing water from China through a 16km pipeline ever since 2018.


Some of those who urge Taiwan to prepare for invasion have suggested that, after seeing the impact of sanctions on Russia because of its attack on Ukraine, China would need a quick conquest of Taiwan, not a drawn-out conflict. Taiwanese officials worry that grey zone actions might serve as an early test of international will. America might well fight China to defend Taiwan—but would anyone fight for Kinmen?


As Chinese pressure on Taiwan grows, the Taiwanese look for the world’s support. Taiwan stands “at the vanguard of the global defence of democracy”, Ms Tsai has said. To let it go under would be a devastating step towards the might-is-right world that both Mr Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin seem to favour.


Taiwan’s leaders know that neither strong democracy nor economic importance is enough


Taiwan also has outsize importance in the world economy. A conflict over Taiwan would do a lot more damage even than Russia’s war on Ukraine. Taiwan makes more than 60% of the world’s semiconductors, which power everything from mobile phones to guided missiles, and 90% of the most advanced sort. Rhodium Group, a research outfit, estimates that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could cost the world economy more than $2trn.


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