China's aggression towards Taiwan is more bark than bite

Albrecht Rothacher contends that China’s recent threats towards Taiwan in response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit should not be taken at face value. An invasion of Taiwan would be a highly dangerous mission for China, carrying enormous costs for itself and for the US and Europe

Pelosi pays a visit, China responds

Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taiwan enraged China's Xi Jinping, prompting a week-long Chinese military exercise. This simulated an amphibious invasion following a naval blockade and rocket fire on the island.

China blocked access to Taiwanese ports, especially the main port of Kaohsiung. All energy imports and exports of the semiconductor industry (which produces 50% of the world's microchips) pass through here. The fact that this interrupted deliveries to the Chinese electronics industry, which became more expensive as a result, did not deter Beijing.

Chinese violation of Taiwanese air and sea space has been routine for years. But the latest operations have taken on a new dimension. Observers fear that these developments will become established as the new norm.

Chinese military doctrine is based on terrifying the enemy into laying down its arms without a fight. And Chinese military superiority in relation to Taiwan is evident: the People's Liberation Army (PLA) alone comprises 2.3 million men. Yet, while one could argue that this worked in the case of Hong Kong, Taiwan presents a rather different scenario.

The dangers for China of invading Taiwan

The officer corps of the Chinese army consists mostly of desk warriors. They are good at organising parades for a peacekeeping army, but have not covered themselves with glory in previous border skirmishes, with the Soviet Union at Ussuri in 1969, Vietnam in 1979, and now India in the Himalayas. The Taiwanese air force, meanwhile, is equipped with US hardware (such as F16 fighter planes). Its navy has 74 warships and submarines.

Any invasion of Taiwan would involve crossing 180km of the stormy Formosa Strait to Taiwan's very few beaches, under the threat of its large defensive armoury and US hardware

Any invasion would have to be amphibious, crossing 180km of the stormy Formosa Strait. Taiwan has few beaches suitable for a landing, and they are largely bordered by cliffs. This poses enormous risks for the Chinese, especially since the weeks of preparation will not be easy to keep hidden. Taiwan has a large number of asymmetrical defensive weapons such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, stingers, javelets, guided torpedoes, missile boats and drones. The mountainous, heavily forested terrain is suitable for guerrilla warfare, albeit dependent on the provision of outside supplies.

The US position

The deterrence of aggression, and the likely duration of armed resistance, depend much on the response of the US. Since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the US has been committed to maintaining the status quo – Taiwan's de facto independence from China.

The US cultivates a doctrine of ‘strategic ambivalence’ – effectively meaning it keeps its cards close to its chest. During Pelosi's visit, the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was kept at a safe distance and an ICBM test was cancelled. At the same time, President Biden repeated that, of course, Taiwan would not be abandoned.

The US continues to maintain selective alliance structures in the region. One key arrangement is the ‘Quad’ with Japan, India and Australia around the East Pacific island chain. The US maintains bases on Guam and Okinawa to defend an encroachment of Chinese influence in this area. For the US, therefore, Taiwan is strategically much more important than Ukraine, and not just because of the risk of half of the world's semiconductor industry falling into Chinese hands.

President Xi’s crumbling reputation

The big unknown in the strategic equation is President Xi. In November he will be seeking a third term of office, with unlimited powers. This hasn’t happened since Mao. But the once thriving economy that hitherto legitimised his rule is in tatters. A mix of Covid restrictions, an unparalleled heat wave, water shortages, a bursting real estate bubble, the repression of internet entrepreneurs and the favouring of ailing, corrupt state-owned companies are all taking their toll. Unemployment, especially among young people, is increasing rapidly.

In November Xi Jinping will seek a third term of office, but the once thriving economy that hitherto legitimised his rule is in tatters

That's where unleashing patriotic passions to ‘reunite’ with the breakaway rebel province of Taiwan comes in handy. As a vibrant democracy, Taiwan is an ideological provocation for the Chinese communists. It contradicts Xi's doctrine of ‘Chinese values’, according to which China can only be ruled by an authoritarian, despotic system. The per capita income of the Taiwanese is now three times that of China. Quality of life, technological progress, and management of Covid are all significantly more successful. That is why, for China, Taiwan, as a free country – like Hong Kong before it – needs to disappear behind the bamboo curtain.

Caution likely to prevail

However, the Chinese leadership is very cautious since it knows the enormous risks of provoking Western solidarity with the attacked. The danger of Western support for a Taiwan under attack would be much more serious for China than it has been for Russia in relation to Ukraine. China is a major player in the integrated global economy, while Russia is essentially little more than a raw material supplier with a gross national product the size of Spain.

The danger of Western support for a Taiwan under attack would be much more serious for China than it has been for Russia in relation to Ukraine

It is therefore not surprising that China's current economic sanctions against Taiwan seem relatively modest. They amount to an import embargo on Taiwanese citrus fruits, pineapples, cinnamon apples and fish, and an export embargo on sand for the island nation's construction industry.

The West, for its part, is equally cautious in view of the likely costs of a new war, especially for the US. Essential components for medicines, industrial components and electronic hardware from China would be at risk, along with microchips from Taiwan. Without these, not a single car, computer or airplane can be built anywhere in the world.

Pelosi’s visit doesn’t end the provocation to Beijing. The next planned visits to Taiwan will be from the US Senate, the Human Rights Committee of the German Bundestag and the cross-party ‘Formosa Club’ of over 150 MEPs. But the Taiwanese themselves appear relaxed, despite the doomsday scenarios of some Western media and politicians.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Albrecht Rothacher
Albrecht Rothacher
Independent Researcher

Albrecht gained his MA in sociology from the University of Bridgeport in 1978, and a PhD in international relations from LSE in 1982.

A stint at Deutsche Bank in the EU’s diplomatic service followed from 1984–2020, with postings in Vienna, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, lastly as Minister Councillor, mostly dealing with economic and trade issues.

He then worked in Brussels as a policy officer, mostly concerned with economic relations with countries 'East of Berlin and Vienna'; lastly with Russia mainly.

He has published 24 books mostly on Asian affairs, economic and military history, but most recently a biography on the French presidents of the 5th Republic.

Current research work includes a collective biography of the Austrian chancellors of the 2nd Republic, and French colonial wars 1945–1962 (Indochina and Algeria).

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