Lombard with the note:
The recent flurry of geopolitical developments over Taiwan is likely to lead to an even more grinding stalemate rather than an acceleration toward conflict with a Chinese invasion of the island, which we continue to regard as unlikely in the near to mid-term. Despite the recent Pentagon report detailing a PLA military buildup, an amphibious invasion remains logistically taxing and, if successful, would result in a long and costly occupation. Warmer EU-Taiwan relations and a new government in Tokyo are likely to result in a further entrenchment of the status quo, rather than accelerate movement toward an invasion.
A recent marked increase in the number of PLA incursions into Taiwan’s Air-Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has now subsided. In the past week, the highest daily total was eight, a significant reduction from the high of more than 50 seen in early October.
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While the sudden surge in military incursions did take security officials in Taipei by surprise, it would be another thing altogether to say that active warfare is imminent across the Taiwan Strait. The extent to which the current geopolitical order would have to unravel for China to decide invasion was its only option to secure its claim on Taiwan is not equal to the difference between eight and more than 50 military aircraft.
Nor should much be made on the Taiwan front from either the Biden-Xi meeting or Biden’s recent blunders on CNN about his Taiwan policy. The US President said, mistakenly, that “yes”, the US would come to the support of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, essentially torpedoing the US’ long-held policy of strategic ambiguity. Our advice it not to put too much weight on Biden’s comment: the speed with which his team retracted it comment shows he merely misspoke. We should not expect US Taiwan policy to do an about-turn anytime soon.
As TS Lombard has previously argued, PLA incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ should be viewed in light of Beijing’s “grey warfare” strategy, which looks set to continue indefinitely. This approach is designed, above all, to psychologically exhaust Taipei and dissuade Taiwanese leaders from ever contemplating a declaration of independence. The latter is a red line for Beijing and, for the CCP, would constitute justification to invade.
Indeed, if dissuading independence is the ultimate goal of recent incursions, statistics on Taiwanese attitudes towards cross-Strait policy demonstrate it has been successful. A point often neglected is that today, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – Taiwan’s governing party – is not a pro-independence party. In Taiwanese politics, ideology must be separated from practice; yes, the DPP’s historical roots are in the Taiwanese independence movement, but under Tsai, its mandate has been tempered to a focus on “maintaining regional stability”, a careful wording that Tsai takes very seriously.
Similarly, according to the most recent poll from Taipei’s National Chengchi University, some 87% of Taiwanese support a continuation of the status quo. Smaller and younger parties – mostly those founded after the 2014 Sunflower Movement – are more vocal about taking steps towards independence, such as changing the state’s official name from the Republic of China.
But the closer smaller parties get to government, the more tempered their cross-Strait policy becomes, just as happened in the case of the DPP. A Taiwanese party manifesto openly calling for a unilateral declaration of independence would be electoral suicide.
If anything, the increased level of military activity will push more Taiwanese into the status quo bracket and further entrench sympathetic attitudes in favour of the current situation.
Declaring independence would be to knowingly step over Beijing’s red line and severely increase military risk. Dissuading Taiwan from this approach is the less-discussed other goal of the US policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan.
The magnitude of the military imbalance between China and Taiwan may lead some to think it is “all quiet on the Western front” of the Taiwan Strait. But remember that Beijing also has to manage its domestic discussion of the Taiwan issue. Social media accounts linked to the Chinese military this month chastized Chinese netizens for playing up fears of an imminent invasion, saying it would have a “negative impact for the state”.
The Chinese government, too, must be wary of exacerbating anxieties about the possibility of war.
Geopolitics farther afield underscores the deeper entrenchment of the status quo. In Japan, Fumio Kishida’s LDP performed surprisingly well in this month’s election. Initial fears that the party would lose its majority proved overcooked; it ended up forfeiting just 15 seats, opening up the possibility of implementing the LDP’s economic stimulus package. More crucially, the fewerthan-expected losses mean that the LDP will not be overly beholden to its coalition partner, the Komeito, which is more dovish on security issues. This gives Kishida the opportunity to push through an election manifesto promise of increasing defence spending from 1% of GDP to 2%, a significant move in the context of Japan’s long-held pacifist policy.
Developments on the EU-Taiwan front should be treated with caution, too. Without doubt, there has been a fundamental shift in the European perception of the Taiwan issue, demonstrated by the overwhelming support for the recent Taiwan report in the European Parliament. And Taiwan’s Foreign Minister recently visited Brussels while a Taiwanese trade delegation went to Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and a delegation of MEPs visited Taipei last week for talks on disinformation.
Of course, Beijing will fiercely criticize any engagement with, and openly expressed support for, Taiwan; but it is important to remember that the proposals in the European Parliament report are non-binding and will not result in recognition of Taiwan as a state – another red line for Beijing. In sum, while the development of EU-Taiwan ties is significant, no-one should pretend they are being conducted without Beijing’s motives in mind.
Both Taiwan and China can claim that time is on their side. For Taiwan, the upward trend of people identifying solely as Taiwanese means an invasion would result in a costly and lengthy occupation for the Mainland. For Beijing, the narrative of Chinese military supremacy and US decline leads to the same conclusion for the CCP: never relinquishing the claim on Taiwan is far more important than invading by an arbitrary deadline.