Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Is it worth the superpowers fighting over Taiwan?

  • Given the high, perhaps existential stakes involved for all sides, the frightful answer has to be, unfortunately, a yes

Let us do a thought experiment and imagine the best-case scenario from the Chinese perspective when it comes to unification with Taiwan. The first and most obvious answer falls within the realm of nationalism. The prestige of the communist state and the president will be so much boosted that we may have to reach back to the time of the Qin unification of China under the first emperor Qin Shi Huang, or something close to it, to praise the achievement. The legitimacy of the Communist Party will be cemented for the Chinese forever.

But that falls under soft power. Leaving aside nationalism and ideology, Taiwan in and of itself will be a great prize for the mainland, in its sheer potential for China’s hard power. Taking it over will be a decisive breach to the so-called first island chain of defence that is key to the United States’ naval or maritime containment of China in northern and southeast Asia. That in turn would pose a direct challenge to the US’ Pacific supremacy since the end of the second world war, and greatly aid Chinese ambitions to achieve regional dominance.

“Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of US allies and partners … that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defence of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific,” said Ely Ratner, US assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

The US has supposedly prepared for several more island chains of defence. But it’s the first chain, ranging from the southern Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan in the centre, and down through the Philippines to Borneo, that really counts.

Whatever you think of the other chains, and the Pentagon is adding more in the Indian Ocean (but will India play ball?), it’s the first chain that holds the key to the most economically dynamic region in the world today. A unified China will break that chain once and for all.

And, as I wrote previously, Taiwan as a computer chip-manufacturing powerhouse makes it essential to Washington’s tech war against mainland China. The taking over of Taiwan’s chip-making industry would greatly weaken the US’ technological leads over the mainland and boost China’s quest for technological mastery in multiple domains. It would, of course, remove uncertainties about China’s ability to develop key home-grown technologies to rival those of the West.

But the best-case scenario for China is also the worst for the US. That’s why for all the terrible risks and costs, Washington will deny Taiwan to the mainland, including going to war, whatever it says about its one-China policy.

In the event of a hot war, will it commit its own troops and military assets? It has been frequently argued that Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the blood, sweat, resources and prestige sacrificed by the US. But if we use those monumental debacles as references, Taiwan will actually be worth it for the Americans. It will be more akin to the Korean war and the second world war.

Meanwhile, for Beijing, it may be very tempting to force a resolution. And until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it would seem that the temptation might have been too great to resist. Now though, that must be moderated by a more realistic calculus. The fear is not that the People’s Liberation Army would be completely repelled and humiliated, but that it would manage to take over portions of Taiwan and end up fighting a vicious partisan war over the rest of the island and a costly hot war with the US. That would be a two-front war for China, not counting the economic devastations that would inevitably result.

It’s often claimed that the invasion of Ukraine will entice the Chinese to attack Taiwan. Quite the opposite. If it doesn’t give Beijing pause, nothing will.

After eight months of fighting, Russia has only managed to take over small portions of Ukrainian territories, and they are not even secure. This is a country that has fought numerous wars in the past four decades. China has fought none and it faces a large body of water in the Taiwan Strait, unlike the mere crossing of land borders by the Russians.

But the real tragedy is that Ukrainians and Russians were supposed to be like siblings over the centuries; now they are mortal enemies. That nationalistic hatred will be forever. As an ethnic Chinese, that is the last thing I want to see happening to Taiwanese and mainlanders.

Meanwhile, it’s possible for the US to provoke a hot war. It merely has to give the green light to the secessionist elements in Taiwan to take over the government and change the island’s constitution. That alone would be a casus belli for China.

But if the US’ primary goal is to prevent Taiwan from falling into the Chinese embrace, independence may actually be counterproductive. After all, the outcomes of any war are almost by definition uncertain and unpredictable. And China is nuclear-armed.

Independent or not, Taiwan serves the same purpose for the Americans. In fact, an independent island will cost a lot more, with a formal military alliance and defence commitments and all that.

So, is it worth the superpowers fighting over Taiwan? Yes. But will they fight over it? Let’s hope rationality prevails.