As Taiwan’s president prepares to meet the new U.S. House Speaker, the island nation’s outlying islands are a tempting symbolic target for a totalitarian Chinese president facing domestic unrest
Some military analysts were baffled when Taiwan’s navy unveiled its plans to build four large amphibious-landing ships designed to carry small forces of 673 troops and their amphibious vehicles to distant shores. Designated as landing platform socks, these ships would also field air-defense weapons and act as motherships during amphibious landing operations. The first of these large new ships was launched in 2021 and handed over to the navy in September 2022.
While these vessels represent a giant leap forward for Taiwan’s warship-construction industry, critics say their wartime use would be limited by China’s massive new coastal defense system. If, for instance, China decides to invade Taiwanese frontline islands like Kinmen or Matsu, these ships would have to sail right up to the Chinese coastline to deliver reinforcements. Unfortunately, this high-intensity warfare scenario might soon become reality, if a certain number of events take place in the next week. Here’s how it could happen.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is scheduled to meet with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy next Wednesday, April 5 during a stopover in Los Angeles. The last time a U.S. house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, met face to face with Tsai, China threatened serious retaliation and fired ballistic missiles over Taiwan while sending its warships and warplanes to execute wartime drills closer to Taiwan than ever before.
China is now making the same type of threats if Tsai does meet McCarthy next Wednesday. Just as Pelosi’s visit gave China a pretext to create a “new normal” of pushing its forces right up to Taiwan’s coastline, it is possible that Wednesday’s meeting would give China a pretext to go even further. This does not bode well for Taiwan’s frontline islands, especially those lying just off the coast of China. But at least those islands have relatively large garrisons to defend them. Some of Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea are so small that they can contain only small garrisons, and a takeover of even one of these small islands could be played as a huge victory on China’s state-controlled media.
Taiwan’s foreign minister said in December last year his government believes China is preparing to find another “pretext for practicing their future attack” on Taiwan, after a record-breaking year of military threats and incursions. On Wednesday, March 29, as Tsai departed for Central America and an eventual stopover in Los Angeles, the White House urged China not to use a “normal” stopover in the U.S. by Taiwan’s president as a pretext to increase aggressive activity against Taiwan.
Another risk factor is that even Kinmen has been largely demilitarized since relations with China started to ease in the late 1990s. Taiwan used to deploy a large garrison of 120,000 troops on Kinmen for decades, but that number has been reduced drastically over the last 20 years, with estimates ranging from 20,000 to as few as 2,000. Some analysts say that while Taiwan used that period of “detente” with China to spend more on social welfare, China did the opposite by launching a huge military buildup all over China, and the speed of this buildup increased when Xi Jinping became president in 2012. Some China analysts say Xi has a very deliberate timeline for resolving the “Taiwan issue,” and that means he would order his troops to invade if he is unable to annex Taiwan by other means.
By having smaller defensive forces on the frontline islands, it also makes it easier to mask preparations for an invasion. A full-scale invasion of Taiwan would require calling up all of China’s forces more than a year in advance, and the C.I.A. is designed to spot such preparations many months in advance, but a limited operation against a small island force would require a much smaller force that can hide its preparations much more effectively.
Thus, many analysts conclude that — during the period of de-escalation — Taiwan partly demilitarized its frontline islands, while China “super-militarized” its own forces. The result is that Taiwan’s frontline islands are now much more vulnerable to a quick Chinese invasion.
An ominous sign in this regard was during the massive PLA exercises carried out following Pelosi’s visit. Chinese drones were spotted on several occasions flying over Kinmen near the island’s military installations, resulting in one of them being shot down.
Apart from a perceived weakness in the defenses of Taiwan’s outlying islands, another risk factor is the social unrest that has rocked China recently. After a range of economic crises in China that saw many lose large parts of their life savings, citizens finally rebelled against China’s draconian Zero COVID laws. In November last year, protests erupted all across China in which millions of people risked long-term imprisonment to take to the streets and call for Xi to step down because of his tyrannical attitude toward his people.
China analyst Felix Lee commented in December on the anti-Xi protests by saying: “A lot of people think it [Zero COVID policy] is not just about getting COVID under control, but also about how far can he go to control his country, or how far he can go to lock down or close his country, because he wants to control everything — especially the people — and I think the protests show that he went too far.”
As more stories of dangerous weaknesses in the Chinese economy come to light, some analysts believe Xi is fearing he is dangerously unpopular and could be ousted. Russia’s President Putin saw a surge in his own popularity in Russia when he invaded Crimea in 2014. Turkey’s President Erdogan saw a similar surge in his popularity when he launched an incursion into northeastern Syria in 2019. A quick invasion of a Taiwanese frontline island might be just the pick-me-up that Xi needs to “tell a good story” on his own private national TV industry. It’s not like he didn’t already tell his generals to prepare for a full-scale war.
Another risk factor is that Xi has given himself unlimited power and has ousted all senior officials who do not support him completely. Analysts fear that by surrounding himself with “yes men” and sycophants, Xi runs the risk of being told the emperor’s new clothes are stunning and brave — all the time. Xi might act rashly, to boldly go where no Chinese leader has gone before, to finally take Kinmen island after his predecessors tried twice and failed twice — in 1949 and 1950.
Yet another risk factor is the fact that, while the U.S. gave security guarantees for most of Taiwan, before it abrogated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, it never gave those guarantees for Kinmen and Matsu. Yao-Yuan Yeh, a professor of East Asian politics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, told Foreign Policy that the U.S. did not give these guarantees for these two frontline islands “because the islands hold very little strategic value to the American strategy in the Western Pacific.” Yeh said the islands did not form part of the First Island Chain that includes Taiwan’s main island, “so why risk a war with China over them?”
Another reason why the U.S. did not see the islands as important enough to guarantee was given by John.F. Kennedy. When Kennedy competed with Nixon for the U.S. presidency in 1960, he argued on national television that the Kinmen and Matsu were tiny outposts that were “strategically indefensible” and that they should be abandoned to focus on defending the main island of Taiwan.
These risk factors point to a definite possibility that Xi might decide to do the Putin thing, assuming that it would pan out like Russia’s invasion of Crimea did in 2014.
The problem for Beijing is that there are very real risk factors for China if Xi does go ahead and order an invasion of any Taiwanese outlying islands. Professor Yeh told Foreign Policy that it’s not necessarily a predetermined outcome that the PLA will easily conquer Kinmen and Matsu if an invasion is launched. “As Russia has found out in Ukraine, military operations can be messy, unpredictable, and go completely sideways.”
There are a few reasons that would make it less likely that China would risk an operation to “seize back” control of one or more of Taiwan’s outlying islands — even if it got the fabricated pretext it might be looking for. Firstly, Kinmen and Matsu may have been seen as extremely important footholds to avoid a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the 1950s, but China’s massive acquisition of modern weapons over the last two decades greatly reduced their strategic value. With its now much larger and much more modern war machine China could simply sidestep and suppress these island’s defenders as it launches its large navy, air force, and army toward Taiwan’s main island.
Then again, it might be exactly this reduced strategic importance of Kinmen and Matsu that could prompt Xi to think that Taiwan and the U.S. would not want to risk a war over them, so even this aspect might make an invasion more tempting for Xi. Xi might calculate — wrongly or rightly — that an invasion could be quick and painless, like Putin’s 2014 Crimea adventure, and that the symbolic value of taking the islands would overshadow their lack of strategic value.
In the end, the biggest counter-argument against an invasion of Kinmen and Matsu would be the fact that it is difficult to tell how effective Kinmen and Matsu’s defenses really are. For military reasons, the current number of troops on each island, as well as the types of fortifications, and the types of weapons are a carefully guarded secret. As noted above, estimates of defender strength vary greatly.
Another aspect of Tsai’s meeting with the House Speaker could also make Xi calculate that the offense is not serious enough to spin as a reason to risk a military miscalculation that could escalate into a national war for survival against a superpower. This aspect is the fact that Tsai is meeting McCarthy on a stopover on U.S. soil. This is significantly different from Pelosi’s visit, when a known pro-Taiwan Speaker landed on the soil of “a renegade province of China” and “interfered directly with China’s internal politics.” The fact that Chinese rhetoric against Tsai’s planned Wednesday meeting is less aggressive than before Pelosi’s visit, suggests that China might be toning down its war stance rather than escalating it — at least for the time being. It is worth noting that McCarthy had previously said that he would like to visit Taiwan, but the fact that he is meeting Tsai in Los Angeles is being interpreted by observers as an attempt to lessen China’s anger and thus avoid a repeat of the high-risk military maneuvers that followed Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
There is also the question of whether domestic unrest in China is escalating or calming down, which is linked to whether China can overcome its ongoing battle with COVID deaths and its economic risks. Some analysts say that China’s economy is stabilizing, while others say it could very well get worse. In the end, it would be Xi’s opinion about how China’s 1.4 billion people feel about China’s future that would decide how safe he is. If Xi calculates that China’s people have too little to be happy about going forward, then islands like Kinmen might be in trouble.