Sailing into dire straits | The Herald

TAIWAN may become the defining issue for all of south Asia in the coming weeks as China rattles sabres in the old Formosa Strait and the descendants of Chiang Kai-shek stand to arms along the beaches of the beleaguered island.

The prospect of immediate war is unlikely, however, unless by accident or diplomatic miscalculation. For all its vast numerical superiority, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army lacks the amphibious capability to guarantee a successful invasion.

Unless ships or aircraft are downed by accident, each side will stay on its own sector of the unofficial demarcation line midway between the mainland and Taiwan, making aggressive noises and flexing military muscle without actually shedding blood.

The other joker in the pack is the United States. One powerful carrier battlegroup formed around the USS Independence is already steaming for the area, with a second, built around the USS Nimitz, due on station within the next two weeks. Their role is, so far, necessarily ambiguous.

Washington, seeking to maintain and expand its own sphere of influence on the Pacific Rim, is anxious to be seen not to let down a recognised ally. All Asian eyes are focused on the US Navy. America cannot, however, be seen to be too keen to intervene militarily in a conflict which is basically none of its business.

Neither can it allow Taipei to believe that the US cavalry will come riding automatically to its rescue if posturing deteriorates into a shooting war. That would encourage President Lee Teng-hui’s regime to accelerate moves towards complete independence, the issue which inflamed Beijing in the first place.

China has regarded Taiwan as a “renegade” province since 1949, when the defeated Nationalist Kuomintang army fled there after crushing battlefield defeat by Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces on the mainland.

The image of Taiwan as some kind of wayward child was somewhat tarnished throughout the 1950s – and occasionally since – by exchanges of shellfire between artillery batteries on the mainland and Taipei’s smaller island outposts of Quemoy and Matsu.

Like the Falklands for Argentina, recovery of Taiwan, the former Formosa, has a powerful public and psychological appeal in China. It is also the focus of moves within the military hierarchy to increase the political and material standing of the high command within Chinese society.

Attempts to disrupt the forthcoming Taiwanese elections have so far been clumsy. Closing sea and air lanes and firing missiles a few miles off the coast are crude demonstrations of military capability which may even have convinced the younger generation of Taiwanese that outright independence is the only sensible course. Few would choose to live under a system whose major instrument was repression.

A victory for the incumbent President Lee would be the best result for both Taiwan and China. Under pressure from his main rivals, the Democratic Progressive Party, which is committed to breaking away for all time from China, Lee has been forced to pay lip service to independence, alarming Beijing in the process. A clear-cut win would allow him to steer the island back towards a middle course and ease the tension with the mainland.

With China’s own internal power struggle hotting up, and no clear candidate in sight to replace Deng Xiaoping, Taiwan-bashing is top of everyone’s agenda. No Chinese politician can be seen to be soft on the issue.

Dangerously, the PLA is now exploiting that political weakness for its own ends, the raising of its budget and profile in an area where it is already a military giant, albeit poorly-equipped.

Even with purchases of former Soviet landing ships, the PLA would be incapable of putting more than 7000 to 8000 men ashore in a single wave. Against what may qualify as the most heavily-fortified shoreline in the world, it would, in any case, be a bloody business.

Taiwan’s own forces number upwards of 376,000 from a population of 18,000,000. It has more than 1,500,000 trained reserves, armed mainly with US weaponry. Although slightly dated by current standards, Taipei’s arsenal remains more modern and more lethal than Beijing’s.

On paper, any confrontation looks decidedly one-sided. China has 2.9 million men in its armed forces, and 5800 warplanes to Taiwan’s 430. But China lacks the amphibious transport and logistics to sustain a major operation such as an all-out invasion. Its navy possesses only 54 amphibious craft capable of crossing the 150 miles of the Taiwan Strait.

In Vietnam in 1979, the last time the Chinese launched an overland invasion, they were hampered repeatedly by the failure of their supply lines. They managed a costly advance to threaten the Red River Delta and both the Vietnamese capital Hanoi and its main port, Haiphong. With victory seemingly in their grasp, they were then forced to withdraw because of logistical collapse.

Chinese casualties were also multiplied by the lack of provision of adequate medical services to forward units, and lack of transport to carry the seriously injured back to hospitals in the rear. A high proportion of wounded succumbed to fairly minor injuries.

China has never mounted an amphibious operation, and lacks experience of the techniques needed to gain beach-heads, reinforce and support them, and push inland with armour, artillery and aerial backup. Its huge forces can muster only 5000 Marines dedicated to this type of combat.

Observers say the PLA’s morale is high, and its military skills adequate. Despite some modernisation, it still lacks modern tanks and personnel carriers in quantity, and remains largely reliant on footslogging infantry.

Taiwan has been gearing its people for the unthinkable for almost 40 years. Even if the PLA did manage to slog its way ashore, incurring huge losses in the process, it would then find itself bogged down in street fighting with the entire population in opposition. The resultant conflict would ruin the infrastructure of one of South Asia’s most industrialised economies, leaving ashes instead of victory.

In the final analysis, perhaps the most effective brake on China’s ambitions over Taiwan would be the reaction of its neighbours, investors, and possible future economic partners.

Like Japan in the 1930s, China’s awakening as the potential industrial and military powerhouse of the region has already caused some consternation among nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan itself.

Co-operation with these countries, and not their subjugation or Finlandisation, must be the key to China’s future development. Without it, the sleeping giant’s fate is likely to be disintegration, civil war, and a return to a warlord society.

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