John Mearsheimer, in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, asserts that all great powers are revisionist to the core, endlessly seeking opportunities to maximize their share of world power.
As the third decade of the 21st century approaches, the great powers of the world are actively testing the tenets of Mearsheimer’s theory.
The withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, combined with Turkish and Russian military operations to fill the vacuum, is only the latest example of great power initiatives shifting the boundaries that underpin the international sovereign order.
The post-Cold War status quo is no more. Russia has annexed Crimea, India has occupied Kashmir and the US, while reordering its presence in the Middle East, made a crude and unusual offer to purchase Greenland. As great powers advance claims on disputed or coveted territories, the question of China’s willingness to seize Taiwan is again rising to the top of international concerns.
However, a closer look at these events reveals that even as the geopolitical map is redrawn, Taiwan remains surprisingly safe. Indeed, China might have waited too long to make a military claim on it.
Russia and India carried out their respective invasions with shocking efficiency and precision. Taking cover in the dead of night, they marched in their troops and claimed the most cherished possessions their respective historical narratives could arouse.
In February 2014, masked Russian soldiers took over Crimea and consolidated Russian command of Sevastopol. A simultaneous public misinformation campaign allowed Moscow to deny what it was doing as it was doing it.
In March 2014, a quickly organized referendum declared Crimea independent from Ukraine, and gave Russia a pretext to incorporate Crimea and Sevastopol as federal subjects.
Just like that, the spoil of Catherine the Great and Russia’s most important military outpost on the Black Sea was enjoined to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanding empire.
In August, thousands of Indian soldiers flooded into Kashmir and imposed a curfew. The military systematically shut down Internet access, schools and office buildings.
Although the territory was designated autonomous by Article 370 of the 1950 Indian constitution, a joint legislative and government process swiftly revoked it.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party justified this move based on the historic mandate the party received this year’s general election.
In both cases, constitutional and electoral processes were organized to follow rather than precede the military operations. Just as Russia sought no UN Security Council resolution to support its aggression against Ukraine, India occupied Kashmir before consulting its lawmakers, much less Pakistan or the broader international community.
The only real defense for Crimea or Kashmir was adherence to international norms prohibiting aggressive unilateral military action. Once Russia and India crossed this Rubicon, the disputed territories never stood a chance.
Following the occupation of Kashmir, US President Donald Trump made an unsolicited offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. The suddenness of the proposal, and the juvenile manner by which its rejection led to the cancelation of Trump’s visit to Denmark, led to comedic levels of incredulity from pundits and analysts.
Still, Trump’s effort to spring the offer brought into full relief a global sense that the manager is not minding the store. Trump was rebuffed, but the message was clear: There is no international police officer, though there is always a risk that there might be one in the future. Therefore, the time for annexations is now.
These incidents have brought China’s intentions toward Taiwan back to the forefront of international security concerns. Taiwan is, of course, the most prized territorial acquisition on the map today, and with China’s ever-rising capabilities, a specter of military invasion looms large over Taiwan.
To be certain, China’s goal remains unification. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made this clear in his speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, stating that Taiwan’s unification with China was an “inevitable trend.” However, an invasion has not been in the offing.
Instead, China has spent the better part of the past half-century engaging every last country in the world to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Through these initiatives, combined with investment, trade deals and at times outright bribery, China has put the world on notice that Taiwan is the single most sensitive issue for the Chinese national interest.
One by one, whether succumbing to reasoned argument, seeking short-term economic advantages or quite often by lining their own pockets, world leaders have toed the Chinese line by systematically switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
Still, a little more than a dozen states and microstates scattered throughout the Caribbean, Central America and the Asia-Pacific region remain. These resisters represent the final frontier of China’s long diplomatic game to isolate Taiwan. It would seem China is poised to formally complete this process.
Once these holdouts switch diplomatic recognition, the incorporation of Taiwan into China will be, in the eyes of Beijing, a fait accompli.
Thus the conundrum for China: These countries know that they have this leverage.
As the final frontier begins to dwindle, the last holdouts will have even greater clout. They stand to receive more lucrative trade, aid, investment and loan packages.
It would appear China’s current strategy requires uncontested diplomatic recognition from these holdouts before any action, military or otherwise, can be taken to unify Taiwan with China — if not, then what were all the decades of investments and inducements actually for?
Ironically, Taiwan has also taken advantage of China’s long diplomatic game. For as long as China has been pursuing this strategy, Taiwan has been preparing and improving its military defenses. Indeed, as the US has refused to compete with China in the trade and investment game to deter states from switching recognition, it has poured military aid into Taiwan.
In July, the Trump administration moved ahead with a US$2.2 billion military package for Taipei, consisting mainly of 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks. The next month, Washington agreed to send 66 new F-16 Block 70 aircraft in a package totaling US$8 billion, the fourth and largest package of arms sales to Taiwan since Trump was elected president.
Former US president Barack Obama’s administration approved arms sales packages totaling US$14 billion, while former US president George W. Bush’s administration pushed sales totaling US$15 billion.
The steady supply of arms from the US demonstrate that in the event of a Chinese military action, Beijing would face an opponent that has spent the past 70 years anticipating an invasion.
When anti-invasion drills were held in May, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Major General Chen Chung-Chi (陳中吉) said Taiwan knew it had to always be “combat-ready.”
Moreover, the US Department of Defense’s report to Congress this year asserted that China would require a far bigger navy to occupy Taiwan than its current capacity allows. According to the report, China’s fleet of 37 amphibious transport docks, 22 smaller landing ships and scattered civilian vessels would only be enough to occupy the smaller islands of the South China Sea.
A stalled or failed military conquest of Taiwan would not only jeopardize China’s aspirations to become the next superpower, it would create reverberations of discontent at home that could threaten the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. An invasion would also tarnish China’s image as a benevolent superpower interested in pursuing win-win economic deals across the global south.
Furthermore, China’s strategic posture toward the protests in Hong Kong reveals a marked caution in Beijing about deploying offensive military capabilities. If China will not risk a massacre to put down protests in Hong Kong, the world should not expect that it would risk an exponentially more destructive war in Taiwan.
In raw terms, estimates of Taiwan’s military capacity leave the nation far behind China: Taiwan has 150,000 troops to China’s estimated 1 million, 800 tanks to China’s 6,000 and 350 fighter jets to China’s 1,500. Most importantly, Taiwan lacks a nuclear deterrent.
However, Taiwan possesses a heightened degree of military readiness that was nonexistent in either Crimea or Kashmir.
In Crimea, the Russian military was already stationed in Sevastopol, and benefited from a large local Russian population that supported the annexation. Similarly, Indian troops stationed in well-fortified surrounding areas could occupy Kashmir by land.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be forced to cross the Taiwan Strait, would meet much more fierce local resistance and could lead to any number of political, economic or military conflicts with the US.
Russia and India chose hard power strategies to achieve military annexation of their coveted territories. They might find that they never receive full diplomatic recognition of these conquests.
Meanwhile, China has been seeking full diplomatic recognition of a conquest that has yet to come to fruition. China might eventually find success in the diplomatic realm, but it will be much more difficult to carry out a military invasion of Taiwan than it was for Russia to take Crimea or India to occupy Kashmir.
China’s long diplomatic game was designed to exploit an international order rooted in law and diplomacy that is fading from view. As the US and Taiwan prepare for defensive wars, China plows ahead with many more billions of dollars in aid and loans to microstates and impoverished Central American countries.
The power disparity between China and Taiwan will keep the potential for military action a pervasive concern, but Taiwan will remain more secure than other similarly coveted territories.
China has long been ahead of the curve among great power states in its ability to exploit the rules-based international order to its economic and diplomatic advantage.
However, China is very much behind the curve in the arena of great power territorial acquisition.
Robert Portada is an associate professor of political science at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, where Uttam Paudel is an undergraduate political science major. They are researching Chinese aid and investment strategies in Central America.
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