Beijing is a paper tiger in military terms. Its threats are a pathetic distraction from its internal woes
Hsterical reaction to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is meant to demonstrate the terrible consequences that await the island if it persists with defying the will of Beijing’s communist rulers. The four days of unprecedented military drills that China has launched, amounting to a sea and air blockade, are designed to show the dire fate Taiwan should expect if it maintains its defiant attitude.
Indeed, at a time when the world is still struggling to come to terms with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the prospect of China launching a similar operation to capture Taiwan threatens to have an even more catastrophic impact on the established world order.
Just imagine the devastation that would be inflicted on the global economy if the world’s leading democracies were obliged to impose punitive economic sanctions against Beijing in response to a Chinese invasion. Britain alone would lose close to £100 billion in trade overnight.
Fortunately, despite Beijing’s grotesque sabre-rattling in the Taiwan Strait, there is virtually zero likelihood of China launching a full-scale invasion of Taiwan in the near future for the simple reason that, in terms of its military prowess, China is nothing more than a paper dragon. Even if, as many analysts predict, China does become the world’s largest economy by the 2030s, it still has a long way to go in terms of matching the military might of the US and its allies.
For a start, invading an island nation like Taiwan is a very different proposition to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which has mainly consisted of sending columns of tanks and troops across the land border of its neighbour, supported by artillery, missiles and fighter aircraft.
The Ukrainian military, moreover, has only enjoyed a modest ability to defend itself from Russian aggression, as demonstrated by Kyiv’s constant appeals for Nato countries to provide more sophisticated weaponry and supplies.
By contrast, Taiwan possesses its own well-trained air force, batteries of state-of-the-art US Patriot air defence systems which are more than a match for China’s new generation J-20 fighter aircraft, as well as boasting a highly motivated army.
Taiwan is not Ukraine, and the Chinese military is a long way from being able to mount the type of large scale, and complex, amphibious landing operation that would be necessary to take control of the island.
For, despite the vast sums the Chinese Communist Party has spent developing its forces, the country is still playing catch-up in terms of acquiring the strength to challenge America’s military supremacy.
The development of China’s two new aircraft carriers is a case in point. While naval powers like the US and Britain have been building this highly specialised military capability for the better part of a century, China only acquired its first carrier in 2012, and is still on a steep learning curve when it comes to making optimal use of them.
Another important consideration is that the Chinese military has not been directly involved in a major war since the Korean conflict in the early 1950s, so it lacks the real-time war-fighting experience acquired by the US and its allies in combat theatres ranging from Afghanistan to the Falklands.
So even if the Chinese continue to make bellicose gestures in response to Mrs Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei this week, their ability to launch a direct assault against Taiwan is limited, as the Taiwanese themselves would be the first to concede.
From Taiwan’s perspective, the most likely threat to its survival is likely to come in the form of political instability similar to the domestic unrest that hastened the demise of democratic rule in Hong Kong. For this reason, many Taiwanese are more concerned about China’s constant efforts to subvert their democracy through support for pro-Beijing political activists and cyber attacks than the possibility of a full-scale Chinese invasion.
The limitations of China’s military strength is certainly a consideration Western policymakers should take on board as they weigh up how best to deal with the more confrontational attitude Beijing has adopted under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.
With the Chinese economy facing the very real prospect of stagnation, and major cities regularly being subjected to Covid-inspired lockdowns, Mr Xi has more than enough to manage without provoking a global crisis over Taiwan. An alternative viewpoint is that Mr Xi is deliberately looking to divert attention away from his country’s economic woes ahead of November’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Either way, Beijing is acting from a position of weakness, not strength, in its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan, which is why US President Joe Biden was wrong to question the wisdom of Mrs Pelosi’s visit earlier this week. For any suggestion the West is not fully committed to Taiwan’s independence will simply encourage Beijing to indulge in further acts of intimidation.